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“MUSIC, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional,” wrote the late Jewish brain scientist Oliver Sacks in his Musicophilia: Music and the Brain. “It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
For this reason alone, I have often wished that the Jewish Currents arts section could magically render melodies from its printed pages, just as links can do at our website. At least this year’s calendar comes close to doing just that: For every month of 2018 you will find wonderful visual artwork, poems, and prose, about music and the human spirit, and for nearly every day of the year you will find the birthday or yortsayt of a Jewish musician, composer, or musical entrepreneur. Popular song, jazz, classical, klezmer, rock and roll, folk, show tunes, blues, post-modern minimalism — it’s all here, in celebration of the fact that Jewish involvement in international music, especially American and European music, has been profoundly rich, productive, innovative, and progressive.
Yes, progressive. Whether it’s Benny Goodman bringing racially integrated bands onto segregated stages in the late 1930s; or Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney expressing the desperation of the Great Depression by writing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”; or Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert harmonizing with Pete Seeger and Lee Hays to pour insurgent folk music into America’s ears in the 1950s; or Lesley Gore singing the proto-feminist plaint, “You Don’t Own Me,” in 1963; or New York dairy farmer Max Yasgur welcoming half a million kids to his land at the 1969 Woodstock Festival; or Bob Dylan singing his amazing “Masters of War” at West Point in 1990; or Bette Midler’s AIDS activism since the epidemic began — many, many Jewish musicians have used music as a tool of political vision and consciousness-raising. All of them, moreover, have stirred us with delight and deep feelings, at one time or another — stirrings that are basic to our hopes and dreams for a better world.
There is also a dark side to the connection of Jews to music, and this, too, is reflected in this year’s calendar. The centuries-old exclusion of women from full participation in Jewish life was linked to the rabbinic teaching that women’s singing voices are too alluring to be heard in public. The role of Jews as entrepreneurs in American music has sometimes included rampant exploitation of black artists, women, and others. And Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps had their orchestras . . .
You’ll find, however, far more joy and pride than despair and remorse in this calendar. For as the wondrous Irving Berlin (aka Israel Beilin) wrote: “There may be teardrops to shed/ but while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance/ Let’s face the music and dance.”
—Lawrence Bush, editor
To purchase our art calendar ($12), click here.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.