Music and Art

It has been said that " The Pulse Of A People Is Its Music." One would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate logo for Jewish music, for it is within this music that one can truly find the spirit of this ancient /modern people.

As with music of all ancient civilizations, it is only possible to hear that music which has been transmitted orally throughout the ages. Music notation as we know it today, was not in use until the 13th century. Modern recording techniques have only been available for 100 years. We are, therefore, able to read the Talmudic descriptions of the Temple Service in Jerusalem with its orchestra and Levite chorus, but must imagine the artistic and aesthetic elements of the service without ever hearing a single sound.

The Jews of Yemen, who had little contact with the outside world, prior to 1956, provides us with a look at what Jewish music may have sounded like in the Middle Ages. Upon listening intently to Jewish music of the Yemenite Jews, one is struck by the great similarity to Gregorian chant. We can immediately understand why Pope Gregory, in his treatise, acknowledged that while codifying the music of the church, he included much from the synagogue music of the times.

From the sixteenth century we can now hear the synagogue works by the acclaimed Renaissance composer, Salamone Rossi. His settings of thirty-three Psalms, Hashirim Asher Lishlomo, are available both in printed music and in recently released recordings. The music of the Chassidim, whose movement was founded in the 1700's, provides us with hundreds of folk melodies which were spread to the entire pale of eastern Europe and passed down from generation to generation.

The 1800's produced two giants of Jewish synagogue music, Salamon Sulzer, in Austria and Louis Lewandowski in Germany. They composed music that is beloved in synagogues all over the world.

The late 1800's and the first half of the 20th century witnessed the " Golden Age of Cantorial Art." Cantors such as Rosenblatt, Sirota, Koussevitsky, Hershman, and Pinchick, were equated with the great vocalists of the period. They brought the synagogue service to religious, and aesthetic heights through their creative and improvisational davening.

The Ladino folksong born in Spain and sung by its Jewish population emigrated, along with the Jews to the countries in which they settled after the expulsion in 1492. Holland, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria etc. became their new homes and the homes of these Ladino songs.

The secular Yiddish folk captured the feelings of millions toward life, love, struggles, work and children. Although most were composed before the Holocaust many became associated with this most tragic of events. Mordecai Gebirtig's Es Brent (Our Town Is Burning) as well as Hirsh Glick's Zog Nit Keinmol Az Du Gehst Dem Letsten Veg (Never Say That You Are On The Last Road) have remained as anthems representing this dark period in Jewish history.

The 20th century has also witnessed the artistry of Jewish performers whose numbers were totally out of proportion to the general population. Vocalists: Peerce, Tucker, Merrill, Peters Pianists: Rubinstein, Horowitz, Violinists: Stern, Perlman, Heifetz, Oistraich Conductors: Ormandy,Bernstein, Walter, Reiner, Solti, and Koussevitsky

Today, Jewish music is being created on both Israeli and American soil. Israeli composers are making an effort to mesh the oriental and Ashkenazic musical motifs of its population into a unique Israeli music. In the US, beginning with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, much Yeshiva or neo-Chassidic music has been created to serve the musical and liturgical needs of the Orthodox community. Many of these songs have become popular among Conservative and Reform Jews also.

We are fortunate to have available much of the music mentioned above in both printed and recorded format. The pulse of a people is its music. Enjoy!


The Torah has been both an inspiration for Jewish art and a source of severe limitations. In Exodus 15:2, Moses introduced hiddur mitzvah, that God should be "adorned" by the use of beautiful implements for religious observance. In Exodus 35:31 we learn that the first Jewish artist-Bezalel ('in God's shadow')designed the Tabernacle and its holy vessels. Decorative and functional ritualistic items has always been firmly rooted within Jewish culture.

On the other hand, in the Second Commandment we read, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them..." A literal reading of this intimates that Judaism is antagonistic to art. But this Commandment was directed against figurative imagery only if used for idol worship. Because the text does not specifically permit representational art for other purposes, there was ambiguity concerning the propriety of artistic endeavor.

Even when the interpretation of the Second Commandment was at its strictist, examples of figural art existed. Surprisingly, human figures appear in the 3rd century synagogue murals of Dura- Europos. However, Jewish figural art did not acquire an official "hechsher" until the 11th century with Rashi's opinion that two-dimensional wall frescoes-presumably in the home-depicting Biblical scenes were to be tolerated (Shab.149a). In the next century, Maimonides permitted three dimensional animal sculpture, although he still prohibited human sculpture. (Yad.Av,Kokh.3:10-11). In the same century, Rashi's grandsons, the French Tosafists concluded that human sculpture was permitted if the sculpted figure was incomplete in some way, because only God can create something perfect.

In Medieval Europe, religious intolerance resulted in the exclusion of Jews from the mainstream of the art world. Western art was Christian art commissioned by the Church and nobility from members of St. Luke's Guild. Jews could not enter this "union" because they could not swear on the Christian scriptures or serve a seven year apprenticeship to a non-Jewish master artist. Such a live-in apprenticeship would have prevented their observance of Shabbat and kashrut. Instead of painting and sculpture, artistically talented Jewish men and women entered the fields of applied art in order to make a living. They became jewelers, coin-makers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, medalists, engravers, ceramicists, weavers, embroiderers, glassblowers, wood-carvers, calligraphers, and illustrators of Hebrew manuscripts. Throughout this period Jews continued their tradition of crafting sacred objects for the holiday cycle, life cycle events and the synagogue.

Since the late 18th century, four factors have influenced the rise of the Jewish artist to prominence. First, with the Age of Emancipation, the Jews exited the ghettoes and entered society's mainstream. Second, the Industrial Revolution brought about a middle class who demanded family portaits, landscapes and genre scenes for their homes. Thus, there was the opportunity to obtain training, the freedom to compete for commissions and increasing demand. Third, Reform Judaism brought about changes in the internal structure of the Jewish community in Western Europe. Lastly, in Eastern Europe, the Jewish Enlightment (Haskalah) stressed secular studies as a legitimate part of a Jew's education.

At the beginning of the 20th century there arose several non- representational movements in painting, partially as a reaction to the commercial development of photography. First came Impressionism, of which Pissarro, a Sephardic Jew, and the first to make an original contribution to the formation of a secular art movement. What rapidly followed were Fauvism, Cubism, Impressionism, all of which were impacted by Jewish artists. Hundreds of Jewish artists like Chagall, Soutine, Modigliani, and Lipshitz flooded the Jewish School of Paris until Hitler destroyed France as the center of the art world.

In the twentieth century, Jews have been neither restricted by the outside world nor constricted by the Jewish world. Consequently, Jewish artists have proliferated as innovators and leaders in all schools of art from Abstract Expressionism (Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, Helen Frakenthaler and Morris Louis), to Pop Art( George Segal Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine), to Assemblages (Louise Nevelson), to American Figurative Art (Larry Rivers), to New Realist Art (Philip Pearlstein and Lucien Freud) Conceptual Art (Sol LeWitt), to Serial Art (Mel Bochner), to Environmental Art (Jonathan Borofsky) to Kinetic Art (Yaakov Agam). Art has thrived in Israel as well. Israel has produced such world class artists as Moshe Castel, Reuben Rubin and Mordecai Ardon. Given the freedom and opportunity to participate in the aesthetic realm, Jewish genius from Bezalel, the Israelite, to Agam, the Israeli, rises to the top.



Velvel Pasternak

Velvel Pasternak is a world renowned musicologist with over 100 books in Jewish musical scholarship and documentation to his credit. He is responsible for the proliferation of Jewish music of all types to all facets of the Jewish community through his dedicated

Ellaine Rosen

Ellaine Rosen is a nationally-known expert on modern art in general and Jewish art in particular. As a lecturer, her topics include: "From Bezalel the Israelite to Agam the Israeli," "Prints Charming," "Jewish Art in the Synagogue," "Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts," and dozens more. She is the author of "The Lore, Law and Lure of the Jewish Wedding." Her article "Jewish Art Smart" was published by the Journal of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America..