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Part 1 of this article

George Robinson, GRComm@ concentric.net writes for the Jewish Week. His book, "Essential Judaism," was published in hardcover by Pocket Books, March 2000. You can find out more at his website.

Articles by George Robinson, available on the KlezmerShack, are:

2004 Chanukah Roundup, by George Robinson, sent 2 Dec 2004.

The Year's Best: the annual "best of" column, by George Robinson, sent 25 Nov 2002.

A Religious Experience: A roundup of recent Jewish liturgical music, by George Robinson, sent 26 Aug 2002.

More Than Klezmer: A sampler of Yiddish vaudeville, folk music and even art song, sent 9 Aug 2002.

Spring Sephardic Music Roundup, send 3 May 2002.

The Spring Roundup, part 1, sent 9 Mar 2002.

The Spring Roundup, part 2, sent 9 Mar 2002.

The Best of 2001 - Hanukah suggestions, sent 7 Dec 2001.

Isaac Stern: Beyond the Fiddle to the Heart of a Man, sent out 5 Oct 2001.

Sounds for the Jewish New Year, sent out 23 Nov 2001.

Slobin on Beregovski (and the survival of Klezmer Music), sent out 30 Aug 2001.

Women of Valor, sent out 15 Aug 2001.

Shabbat, for Starters, sent out 3 Jun 2001.

From Liturgical Rock to the Postmodern, sent out 15 May 2001.

A Sephardic Passover, sent out 25 Mar 2001.

Oh, Klezmer, sent out 18 Mar 2001.

Jewish Classical Music, sent out 1 Mar 2001.

Best of 2000, send out 23 Dec 2000.

Holiday Music for Hanukkah, 6 Dec 2000.

Kidding on the Square, 9/29/00, from the Jewish Week

From the Catskills to Canada, 6/15/00, from the Jewish Week

Sephardic Survey, 05/00, from the Jewish Week

1999 Klezmer Wrapup, from the Jewish Week

Sisters in Swing, 12/15/99, from the Jewish Week

Bending the Genres, October 1998, from the Jewish Week

The Klezmer Drums of Passion, September 1998, from the Jewish Week

Drums of Passion, summer, 1998, from the Jewish Week


Other klezmer articles
on the Internet


A Religious Experience:
A roundup of recent Jewish liturgical music

from the author, 26 Aug '02.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

by George Robinson, grcomm@grcomm.cnc.net

Note: Don't click on any links until the entire file loads, or else the links won't work. I apologize for the inconvenience. webmaster

BT Rock / Volume 1: Collected Songs from the Spiritual Journey
Italian Jewish Musical Traditions From the Leo Levi Collection (1954-1961)
Neil Katz / Who Am I?
Frank London, Lorin Sklamberg and Rob Schwimmer / The Zmiros Project
Miriam / Wings of Light
Merkavah / Merkavah
Oneg Shemesh / Life to Your Soul
Moshe Schachter / Boneh Yerushalayim
Paul Zim / Everybody Sings On Shabbat, Shabbat Is Here

It will not come as news to anyone who reads this column regularly that Jewish religious music is something that means a great deal to me and has been an integral part of my own spiritual journey. On the other hand, that doesn't mean I'm an undiscriminating listener who puts up with any musical setting of liturgy that turns up on my CD player. Good intentions can only take you so far, and I'm probably harder on religious music that doesn't work than any other kind of Jewish music.

That said, here is a stack of recent recordings that fall into the category of Jewish liturgical music. The range of material here is an indicator of how broad that category has become.

BT Rock / Volume 1: Collected Songs from the Spiritual Journey (Sameach Music). Sampler of 15 different bands/singer-songwriters who are, as the title suggests, baalei teshuvah. Like most samplers, this is wildly uneven, ranging from the compelling Moshav Band's Dave Matthews-like "Waiting for the Calling," Avraham Rosenbloom's Dylan-meets-Mark Knopfler "Changing Now" and Yossi Piamenta's loopy "Hanistarot" to the appalling, with most falling somewhere in between. Rating: 3 stars

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Italian Jewish Musical Traditions From the Leo Levi Collection (1954-1961) (Anthology of Musical Traditions in Israel) Levi was a Jewish-Italian ethnomusicologist who made thousands of recordings of Jewish music in his native country in the 1950s; this CD, a generous 75 minutes and 42 selections, represents barely 5 percent of the recordings he compiled. And it's fascinating.

Before World War II tore through the Jewish community there, Italy was an unusual seedbed of minhagim, reflecting not only Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions but also unique local ones and combinations of all of them. Without Levi's work, none of these would have survived. Listening to the Ashkenazi material, I hear echoes of tunes and modes that one can hear in many New York synagogues, but they have been transformed in subtle and unexpected ways.

By contrast, the Florentine "Khad Gadya" sounds like an Italian street song. That said, it should be pointed out that many of the singers recorded here are not professionals, all of them are unaccompanied and the result is occasionally more interesting from a historical standpoint than as listening. (Available from www.hatikvahmusic.com or 323 655-7083.) Rating: 4 for the music, 5 stars for the history.

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Neil Katz / Who Am I? (Z-tak Music). A product of the Reform summer camps and Hebrew Union College, Katz is a pleasant enough performer and few of the songs here are serviceable, but his English lyrics are fatuous and his voice is adequate at best. An album calculated to point out the shortcomings of the whole camp-song leader nexus with its brain-numbing heartiness. Rating: 3 stars

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Frank London, Lorin Sklamberg and Rob Schwimmer / The Zmiros Project (Traditional Crossroads). London and Sklamberg continue to explore the heart of Jewish religious music in this spirited, moving follow-up to 1999's "Nigunim." Swapping that set's Uri Caine for another keyboard player, Rob Schwimmer, they essay the table songs associated with the Sabbath, the zmirot, and do so with fervor and wit. This is one of the most exciting albums of Jewish music I've heard since ... well, since "Nigunim." Rating: 5 stars

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Miriam / Wings of Light (Hatikvah Music). Miriam Maron Emhoff, a nurse who has been active in meditation and other forms of non-medical healing, offers a low-key album here of songs from a range of composers, and the sheer minimalism of the set is a refreshing change from much of the overproduced stuff that crosses this desk. Her voice is a bit like a lighter version of Neshama Carlebach's, a little smoky, sweetly naive. The material is mostly slow, reflective, contemplative, and the arrangements are very simple, mostly just acoustic guitar and a little harp.

As always, I could live without the synthesizer, but it's pretty unobtrusive here. Less is more. This is a very pleasing album, although there is a certain sameness to the selections; I'm not qualified to comment on whether it has medicinal value, but the musical worth is indisputable. (Available from www.hatikvahmusic.com or 323 655-7083.) Rating: 5 stars

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Merkavah / Merkavah (Self-distributed). Israel is now the world capital of trance music (electronically based dance music with a very repetitive but insistent rhythmic base, for those of you who don't hang out at raves and discos), and listening to this CD it's not hard to see the connection to Jewish mysticism, at least musically. This Israeli band offers an interesting mix of spacey electronica and Middle Eastern traditional musics, with lots of echoes of Indian drones and the like. This is fun listening, sort of a Jewish throwback to late '60s psychedelia, only much better played. Available at West Side Judaica, through Congregation B'nai Jeshurun (212 787-7600, Ext. 240) or by e-mail lev_olam@netvision.net.il. Rating: 4 stars.

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Oneg Shemesh / Life to Your Soul (Self-distributed). Competent, unadventurous post-Carlebach acoustic religious songs, heavy on folk-rock influences. Shemesh was a student at Reb Shlomo's moshav. Add in the presence of another Carlebach disciple, C Lanzboim, and you have a recipe for pleasant, if unthrilling listening. The bluegrass stuff is presumptuous, to say the least. Some lovely, sinuous fiddle from Ruby Harris adds a half-star. Available from his website, www.OnegShemesh.com. Rating: 4 stars

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Moshe Schachter / Boneh Yerushalayim (Sameach). Album Oriented Rock of the 1970s sort, hook-laden, eclectic, a bit-overproduced but surprisingly deft. Like most music of this ilk the secular stuff anyway this tends to go on a bit, with effective but predictable guitar solos by Matt Gurman, faux Dave Sanborn sax solos, a lot of pointless modulations, unnecessary echo on some of the vocals the whole nine yards, which will be painfully familiar to anyone who grew up listening to WNEW-FM. The difference, of course, is that Schachter sings about God, his child, and angels. Some of this stuff works well the first cut, "Chochmas Odom" is catchy but too much of it sounds like Chicago. Rating: 3 stars

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Paul Zim / Everybody Sings On Shabbat (Sameach Music) and "Shabbat Is Here" (Sameach Music). Zim is a gifted cantor with a hearty baritone, but the focus here is as much on children as on him. As I have written in the past, I am the wrong audience for music by and for children and don't feel I can honestly give these CDs a fair review, but they're out there for those of you with kids. No rating.

Consumer notes: Rounder Records is re-releasing two key recordings by the Klezmatics, "Possessed" and "Jews With Horns." These classics should be in every collection of New Klez. Check your local Judaica store or a good independent record store. In fact, those are the first places you should look for anything in this column. If you can't find Sameach Records in your local Judaica store, go to their Web site: www.nefeshmusic.com.


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Contents copyright © 2002 by George Robinson. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Page last revised 11 June, 2007.