Discovering Jewish Music

By Marsha B. Edelman

Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2003.
xii, 396p. : ill. ; 24 cm + 1 sound disc (4 3/4 in.).
List of Musical Illustrations: 373-385.

ISBN: 082760727X (audio CD included).

We are fortunate to have a true educator involved deeply in the Jewish music. Marsha Edelman is that teacher, and she has given a book that will be appreciated for it’s straightforwardness, it’s completeness without too much detail, and for the clear explanations of a complex and involved history. Edelman has taken the subject of Jewish music history, distilled the essence in a judicious manner, and brought it out for anyone to read.

From the beginning you know this is going to be an excellent book. There is a 13-page glossary that astutely includes not only terms about Jewish culture, but musical terms that may be unfamiliar to a reader. In this way Edelman realized that some of her audience would be non-Jews who would need the Jewish vocabulary about holidays or liturgy, but there would also be a Jewish and other audience that would need musical terms to make those discussions intelligible.

The illustrations of musical score are useful for those that read music, but not overwhelming for those who cannot. The examples given are basic and essential. She didn’t choose unusual or obscure pieces. Even those with a rudimentary understanding of music will be able to follow along. And the examples well illustrate her points. The list of illustrations in the back of the book can also be used as a guide to someone wishing to establish a home Jewish music library. Finding materials with these basic works will lead to a well balanced and interesting collection.

One of the best parts of this book is that Edelman does not neglect the impact of America on Jewish music, either liturgically or in popular music. This is a book that recognizes mainstream American Jewry and their musical interest areas and contributions. I especially liked her inclusion of Lazar Weiner as a composer in her chapter of Jewish music on the concert stage, not just the more famous “mainstream” composers like Schoenberg, Copland, Bernstein and Bloch. She also includes information on Jewish women, especially in the popular music, but also in liturgical, art and cantorial fields.

The impact of teaching for many years and telling a good story in those classrooms is evident. The book reads well, like the unfolding of a good story should. Endnotes are kept to a minimum and are not distracting for a casual reader, but available for those of us who would like them. (I would have liked even more information about sources, but that’s a librarian speaking! —and she does have a good bibliography at the back of the book.)

The accompanying CD is bound to have selections many people have not heard. She includes a wide ranging and eclectic collection, not only for the time periods which each selection illustrates, but styles, forces of instrumentation, art or popular, liturgical or secular, orthodox or modern, Ashkenazic or Sephardic.

Jewish high schools may wish to consider this book for their choice in a curriculum offering a class in an objective perspective on the history of Jewish music to their students. The only caveat to this recommendation is that there are no illustrations other than musical score, which is my only real complaint about the book. One could wish for a few sporadic pictures or illustrations. In that way also, it is appropriate for an undergraduate class in a college, for non-music majors, or as a supplementary book in an ethnomusicology course or world music course.

I can heartily recommend this work to be added to the book shelves of Jewish home libraries. Anyone curious about a good, broad overview of the subject will get benefit from reading Edelman’s no-nonsense, just-tell-it-like-it-is work.
Load date January 11,2004