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Eastern European Jewish musical traditions:
Lomir ale singen

by Rita Ottens
City University of London
Published first in: Shofar. Lincoln: Summer 2004. Vol. 22, Iss. 4, p. 173-176.

In present-day Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the discourse around the field of Yiddish music and Yiddish music research has become one of ethnicity and race. At a time when the role of Jews in Germany is marginalized—yet expected to be drawn upon whenever needed as part of the constituting of the new German Self—it is "Jewish" music that fills the space. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially the music of the main targets of the German Endlösung, the Eastern European Jews, has been turned into a ritualistic remedy, and is celebrated in festivals and concert series throughout the country.

It is the milieu of this, the "Music of the Jews of Eastern Europe," that François Lilienfeld has set out to "describe more thoroughly." His "greatest intention," however, is "to show that synagogue music, Yiddish folksong and klezmer music represent three facets of one culture, three elements which are inseparably interconnected" (p. 7). The book contains sections on these three musical genres as well as chapters on hasidic music, the Yiddish language, Yiddish theater, and Yiddish film. In addition, it includes an annotated bibliography and discography, illustrations, and notated musical examples, as well as a compact disc.

The book does not, however, as it proclaims, deliver a "more thorough" understanding of the colorful tapestry of Eastern European Jewish musical traditions. That topic is broader than any one volume could encompass thoroughly, as recent publications by Moshe Beregovski (2000, 2001), Philip V. Bohlman and Otto Holzapfel (2001), Ellen Koskoff (2000), Rita Ottens and Joel Rubin (1999, 2001), Kay Kaufman Shelemay (2001) and Mark Slobin (2000, 2002) have shown. Lilienfeld’s uncritical use of sources of varying approaches, reliability, and quality, as well as his inability to interpret and draw his own conclusions from these materials, leads to a confused depiction of the musical cultures that he set out to describe. What makes all of this even worse is the obvious attitude of the author that anything goes, as long as it fits into his world view. Especially after listening to the enclosed CD, one must come to the conclusion that the production was mainly undertaken for the purpose of self-promotion. The compact disc promises to give an "impression in sound of the described music" (cover text), but fails to do just that. Instead, the author offers the listener a cantillation in the German (not Eastern European) ritus—sung by himself shortly after his bar mitzvah—following on the heels of the voices of the famous early twentieth-century Eastern European cantors Rosenblatt, Sirota, and Pinkasowicz.

Of the eighteen tracks on the CD, an additional five comprise interpretations by Lilienfeld himself, including two compositions in the German ritus by Louis Lewandowski, as well as a pseudo-hasidic piece with "ecstatic" oy-oy-oys written by the author himself. These illustrate acoustically Lilienfeld’s doubtful connection to Yiddish music, language, and culture, an impression which is also given by the text itself. For example, the complex, several-centuries-old modes of expression in Eastern European Jewish music are reduced to three, seven-tone "Jewish" scales (p. 142). What it is that makes this music "Jewish" or, more specifically, "Yiddish," Lilienfeld is not able to explain. He fails to mention that all three scales are shared with surrounding ethnicities in Eastern Europe as well as those of the Middle East, and are of unknown provenance. Such reductionisms unfortunately don’t give the reader any information on the typical melodic turns of phrase or ornamentation patterns associated with those scales—precisely the modal aspects which could be interpreted as "Yiddish."

In general, it can be said that Lilienfeld relies too heavily on outdated and second-hand general sources such as Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1929/1992) and Aron Marko Rothmüller (1960), despite the relative plethora of writings on Eastern European Jewish music published in the past two decades. Even the book’s title calls Lilienfeld’s knowledge into question: the verb zingen is mistakenly transliterated (in German orthography) as singn, the author apparently confusing it with the vowel-less endings of some Yiddish infinitives such as zogn (and not zogen), ‘to say.’ Such obvious errors also call into question the editorial work of Petra Goldman and of the publisher, Chronos. Parallel to this is the use of a writing style which no serious publisher would allow.

Rarely have I come across a text that has been invaded by a virtual army of ellipses, exclamation points and inflated superlatives (for example, "an unbelievable virtuosity," p. 16). These are in direct contrast to the needs of the reader, who expects solid information, analyses, and stimulating insights into the intellectual fruits of the author’s own "more than thirty years of research" (p. 7). Without a doubt, it belongs to the least-favored pleasures of a scholar to discover that the book under review contains many of the fruits of his or her research and thinly disguised paraphrases of passages, all without being properly cited. All of which leads to the question as to what purpose it actually serves to cull information from already available sources, paraphrase it, and then glue it together in a haphazard manner for a general, mostly non-Jewish audience.

The book’s superfluous chapter on Yiddish film (pp. 89-98) as well as the digression "The Moderate Reform of the Ashkenazic Liturgy" (pp. 30-40)—the latter amply illustrated with facsimiles of sheet music—leave the reader with the impression that the author did not have enough access to materials on Yiddish musical traditions to fill out the book. The concept and centrality of music and melody in hasidic belief —although fundamental to the understanding of the development of Eastern European Jewish musical traditions of the past 250 years—is completely missing from Lilienfeld’s account of hasidic music (pp. 47-52). Instead, the reader is treated throughout the volume to an array of biographies of cantors, singers, composers, and musicians of differing levels of historical and contemporary significance, once again drawn together from a variety of sources.

Particularly problematic is the last section, which deals with the contemporary Yiddish music movements in the U.S. and Germany. Here Lilienfeld twists history into what might be regarded as what is most convenient for his own professional and political life as a disseminator of Jewish music in Germany (he is himself musical director of the biannual Fürth Yiddish Festival). In the chapter "Stars in the German Klezmer Sky," his use of the already problematic term "authentic" (pp. 136-37) in relation to two of his favored non-Jewish German instrumentalists places their music in a false light, making them appear to represent a bona fide continuation of the pre-Holocaust heritage of Eastern European Jewish musical traditions. For those singers and musicians, music was deeply embedded in their socio-religious personae as Jews. Because of cultural, religious, historical and political differences, I have argued elsewhere that the "Yiddish" music created by the German postwar generations should not be considered to be Jewish music at all, but rather regarded as part of German popular music.

With his use of problematic terminology such as the ubiquitous "Schtetl," as well as the terms "host country" (p. 100), "traveling lifestyle" (p. 100), and "wanderings" (p. 99), Lilienfeld delivers old-new stereotypes of "the Jew" as a nomad who has no place in German society. The jacket photograph of the author himself reveals a self-ethnicization process indicating that he has voluntarily confined himself to the role of Jewish minstrelsy, fitting right into the shtetl caricatures which are creating "Yiddishkayt" (Jewishness) on German stages and even bringing Jewish functionaries to publically laud this "blossoming" of Jewish culture in Germany. Such a piece of pseudo-scholarship could only be produced in the dubious milieu of philosemitism which is vigorously growing in the German-speaking countries of today.

From this perspective, the book allows—although surely unintended by Lilienfeld—a glimpse into the ideological and political tensions of Germany that seep out from his narrative. In a broader sense, the book sheds light on the precarious role of Jews in German-speaking countries. That this state of mind is claiming above all the defenseless Yiddish culture and music as a foil for self-promotion and projections of all sorts should in itself be worthy of analysis. Apart from confirming the position of the few random protagonists of the Yiddish music movement, whose work is presented here in an overblown, decontextualized, and unprofessional way, and their followers, the book will be of little use. For the average reader, it will merely serve to confirm already existing clichés of Jews. It is neither reliable nor thorough, at times even borderline dishonest through its historical distortion, and puts Lilienfeld in a line with the "shredders of history." As a fabrication belonging to the political myth of the resurrection of Jewish culture in the German-speaking countries of today, it gives insight into the particular ideology that surrounds this latest wave of instrumentalization of Yiddish culture.

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lomir ale singen
Chronos Verlag
Euro 29,90 21-12-04

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