ABSTRACT

For those familiar with the public soundscape of diaspora Jewish music – klezmer, cantorial, modern Reform – it might come as a surprise to discover that today the most successful kind of contemporary American Jewish music is none of these, but rather, another, more hidden genre: Orthodox pop.1 Jewish listeners from outside the Orthodox community might call to mind a couple of hits that have traversed community boundaries: Mordechai Ben David’s dance hit Moshiach, or Yidden, his unlikely Yiddish reworking of Germany’s 1979 Eurovision entry. Yet for a transnational public of strictly observant Jews, MBD, Lipa, Schmeltzer, Shwekey, the Chevra, and Avraham Fried – among many others – are household names, commanding full-page magazine advertisements, performing to sold-out audiences at major venues, and filling the shelves of specialist music suppliers. As Mark Kligman observes in an informative history of the genre, the Orthodox pop industry

has its roots in popular recordings of Hasidic music made in the 1950s and 1960s, which were followed by a rise in newly composed Jewish religious music which helped to bridge the gap between traditional Hasidic music and contemporary American styles.2 The innovative work of Shlomo Carlebach, which melded the structures of Hasidic nigunim (spiritual melodies) with the musical language of folk rock, paved the way for today’s Orthodox pop. Later, the nigun structure of Carlebach’s music gave way to the verse-chorus structure of soft rock. Since then, most bands have followed the pattern of combining English language songs based on American pop formulae with other material, from older nigunim, to Hasidic hits of the mid-twentieth century, to newly composed pieces; styles are adapted from popular American genres from light rock to techno, often with relatively large orchestration and heavy use of synthesizers and effects. Recordings are primarily marketed in Orthodox-oriented bookshops and Judaica stores, and by specialist online retailers who often double as production companies. More important than musical features in defining this genre, however, is the overt self-

identification of this body of musical material with Jewish Orthodoxy. This is manifest both in its projection of religious norms and values, and its positioning by its makers and promoters as an object of expressive material culture marketed to a broad imagined Orthodox public.3