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Jewish Music: A Selection of Contemporary Jewish Music

by Lisa Snider (2013)

Jewish music stems all the way from ancient prayer chants of the Levant created some 3000 years ago. Since then, Jewish music has been constantly adapting with new conditions and modern technologies, yet it retains its identity in many widely differing ethnic, social and religious environments.

On this page you can find a selection of works from some of the world's most famous artists in each of the following Jewish musical genres:

Israeli Music | Klezmer Music | Sephardi Music | Synagogue Music | A Capella | American Jewish Music

Israeli Music

Israeli music is a unique tapestry that reflects the rich society and culture in Israel. While many genres of music fall under the Israeli category, there are particular stylistic elements that have come to define Israeli music. As the Jewish Music Institute puts it, Israeli music is unique because of the "particular symbiosis of East and West and the assimilation of elements from diverse traditions, the strands of Jewish traditions, Arab and Middle Eastern musics, with Western approaches." However words do not do justice to the eclectic sounds of Israeli music so here is a sampling of Israeli music with descriptions of the songwriters and performers, who are, in most cases, the same:

Naomi Shemer (1930-2004) - Born by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Shemer penned hundreds of Hebrew songs and is often referred to as Israel's First Lady of Song. In 1967, she wrote the song "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" (Jerusalem of Gold) for the Israel Song Festival and, a short while later, after Jerusalem was reunified during the Six Day War, Shemer added the song's final verse. "Jerusalem of Gold" has since become a legendary work and is often said to be Israel's unofficial national anthem.

Israeli Artist Ofra Haza sings "Jerusalem of Gold"
Shemer sings "Lu Yehi" (Adapted from Beatles "Let it Be")

Shlomo Artzi is an Israeli folk rock singer/songwriter and composer. In his early days he set to music the poems of Nachman Bialik, Shaul Tchernichovsky and Yehuda Amichai, and has since sold over 1.5 million albums, making him one of Israel's most successful male singers.

    Yehudah Poliker is an Israeli singer/songwriter, musician and painter who was born to Holocaust survivor parents who were deported from their native Salonika, Greece to Auschwitz. Poliker's music combines rock with Greek and other Mediterranean styles. He plays guitar, bouzouki and baglama and was nominated in 2002 for the Tammuz Award of Israel's Best Male Artist. Poliker has composed songs for some of Israel's leading vocalists, including Arik Einstein, Gidi Gov, and Rita.

    Artzi - "Po V'Sham" (Here and There)
    Poliker - "Wait for me, Thessaloniki"

    Ehud Banai is an Israeli singer/songwriter and vocalist whose music falls into the rock, folk, and folk-rock genres. Banai is of Persian Jewish and Afghan Jewish descent and plays cello and guitar. He has been a part of numerous bands and has released nearly a dozen albums over the course of his career. In 2005 he was voted the 28th-greatest Israeli of all time in a poll by the Israeli newspaper YNet. Ehud's brother Yossi and nephew Eviatar are also popular and famous Israeli musicians.

    Idan Raichel is an Israeli singer/songwriter and musician known for starting and leading the Idan Raichel Project, a musical group whose distinctive sound emenates from the blend of Middle Eastern and Ethiopian music. The group uses traditional Hebrew texts and electronics, as well. Their music can be categorized as pop and folk and their songs are in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Amharic, and Spanish. With bandmembers from all over the world, they preach a message of tolerance and peace and use music to bridge their innate differences.

    Banai - "Hebrewman"
    Idan Raichel Project - "Semenem"

    Ivri Lider
    is an Israeli pop rock singer/songwriter part of The Young Professionals band. He is one of the biggest-selling contemporary artists in Israeli music and has won the Male Singer of the Year award from numerous Israeli radio stations since he started his career in the late 1990s. Lider's music has been featured in the Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky hit movies "Yossi & Jagger," "The Bubble," and "Walk on Water." In 2002, Lider spoke openly about his homosexuality because "on a personal level, I felt complete and happy with my life and who I am, and I didn't see any reason not to talk about it ... On a less personal level, I felt it's kind of my obligation. When you're an artist and you're doing well and you're successful, you get a lot of love and appreciation and energy from people, and I think you need to give it back. Maybe I can influence people and help younger people that struggle."

    Dag Nachash is an Israeli hip hop/funk band founded in 1996 in Jerusalem. They are most well known for their leftist political statements in their songs. The name "dag nachash" literally means "the snake-fish" in Hebrew, and is a spoonerism of the phrase "nahag chadash" which means "a new driver." In Israel, new drivers have to have a tag on the back of their car windows with that phrase. The band's icon is of a child urinating and derives from the Hebrew phrase that translates to "I will show you where the fish urinates" and means "I will show you how it is done." Dag Nachash blends Western pop music with Eastern styles to create a singular sound with funk and world music influences. The song below, called "Shirat Ha-Sticker" or "the sticker song" is a compilation of opposing political statements that were bumper stickers in Israel at one point or another; Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote the song, which paints an ironic picture of politics and religion in the Israeli experience.

    Lider - "Rak Tivakesh" (Just Ask)
    Dag Nachash - "Shirat HaSticker" (The Sticker Song)

    Other famous Israeli musicians and bands include: David Broza, Balkan Beat Box, Harel Moyal, Achinoam Nini, and Dana International.

Klezmer Music (Ashkenazi)

The term Klezmer derives from the Hebrew words klei meaning "vessel" and zemer meaning "song," literally meaning "instrument of song." Klezmer is a musical tradition of Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe.

The Klezmatics are a Grammy Award-winning American klezmer music group based in New York City who mix older Yiddish tunes with more contemporary music and sing in multiple languages including Aramaic and Bavarian. Formed in 1986, the Klezmatics' current members are Matt Darriau, Frank London, Paul Morrissett, Lorin Sklamberg, Lisa Gutkin, David Licht and Richie Barshay.

The Pressburger Klezmer Band takes it name from the Yiddish name of Bratislava, the Slovakian capital. Started in 1995 as the first Yiddish kapelye - Yiddish for musical group - in the Slovak Republic, the band has seven members who sing, play violin, viola, bass, piano, clarinet and the drums. The Pressburger Klezmer Bank has played many concerts in Slovakia and the Czech Republic for occassions like Hanukkah and Purim.

Klezmetics - "A Glezele Vayn"
Pressburger - "Ale Brider"

Other famous Klezmer bands include: Alexandria Kleztet and The Zydepunks

Sephardi Music

Sephardi music is the music of Jews who lived and flourished in the Iberian penninsula for centuries until they were expelled with the Muslims in 1492. Sephardi Jews or Sephardim took their language and culture, including their musical traditions, from North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and countries in the Middle East where they settled. The lingua franca of Sephardim is Ladino (of Judeo-Spanish) which is based on medeival Castilian and written in Hebrew script.

Raices - "La Nunitana"
Dganit Daddo - "Adon Haselichot"

Synagogue Music

This genre of Jewish music encompasses choral and cantorial music that is sung in practice and concert, in children's choirs in schools, synagogues and Jewish communities across the world. Most of the music in the synagogue genre is in Hebrew or based in Hebrew.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (a.k.a. Reb Shlomo) was an American Jewish rabbi, religious teacher, composer and singer who was knows as "The Singing Rabbi." His roots were in traditional Orthodox yeshivot, but through his music he branched out to create his own unique style. Yossi Klein Halevy said that Rabbi Carlebach "sang wherever there were Jews, from American prisons to Indian ashrams," and concluded, "He taught an orphaned generation numbed by the Holocaust and assimilation how to return to joy."

Chaim Dovid-Saracik is an Orthodox Jewish musician who lives in the Old City of Jerusalem. Born and raised in South Africa, Dovid's music is heavily influenced by Shlomo Carlebach.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach - "Lecha Dodi"
Chaim Dovid - "Yamamy"

Debbie Friedman was an American Jewish singer/songwriter who wrote and performed countless melodies that characterize and fill the prototypical Jewish American songbook. Her rendition of "Mi Shebeirach," the prayer for healing, is one of her best-known songs.

David "Dudu" Fisher is an Israeli cantor and stage performer. The son of a Holocaust survivor, Fisher was born in Petah Tikvah, Israel and studied at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music upon finishing his army service in the Israeli Defense Forces. He is perhaps best known for his Broadway performance in the musical Les Miserables.

Debbie Friedman - "Mi Shebeirach" (The Healer)
Dudu Fisher Composite



Jewish A Capella

Jewish a capella music, as a subset of a capella music, is a popular form of Jewish music, particularly on college and university campuses across the United States. Jewish a capella groups have been around for years, and in recent years those involved in the Jewish a capella music scene have organized concerts and competitions such as "Kol HaOlam: National Jewish A Cappella Contest," the second annual of which was held at Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. this year. Additionally, "AcapaJewza: A Celebration of Jewish Acapella Music" was held at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City this year. Here are some popular Jewish a cappella groups and their upbeat tunes:

Tizmoret, meaning "band" in Hebrew, is Queen College Hillel's professional Jewish a cappella group. Its singers come from colleges throughout New York City and they perform classic Jewish melodies, American pop music and contemporary Israeli tunes, with music in Hebrew and English.

The Maccabeats are Yeshiva University's all-male a capella group. They started in 2007 and not long after started performing for audiences at university events and then at numerous concerts. They have since performed all over the country, including for President Barack Obama at the White House. Their integration of traditional and secular music stems from the concept of Torah u-Madda, the blending of traditional and secular wisdom, and they play a mix of Jewish, American and Israeli songs. Several of their cover songs for Hanukkah and Purim have gone viral in the Jewish world on social media outlets such as YouTube and Facebook.

Tizmoret - "Im Eshkachech" (If I Forget Thee...)
Maccabeats - "Miracle"

Techiya, meaning "rebirth" or "revival" is MIT's only Jewish, Hebrew, and Israeli a capella group. Started in 1994, many Jewish and/or Israeli MIT students have sung in and been a part of the group since its establishment nearly two decades ago, but not all of the members today are Jewish. Some members are Catholic and Sikh, for example. Historically some of Techiya's members hailed from Wellesley College, as well.

Voicemale is an all-male a capella from Brandeis University.

Techiya - "HaMedaber Tov" (He Who Speaks Good)
Voicemale - "Falling Over You"


American Jewish Music

American Jewish music runs the gamut and can be defined as music by Jewish singer/songwriters and/or musicians, or music written for a Jewish audience. For purposes of this page, we have tried to expose readers of the Jewish Virtual Library to the widest range of artists and types of music, so the following selection will reflect that goal. Enjoy!

Matisyahu (Matthew Paul Miller) is an American Jewish reggae and alternative rock musician. His unique style blends traditional Jewish themes with reggae, rock and hip hop beatboxing sounds. The stage name "Matisyahu" is the Hebrew pronunciation of the Biblical Hebrew name of the second-century BCE Jewish leader of the Macabbees' revolt (the English equivalent is Matthew).

Drake (Aubrey Drake Graham) is a Canadian Jewish recording artist and actor. In June 2009, Drake signed a recording contract with Lil Wayne's record label and has since become very popular in the United States and elsewhere. Drake's father is an African-American from Memphis, Tennessee and his mother is a Jewish Canadian. Drake's music is alternative hip hop and R&B.

Matisyahu - "One Day"
Drake - "Find Your Love"

Blue Fringe is an American Jewish rock band. The band's songs range from pop, rock, punk, R&B and are based around Jewish themes and often include Hebrew words and phrases.

J. Viewz is the electronic music project of Brooklyn-based producer Jonathan Dagan.

Blue Fringe - "Flippin' Out"
J. Views - "Oh, Something's Quiet "

Aryeh Kunstler is an American Jewish singer/songwriter and guitarist who is considered a rising star in the Jewish music scene. His songs are soulful and based on Jewish themes, and he has performed for audiences across the U.S. and in Israel, as well.

The Josh Nelson Project is the 5-person band and the brainchild of Jewish American multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter and producer Josh Nelson. Nelson's music is high-octane rock built upon songs of Jewish identity and continuity.

Aryeh Kunstler - "Modim"
Josh Nelson Project - "Y'hiyu L'ratzon"

Regina Spektor is an American Jewish singer/songwriter and pianist. Born in Moscow to a musical Russian Jewish family, Spektor learned to play piano at an early age. Her music is influenced by folk, punk, rock, Jewish, Russian, hip hop, jazz, and classical music styles. Spektor's Begin to Hope album was nominated for the Shortlist Music Prize and she won Studio8's Female Voice of August 2009.

Matt Nathanson is an American Jewish singer/songwriter whose music blends folk and rock. He plays acoustic and electric guitar and has played both solo and with a band.

Regina Spektor - "Laughing With"
Matt Nathanson - "Faster"

Sources: Youtube, Wikipedia, Haaretz (July 7, 2004), The Forward (May 21, 2009), KlezmerShack, The Jewish Music Institute "What is Jewish Music?", Tizmoret website, Yeshiva Maccabeats, Techiya, Yossi Klein Halevi, "The Pied Piper of Judaism," The Jerusalem Report, November 17, 1994, p. 45,, The Josh Nelson Project.