“Sweet are the songs of Israel” we read in the Book of 2 Samuel in the Hebrew Bible. Granted, Samuel’s knowledge of Jewish music ended in about 1000 BCE, but we don’t call him a prophet for nothing.
To Samuel’s “sweet” characterization, Jewish music over the ages has gone on to add joy, sadness, incisive observation, a love of tradition, and a compulsion to listen and experiment.
The result — for our purposes — is an entertaining and sometimes enlightening way to pass the time as we shelter in place through at least Passover (April 8-16), possibly through Shavuot (May 28) … and then who knows how long?
I recently jumped into the YouTube rabbit hole to identify pleasing, historically interesting and little-heard Jewish music for your listening pleasure. What follows is a list of concerts and TV appearances well worth checking out.
NPR Tiny Desk Concert, 2019
Israeli sisters Tair, Liron and Tagel Haim made their splash five years ago by singing updated, traditional Yemenite Jewish songs to reggae and dancehall rhythms. Now they’re writing their own songs about the Yemeni immigrant experience in Israel (spoiler alert: there was tsuris). This grooving, 15-minute set by A-WA, which means “Yes” in Arabic and is pronounced AY-wah, is augmented by a tight four-piece band and English subtitles.
Ashkenaz Festival, 2014
Jewish melodies meet Afrobeat in this ensemble of top-flight Jewish musicians. This four-song, irresistibly danceable set (35 minutes) features the twin screaming guitars of Yoshie Fruchter and bandleader Jon Madof. Performing “Ein K’elokeinu” by accused sexual assaulter Reb Shlomo Carlebach might be a politically incorrect choice in the #MeToo era, but Madof’s three kids are featured on percussion, so we’ll cut ’em some slack.
Live in concert, 2016
Yiddish Glory is the name of an international ensemble, a history project and a Grammy-nominated CD. This truly glorious premiere concert (56 minutes) features long-lost Yiddish songs written by Jews from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during World War II. The lyrics were found in a Ukrainian archive. Singer-musicologist Psoy Korolenko and violinist Sergei Erdenko adapted traditional melodies and wrote new ones.
“Rainbow Quest,” mid-1960s
Rubin, a collector and performer of Yiddish folk songs, was a guest on a bare-bones, folk music TV series (in black and white) hosted by Pete Seeger in 1965-66. In this 54-minute episode, Seeger begins the Yiddish portion of the show at the 10:43 mark by singing “Zhankoye,” a song about a Jewish collective farm during the Stalin era. Rubin appears at 13:30 to discuss her work and sing. The highlight is the duo’s languid collaboration on the Russian Jewish folk love song “Tumbalalaika.”
Ladino music concert, 2012
The Bosnian-born, U.S.-based queen of Ladino music performs classic songs and her own compositions in this 62-minute concert with singer-instrumentalists Tiffani Ferrantelli and Zhenya Tochenaya. Jagoda, a singer-guitarist and the composer of “Ocho Kandelikas,” speaks of learning many Judeo-Spanish songs from her grandmother. Forgive the video’s variable sound quality, because Jagoda is a treasure.
Dave Tarris Trio
Tribute concert, 1978
Speaking of treasures, clarinetist Dave Tarras, who came to the U.S. in 1921 from Ternivka (a village in Ukraine), was arguably the top American klezmer musician for most of the 20th century. Here he leads a power trio — with accordionist Samuel Beckerman and drummer Max Goldberg — through an hour-long set of classic wedding dances and Yiddish theater songs. Even in his early 80s, Tarras’ playing could still reach the heavens and tug at the kishkes.
Jewish Culture Festival Cantors’ Concert
Krakow, Poland, 2012
Moshe Fishel, Abraham Kirshenbaum and Elazar Vinograd — young Israeli cantorial soloists — intone traditional Ashkenazi liturgical melodies in classic cantorial style, backed by the Bells Vocal Ensemble, at the 24th annual festival in Krakow. I love that this concert (in two parts, each about 55 minutes) is about the music, not the singers showing off. They leave that to director Yossi Schwartz and his shiny silver suit. Part 1 is embedded below; find part 2 here.
Old First Concert, S.F., 2016
Klezmer aces Cookie Segelstein (violin), Joshua Horowitz (button accordion) and Stuart Brotman (cello) perform music from “Poyln: A Gilgul,” their 2015 album featuring
the virtuosic Berkeley-based trio’s unique, cross-cultural melding of tunes. This includes a part B (tinyurl.com/muchin-jlist8b) for a total of about 60 minutes. I was in the audience when this was recorded, and I thought the concert was sublime. These videos prove me right.