The enduring popularity of Christian rock is hardly news: for years now, churches in the U.S. and elsewhere have been attracting worshippers with music performed in all kinds of non-liturgical forms, from rap to metal. Less well known, however, is the spread of new styles of Jewish religious music equally as varied. Whether they play folk-rock or gospel—yes, gospel—several artists have started mixing up the sounds of the synagogue.
Part of the reason those artists are so unexpected is that a single sound has long reigned supreme within temples, particularly those associated with the Reform Jewish movement in America. Starting in the 1970s, folky Debbie Friedman began setting prayers to new music and writing new songs with Jewish themes. Those songs spread; Friedman, who died in 2011, defined the sound of many peoples’ Jewish experience.
But sometimes, there’s a need for something new.
“It’s about staying fresh,” says Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel in Memphis, who is an advocate of bringing contemporary music into the synagogue. “The late 20th-century and early 21st-century, with regard to Jewish life in America, have been some of the most creative times for Jewish music.” Greenstein believes that while Debbie Friedman paved the way for today’s artists — in some cases quite directly, as many of them got started in the Reform summer camps where Friedman’s music has long been a staple — she would have been disappointed if her songs got stuck as the only acceptable modern Jewish music. He also believes that it’s important to preserve the traditional melodies of major prayers and the familiar sounds of the 1970s and to introduce new tunes. (And not just Matisyahu, the once-Hasidic rapper, who’s probably the best-known modern artist singing about Jewish themes.)
After all, to him, music isn’t just entertainment: it’s a tool. “The bottom line with Jewish music or any music, is only one question: is it any good? When you evaluate what makes Jewish music good, it’s partly a matter of taste — but it’s also a matter of impact,” says Greenstein. “Music is the language of prayer.”
Lucky for him, there are lots of artists trying to put new sounds to the old messages Greenstein wants to impart. So, in honor of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown tonight, here are our ten favorite new-fangled Jewish musicians:
Recht, seen here singing his take on the topic of the Israeli national anthem, is something of a granddaddy of the contemporary Jewish rock scene. He’s executive director of both Songleader Boot Camp, a training program designed to improve music participation in the Jewish community, and Jewish Rock Radio, an internet radio station that is what it sounds like.
Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Singers
Nelson, who was influenced by Mahalia Jackson, goes by the nickname “the prince of kosher gospel.” He’s given credit for the idea of combining two parts of his own heritage, African-American and Jewish, and creating a new style that combines Jewish meaning and gospel sounds.
Though she’s from New York originally, Beyer moved to Nashville and became a country singer…a country singer with an album called Must Be Chanukah.
“A capella” technically means “in the style of the church” — but the Maccabeats, who started as the a capella group at Yeshiva University, manage to combine a collegiate Pitch Perfect vibe (comedy sketches, harmonies, matching outfits, pop songs) with Jewish content. For example: their High Holy Days song, below, is a parody of OneRepublic’s “Good Life.”
Up-and-comers recently profiled in Tablet, Epichorus is a bit different from the groups that have grown out of the U.S. Reform movement. Though the group’s lyrics draw on the same religious texts, their musical influences range from the seminary (the oudist is a rabbi) to academia (the lead singer’s a Sudanese ethnomusicologist).
Taubman is a big deal in this world: he and his band Craig ‘N Co. have played at the White House and at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre.
The Josh Nelson Project
Another Josh(ua) Nelson, another take on modern Jewish music — this time, rock. He’s the music director for the biennial Union for Reform Judaism convention and started TheWarehouse, a group that aims to provide an “alternative” Sabbath for millennial Jews.
Nichols is the founder of the Jewish rock group Eighteen, and together they’ve put out several studio albums. Recently, he’s been working on a film called Road to Eden, for which the band toured the American South during the holiday of Sukkot.
Citrin is probably the most viral-friendly character in the contemporary Jewish music scene, though her material tends more toward kitsch than religion. You might have seen her pop up on your Facebook feed when she released the video “20 Things To Do With Matzah,” and she’s also got grooves for Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah. (She’s does secular stuff too, like the dance tune “Turn it On.”)
Pauker’s official bio lists a smorgasbord of influences: folk, electronica, pop, hip-hop and reggae all get shout-outs, not to mention Bon Iver, Imagine Dragons and the XX. Pauker has an album coming out this fall.