Music: Melting-Pot or Fruit Salad?

So far, so good. Camp is going well, I’m enjoying myself and trying many new things – today was yoga. I’m no butterfly, but I’m learning. Pluralism is touchy. Didn’t have the greatest Shabbat this week, but maybe I’m just homesick or feeling out of place. Perhaps I’ll write about it after I have another Shabbat under my belt.

My observation and what’s been on my heart this Shabbat, actually, is musical.

The camp where I’m working has a really interesting musical repertoire. The songs sung here are largely not the “typical” Jewish summer camp songs (at least, based on the camps in which I’ve been a camper and staff, which are all Ramah camps). Sure, every now and then we are graced with a niggun (mostly by Carlebach), but more often than not the songs being sung are Negro spirituals, or borrowed from church groups. They are American folk songs. Every now and then we hear a melody that rings South African or African tribal. Often we chant mantras, a concept that is borrowed from the Buddhist tradition – even if they are chanted using Hebrew text, they don’t ring “Jewish”.

Though it’s a Jewish camp experience, I’m really missing Jewish music. Where have all the augmented-seconds gone?? (For the record, someday I will teach the whole world that Carlebach’s Psalm 29 is not in major.)

Beyond my own yearning, though, came a different sadness. While I acknowledge that we benefit greatly from knowing others’ musical traditions, it’s still a little sad to think that faith groups, cultural groups, and national groups no longer own their own music. We fell that we can sing mantras that ring Buddhist, spirituals that ring African American, chants that ring African, gospel music that rings Baptist. We no longer have to intercourse with these groups in order to share music — we feel entitled and able to sing it for ourselves. But to what end? Because it is meaningful? Why can’t we find meaning in our own music? Why can’t we reinvigorate and compose within our own faith tradition? Why did we abandon our own song?

The poet asks in Psalm 133, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Is this the Lord’s song? Scratch that. Is this our Lord’s song?

Perhaps blurring the lines is a benefit. Perhaps it creates a Unity of Humankind. There are those who would tell you that a Unity of Humankind is exactly what we’ve always been hoping for. After all, the second paragraph of Alénu does tell us that “all flesh and blood will call in [God’s] name.” Well, it’s a nice story, but it doesn’t account for our differences — our beautiful differences. The world is a wonderful place because each person has his/her own voice. Does that principle not extend to cultural groups? Frankly, other faith groups don’t go around singing Jewish music. Maybe they sing a piece or two in choral settings; but not often in worship. And how would we feel if they did?

Yes, we know historically there was cross-sharing when it came to musical traditions. Melodies from the synagogue made their way into the church service, while secular and some church melodies made their way into the synagogue. (For more on this, see Eric Werner’s The Sacred Bridge.) I don’t know — this feels different. William Sharlin talks about active assimilation versus passive assimilation of music: in “active assimilation” (which he discourages), outside music traditions are forced into Jewish worship, while “passive assimilation” allows them to permeate the borders of the music tradition with out being obtrusive. This doesn’t feel like borrowing and repurposing; it feels like stealing.

Then again, as one of my mentors once said, “Who am I to prevent anyone from being exposed to this music?”

So we hang in the balance. In a place that doesn’t insist on a prerequisite knowledge of Hebrew, how do I introduce more Jewish songs into the ethos? Can I leave a uniquely Jewish thumbprint? Can I insist on musical seclusion? Well, probably not. Definitely what to think about as we near the start of the camping season.



3 thoughts on “Music: Melting-Pot or Fruit Salad?

  1. I never had the experience of a Jewish camp, but in Girl Scout camp, we would often learn new songs while waiting outside the dining hall. Is there a time when your campers (are you the musical director, or counselor in one age unit?) could be learning a new song, one from the store of songs you contain? Would a Ramah song be appropriate to these campers background, or expand their knowledge of the range of the Jewish experience?

    In scout camp, we loved songs like Dona Nobis Pachem, solemn and lofty. Silly songs like John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith where we practiced learning how to sing softly and loudly, and of course any number of tunes for breaking bread.

    Most fun of all, and a good intro, is to teach the same words with several different melodies. Yes, Jewish niggun, but also pop music, or classical, or Klezmer.

    Maxine in RI

  2. I have mixed thoughts on this topic. On the one hand, you are correct in that Jews are very quick to take on music or chanting from other traditions and that other traditions don’t usually take on Jewish music. On the other hand, some of what we consider very traditional melodies were once an old German drinking song, so Jews have been doing this for centuries. As with everything balance is key.

    I’ve experienced the shalom chant, and the 1st line of Ashrei as a chant (probably others, but that’s what I remember at the moment). At first, I loved it, but that was before I started embracing more ritual. Now, I find it OK, but wouldn’t want to rely on it as the only tunes in my repertoire.

    I do have to respond to Maxine’s comment and say I LOVE Dona Nobis Pachem.

    It sounds like so far things are going well. I’m glad you’re truly hearing nature and appreciating it. Your tent sounds like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Is there a latrine nearby? Keep on keeping on. Shabbat Shalom.

  3. I agree that we should mine the riches of the Jewish musical tradition, and at the same time I love the Shaker Hymn sung at Romemu NYC at the end of their service. However I think there is a problem with appropriating songs from other cultures, especially those of marginalized groups, and would much prefer not to hear contrafacted gospel. much as I adore gospel. Hope you’re OK in the rain! RW

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