Stellmacher on Cohen, 'Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth-Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack'

Judah M. Cohen
Martha Stellmacher

Judah M. Cohen. Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth-Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. xiii + 309 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-04021-3; $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-04020-6. 

Reviewed by Martha Stellmacher (Europäisches Zentrum für Jüdische Musik) Published on H-Judaic (September, 2020) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

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Usually, the first peak of Jewish sacred music in the United States is seen in the “golden age” of the cantorate between the two world wars. The preceding history of music in Jewish communities in the US, which grew enormously during the nineteenth century—from 2,500 Jews in 1800 to more than 1,000,000 in 1900—hitherto received much less attention. This period’s “synagogue soundtrack” is the subject of Judah M. Cohen’s new book.

In seven chapters, Cohen presents a series of case studies that are structured around key persons and musical works: among others Wilhelm Fischer’s Zemirot Yisrael (1863), Gustav M. Cohen’s The Sacred Harp of Judah (1864), Simon Hecht’s Zemirot Yisrael (1878), and Gustav S. Ensel’s Ancient Liturgical Music (1880); the four-volume Zimrath Yah (1871-86) edited by Morris Goldstein, Samuel Welsch, Alois Kaiser, and Isaac L. Rice; and the Union Hymnal (1897) published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. On the basis of mainly primary written sources, Cohen aims “to weave together individual, communal, musical, historiographic, and intellectual histories around a central core of published musical compendia,” without making “claims at a comprehensive overview” (pp. 8, 14). The story Cohen tells by analyzing these musical works, their authors, underlying ideas, and envisaged practices is fascinating and thoroughly researched.

A topic emerging throughout the book is the definition of leadership and the division of musical participation in the synagogue. The respective weighting attributed to cantor, congregation, choir, or instrumental accompaniment does not present a clearly linear development. Starting from the 1840s, Cohen describes how choral singing came up in American synagogues across the Jewish denominational spectrum, following British, then Central European paradigms (chapter 1). He shows how music was used to bridge cultural roots and an American identity, for example, through German hymn singing and amateur singing societies (chapter 2). Increasing endeavors to establish congregational singing and a common repertoire from the 1880s (chapter 4) culminated in the publication of the Union Hymnal in 1897 (chapter 7). Another trend was an attempt to enhance the role of the cantor in Jewish communities as the musical leader and “a guardian of a Jewish sonic heritage” (p. 187). Cohen sheds light on cantor networks, efforts to represent their interests, and the repercussions of these developments in the repertoire (chapters 6 and 7).

As a “specifically American form of Jewish worship” developed over the course of the century, music’s role became “an important means of differentiating American Judaism from European Judaism, both indicating distance from a land of origin and affirming the ideological integrity of the émigré population” (pp. 188, 270). By examining the roots and influences of Jewish music, Cohen also touches on developments in European synagogue music. For example, he includes a chronological survey on the emergence of hymnals and points to cantors’ networks and press in Europe.

Cohen convincingly interweaves narratives, musical history approaches, and musical practices. He questions common narratives like the narrative of a masculine cantorate (postscript to chapter 1) or the one presenting hymn singing as a practice adopted from Christians. The book offers a detailed look into the sociohistorical situation in which synagogue music was performed and negotiated, including details on the biographies and roles of musicians within Jewish communities, exact salaries, and discussions of understandings of leadership. Carving out the actors and motors of changes, Cohen traces networks, influences, and trends. All these developments, Cohen concludes, shaped today’s view on music in Jewish life in America.

Cohen succeeds in his aim of “chronicling this era in musical terms” without requiring in-depth specialist music knowledge of the reader (p. 9). The author does not trail off in detailed musical analyses of individual compositions. Rather, he examines music publications as a whole, in designing a bigger picture of their genesis and history. He analyzes their scopes and paratexts, their authorship, their meaning for the performance and the liturgy, and their reception in Jewish communities. The generous use of illustrations, showing the original musical material rather than rewritten musical examples, gives an unaltered impression of the settings, layout, and presentation of the original works. A large number of quotations from primary sources, like the contemporary press and meeting minutes from community organizations, make this pioneering study a vivid reading. Unmuting the American Jewish nineteenth century, it is indeed an important contribution to American Jewish history and Jewish music studies.

Martha Stellmacher is a research associate at the European Centre for Jewish Music at Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media.

Citation: Martha Stellmacher. Review of Cohen, Judah M., Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth-Century America: Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020. URL:

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