My Search for Meaningful Mainstream Jewish Music
There is nothing I adore more than the exhilarating rush of hearing an exquisite song for the first time. I curate weekly playlists for my school’s online newspaper, constantly send song recommendations to my loved ones, and have 147 personal playlists on Spotify. I am happy to listen to any track suggested to me, thus expanding my repertoire of genres exponentially throughout the years. A dose of reggae as I get ready for the day puts me in a good mood, house music gets me through my classes, hip-hop is the background track to my showers, jazz accompanies my homework, and classical is for long naps on airplanes.
Much of my open-mindedness to music comes from my family. Growing up, a day did not go by when we wouldn’t hear tapping piano keys or the resounding boom of a trumpet coming from my brother’s room. Going to services every Saturday morning solidified my emotional connection to many of the familiar tunes that floated through the synagogue, and I still often catch myself with a random prayer stuck in my head when I am stressed out. Judaism’s oldest text, the Torah, also has a unique connection to music; a corresponding symbol near each phrase signifies how one should chant it, called trope, often creating melodic passages of Jewish history.
However, while I can bop to a prayer in the right setting, my playlists have a dismal lack of casual music that I can that reflects my Judaism. There is no “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé for Jewish people, marking an inconsistency in how parts of my identity are represented in song. Because of this, my journey to find mainstream music in English about Jewish people has been a treacherous and bothersome one. I won’t write off the few Jewish artists I know as completely irrelevant, because Drake and Billy Joel are icons in their own right, but one must admit— no part of “Papi’s Home” or “Uptown Girl” screams “Jewish values.”
The absence of casual Jewish music becomes most apparent when the winter holidays roll around. While I can recite hundreds of Christmas carols by heart, the only thing the majority of my classmates know about Jewish culture are dreidels and chocolate coins. In my earlier years, this bothered me profusely, as students at my public elementary school were required to sing dozens of Christmas songs for the annual winter concert. When I cried, wondering if I was betraying my Judaism, the music teacher harshly reprimanded me and said that “Jingle Bells” was not a Christmas song. At the heart of my frustrations was not an internal religious conflict, but annoyance at having to stand up for my representation without knowing all the right words yet.
Luckily, my dreams of variety in Jewish songs are not completely hopeless, because my hunt has led me to find a few musicians that are fighting the same representation battle as I am. I first heard “Miriam’s Song” by Debbie Friedman at my Jewish summer camp, toeing the line between folk music and prayer. Released in 1989, it tells the story of Miriam the prophetess who took a tambourine and led the women in a dance to celebrate crossing the Red Sea. Even on my first listen, I could hear how Miriam encapsulates the joy of being a Jewish woman, as Friedman describes her as “a woman touched with spirit”, and I felt prouder than ever to be a woman like that, too. Despite only having around 300K viewers or listeners on any platform, the amount I have been recommended “Miriam’s Song” through my Jewish youth group, fellowship, and synagogue feels like a bridge towards the Jewish music I have been seeking out.
While I love to find music like “Miriam’s Song” in Jewish spaces, my main dream is for future Jewish children living in the United States to feel represented by mainstream media like the rest of their peers. Thus, a moment of excitement came during the winter of 2020, when I stumbled upon "8NIGHTS" by Dafna. “8NIGHTS” is a whimsical love song about lighting the candles with a sweet friend, and captured the sparkling light of the first night of Hanukkah perfectly. Deep into quarantine on my first listen, the solitude had dampened some of the magic of Hanukkah— I wasn’t able to share the sizzling latkes with my friends, nor light the menorah with my whole family. “8NIGHTS” was relatable, charming, and a brilliant replacement for the monotonous tones of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel”, transporting me to a normal year, full of laughter and Jewish cheer. While “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” should remain a classic (and I can’t force every elementary school to play “8NIGHTS” at their winter concerts), I am so grateful that my music search has helped me feel more represented as a Jewish teenager in America during the winter. Now, I listen to it every holiday season, and it serves as a reminder that hope can come from unusual places— besides being a musical refuge in quarantine, re-listening to “8NIGHTS” makes me more optimistic that the Jewish music I’m looking to fill up my 147 playlists is within reach.
While these songs are a start, I still wish I had enough material to do a real review on all the songs about Jewish people on the Billboard Hot 100. As I continue on my search, I maintain hope that I will stumble upon more songs that celebrate Judaism, because it feels remarkably wonderful to feel heard by what you hear.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.