Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Best 100 Jewish Songs Ever

Tablet Magazine picks the top 100 Jewish Songs
As we approach the end of the year 2010, we feel we have to count down something because this New Year's Eve we will be fast asleep after an early Shabbat dinner and the Times Square ball will have to descend on its pole without our help.

So what are we going to count down?  Fortunately, Jodi Rosen and Ari Y. Kelman, the musicologists at Tablet, the online Jewish magazine have given us a list of the 100 greatest Jewish songs ever.

But what makes a song Jewish?  Does it have to be sung in shul?  Do the composer, lyricist, and singer have to be Jewish?  Or is it a unique Jewish feeling that it exudes?

Rosen and Kelman have an answer, as expressed in their article:
What does Jewish music sound like? It’s been a vexing question for millennia—at least since the Israelites wept by the Babylonian riverbanks with harps in hand. A half-century ago, the great German-Jewish musicologist Curt Sachs came up with a litmus test. Jewish music, he wrote, is music created “by Jews, as Jews, for Jews.” You know the stuff: liturgical melodies, Yiddish folk songs, Zionist anthems, your Bubbe’s favorite lullaby.
But think of the music Sachs leaves out. What do we do with George Gershwin and Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, with the songs belted out by Fanny Brice in the Ziegfeld Follies or Lou Reed at Max’s Kansas City—the whole messy sprawl of 20th-century American pop music history, which, from I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues to I’ve Gotta Be Me to (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!) has been inflected by the Jewish genius for passing and pastiche? And where, for that matter, does it leave Serge Gainsbourg, Israeli techno, Jonathan Richman, Yo La Tengo, or Ofra Haza? Or Hanukkah in Santa Monica?
So what's on the list and what's off the list?  Readers are already commenting that their favorites have been overlooked.  It seems that Rosen and Kelman have chosen a very controversial topic.  We're going to revisit this subject and the list between now and year-end to comment on some of their choices and omissions.

But let's get started with the number one song on the list.  It's not Hava Nagila (#2), Kol Nidre (#4) or Hatikva (#5), all respectable showings, but not first place.  So what's the number 1 song?  It's Over the Rainbow.  Here is their rationale for choosing it:
In 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote a strange, 259-page novel about a Kansas farm girl who travels to a magical land. Critics couldn’t help reading it as a Gilded Age political allegory, but Baum insisted it was simply a children’s fairytale. Thirty-nine years later, a movie mogul hired a pair of Tin Pan Alley pros—a cantor’s son from Buffalo and a Lower East Side lefty—to write a theme song for the novel’s film adaptation. The result was a grandly orchestrated echt-Hollywood ballad, crooned by the movie’s 16-year-old starlet to a little black doggie on a barnyard set filled with clucking chickens.

And it was the most beautiful Jewish exilic prayer ever set to music.

In formal terms, Over the Rainbow is flawless, lit up by Harold Arlen’s luscious chromaticism and startling octave leaps. Yip Harburg’s lyrics are a triumph of artful artlessness: “Somewhere over the rainbow/ Way up high/ There’s a land that I heard of/ Once in a lullaby.” Call that land Oz, if you’d like. Or call it Israel. (For that matter, call it Miami Beach or Shaker Heights or the Upper West Side.) Anyway you slice it, the story Over the Rainbow tells is the oldest Jewish story of them all: There’s no place like home.
If you agree or disagree with their choices, you can join the many readers in posting a comment on the Tablet website, or right here at Jewish Humor Central.

Here's a video of Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz.  Enjoy!


  1. Any "Greatest Jewish Songs" list that excludes either Carlebach, Chait, Brazil, Rotenberg, M Laufer, Green or MBD doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. It must have mention of at least 2 of those composers.

  2. I'm looking for tracks by The Flying Falashas. Please.