Rock Hashana: 10 Stars of the New Jewish Music

From country music to "kosher gospel," these acts aren't your bubbe's Jewish music

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American gospel singer and Hebrew teacher Joshua Nelson leads the Kosher Gospel Singers at a tribute to Mahalia Jackson at Central Park SummerStage on June 22, 2013, in New York City

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:

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Rick Recht

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.

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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.

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Stacy Beyer

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.

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The Maccabeats

“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.”

(MOREHow One Rapper Saw the Light and Moved to Ultra-Orthodox Judaism)

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Epichorus

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).

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Craig Taubman

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.

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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.

(MOREA Healthy Rosh Hashanah: A Sweet New Year, Without the Sugar)

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Dan Nichols

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.

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Michelle Citrin

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.”)

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Mikey Pauker

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.

27 comments
LarryBroome
LarryBroome

I love all these artists, but having a list like this without Beth Schafer and Julie Silver is bordering on blasphemous. I prefer meaningful versus kitsch in my Jewish music...prefer great lyrics, great vocals and amazing guitar work to fluffy.

Call me crazy...Happy New Year all...

DavidAbitbol
DavidAbitbol

I know and have seen many of these artists perform. Craig Taubman isn't just a consummate musician, but he is also a tireless community activist. Mikey Pauker is a great person and an excellent performer. Michelle Citrin has a large oeuvre beyond her viral hits, an oeuvre that is soulful more than it is kitschy. That having been said... I can list another 30 Jewish artists performing in multiple genres that merit similar attention. Furthermore, this list completely ignores Jewish artists who aren't based in North America, as if they don't exist! There's Simja Dujov from Argentina:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zp7eSO-W7lM


StuartSigman
StuartSigman

Great article - thanks for posting! One other group, maybe a bit off the beaten path, is Zion80. They play an amazing combination of Jewish music and Nigerian Afrobeat. You can see a great video here: http://youtu.be/fKyZAHzKob8

barbhwiseberg
barbhwiseberg

Great article reflecting the new generation of music - from the Orthodox to the secular.  

Beyond the traditions and customs, music that entertains, whether live or on a youtube clip, is key to developing and sustaining a Jewish identity, especially for our tweens, teens and young adults, who question their commitment to Judaism.  Kudos to all those on the list and many others who weren't on this "top 10", for continuing to entertain and inspire.

BurwellBrian
BurwellBrian

@TIME @APPropst How are these new groups affecting how often Jewish people attend religious functions and the demand for music?

sethjoseph
sethjoseph

There are several artists not included in this list that deserve merit and recognition. MOSHAV @moshavband, Todd Herzog @toddherzogmusic and Levi Robin @levi_robin are three such examples...

Jennuuhfer
Jennuuhfer

Great article! So amazing to see Mikey make this list--he is truly as eclectic and talented as mentioned! 

DavidAbitbol
DavidAbitbol

Or like a zillion artists from Israel like say Riff Cohen:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeMtEa5QhcA


Yeah. I know that particular song is in French, but what makes French any less Jewish than English? You want English? Here's an awesome Middle Eastern inflected Israeli cover of Karma Police from Israel:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7Xt4ObtKas


And this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface! There's an entire universe of edgy, interesting Jewish music out there that isn't based on some kind of weird URJ summer camp nostalgia, or some horrific, Glee-inspired, oddly homoerotic acapella music that never includes women in it... Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike the artists you featured. It's just that you did your readers a grand disservice by presenting this as a definitive list. It is not.

DavidAbitbol
DavidAbitbol

@barbhwiseberg Sorry, I disagree. If there's one thing we learned from the implosion of JDub Records is that Jewish music alone is not at all enough to sustain Jewish identity "for tweens, teens and young adults, who question their commitment to Judaism." I mean the music is nice but it's not enough, not by a country mile. Kids aren't stupid. They want, crave and need substance beyond otherwise lovely cultural manifestations of Judaism. You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Jewish music. In Poland, Klezmer Festivals are attended overwhelmingly by non-Jews. In Berlin, most of the people that are fans of Rotfront are not Jews. The people that flock to see Socalled at music Festivals in France are predominantly not Jewish. So... what manifestations of Judaism can we add to the mix that are exclusively Jewish? Hmmm... I wonder... therein lies the answer to Jewish commitment. It's a method that has worked very well for our people for 1000s of years. And did I mention how excellent Mikey Pauker is? And how can we not mention Diwon and the whole crew at http://www.shemspeed.com ?

APPropst
APPropst

@BurwellBrian @TIME this is creating a new market within the music industry however the competition could hurt other sectors.

HarryR
HarryR

@jewishrobot Not referring to all of them of course. Just most of them. Like the 1st one. 2nd. 3rd. 4th. 5th. Last one AWFUL.