Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs

And we have something to say back!

Print Email
(Tablet Magazine)

Last week, Jody Rosen, one of the two musicologists behind our list of the 100 greatest Jewish songs ever, answered some questions about the list. The ensuing conversation was so good that Ari Y. Kelman, the Rodgers to Rosen’s Hammerstein, decided to throw in his two cents. His response follows.

First off, as anyone who has ever loved or hated or heard a song knows: The argument about the song is part of the fun. Whether we’re talking about riots after the debut of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or riots during screenings of Blackboard Jungle (the opening credits rolled to Bill Haley and the Comets), the riots are the fun part. The list, as all lists are, is just pretext.

Omissions, Egregious and Otherwise
Yes, there are omissions. Jonathan Richman? Philip Glass? Louis Lewandowski? Aaron Copland? Safam (whom I always found to be too didactic)? Reb Shlomo? And, yes, we tended to focus on songs by Jews that evinces something of their Jewishness—yet it would have been brilliant to include Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” (frankly, I can’t believe we misssed that one). The truth is: There’s lots of stuff that is both good and weird enough to make the list, and maybe some of that stuff should have made the list. Let’s argue about that, too.

The Quality of The Songs
We included these songs because they’re great songs, but also because they highlight the complicated ways in which the Jewishness of Jewish music is constructed. Dismissing them as “crap” or as evidence for some weakening of the collective Jewish spirit doesn’t take them quite as seriously as they deserve. I’d happily argue that Phil Spector had a greater impact on Jews of the late 1960s than any of the great cantors (Sirota, Rosenblatt, etc.) or great Jewish composers (Mahler, Schoenberg, and so on).

The great thing about songs is that they find ways into our subconscious and our biographies, and the ways in which they gather meaning with listeners is as important as—if not more important than—what the songwriter meant by the song. What I mean to say is, “Pata Pata” had a bigger impact at my summer camp than Reb Shlomo did.

You and Your Ashkenazo-centrism.
You are 100 percent right: We wrote from a largely Ashkenazic perspective, and the list reflects that bias. I regret not accounting for the great traditions of Sephardic and Mizrahi music in this list, and we missed many of the great songs from these traditions. And, yes, there has been a strong resurgence of Sephardic music over the past decades, and we should have accounted for it. All of those critiques are right on; maybe we should have called this entry “The 100 Greatest Ashkenazi-ish Jewish songs.” That would have been more accurate.

But how much more accurate? “Adon Olam” doesn’t fit that bill, and neither does Ofra Haza, whose music came to me via hip-hop. Plus, as some commenters have noted, a few of these songs aren’t even “Jewish” anyhow. So maybe we ought to have called the piece “The 100 Greatest Jewish Songs with a Strong Ashkenazi Bias, But, Importantly, Including Lots of Songs That Problematize That Distinction.” But then what do you do with “Pata Pata” or Slim Gallard? So, maybe we should have called it “The 100 Greatest Jewish Songs with a Strong Ashkenazi Bias, But With Other Songs That Were Not Written For or About Jews, But Somehow Found an Audience Among Jews.” You see where this is going.

The idea here is not about authenticity or inauthenticity. It’s not about exhaustiveness or perfect representativeness. These lists are pretexts for discussion, argument, conversation. I do, seriously and certainly, regret the omission of songs from Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions, but my sense of the list is that it is here to be fought with and argued about, and to encourage perhaps even yet another list. You’re right to point out its boundaries, and I welcome the opportunity to keep the conversation going by compiling another list with other boundaries.

That’s part of the problem. It’s also part of the fun.

Related: Song of Songs
Earlier: You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Michael Krauss says:

Maybe the 500 best Jewish songs will fill in the gaps!!!?

And today’s debate will be over the number of items on the list…

modest music maven says:

The idea of a list ordered by a numbered rank implies some kind of serious criteria used by the list creators. You can’t disclaim away responsibility for such a list and its errors or omissions. A better and more modest idea would have been simply to list the items without rank, maybe with sub-categories and commentaries. What an idea for a book! (It has been done.)

I’ve read a lot of articles by knowledgeable music critics who were not merely being arbitrary ego-massagers listing their recommendations, and I’ve learned about a lot of good music because of them. I’ve always added my personal favorites omitted from the list into the margins and white spaces of the pages in the articles.

I’m with modest music maven on this. An un-ranked list would have been preferable, and made more sense. A ranked list contributes to the idea of “competitive” arts (just like the various awards shows) an idea that really has no place in the arts. One person’s dreck is another person’s delight.

Best-of music lists are completely subjective. Everyone can legitimately create one. The best thing that these published lists can do is provoke response and discussion.

Congratulations! Yours did.

RACHEL B says:

Thanks for your thoughtful response Ari.

It’s incredible how the concepts of identity in music can make the passions fire.

I got tons of conversation fodder from this list — it was well-written and provocative and edifying and often funny. Thank you, Ari (and Dan)!

I’m trying to figure out which Jonathan Richman song I’d include. (Not which song I’d EXCLUDE to make room for Jonathan. Like I want Tablet’s commenters to hate me MORE.) Roadrunner, because of its importance in the punk canon? or New England, b/c it is about him naming his own promised land? I don’t knoooooooow!

Popescu says:

As neither an adherent of Judaism nor a member of the Jewish people (two related but separate and distinct categories), I am somewhat hesitant about commenting on this issue, since the authors and the correspondents mostly seem to believe that if a Jew wrote it, plays it, sings it, reads it, listens to it, sells it, or is connected to it in any other way, it is a Jewish song and Jewish music. Ultimately, this means that almost anything and everything can be regarded as a Jewish music in some way, just as the Supreme Court uses the commerce clause to justify almost anything it wants (please forgive the reference to “commerce,” it was not intended in an antisemitic way). I think I like that idea, because then, as Pope John XXIII z.l. once say, we all become semites.

Jay A Friedman says:

Perhaps the criticisms resulted from your erroneous title — “100 … Jewish Songs”.

Had your article been entitled by “100 Greatest Songs Written and/or Performed By Jews”, the objections would have been minimal.

By claiming that these creations (as good and unique as they might be) are Jewish in nature evidences gross ignorance or enormous chutzpah (translation available.)


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs

And we have something to say back!

More on Tablet:

Obama: Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as a Jewish Homeland is Anti-Semitic

By Yair Rosenberg — The president draws a line in the sand in his latest interview