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Jewishness in Steve Reich's music

I wanted to share this article about a lecture I attended given by Steve Reich and his collaborator and wife Beryl Korot, on the Jewish influences in their work. The program was called “A Theater of Ideas: Exploring the Life and Legacy of Abraham through Video, Music, and the Spoken Word” Reich had not really worked with video until he met Ms. Korot, a pioneer in the field of video art. Their presentation described their joint work on a documentary video opera they made, "The Cave."

From the article:

For “The Cave,” Reich interviewed Christians, Jews, and Arabs about Machpelah. As he was recording those interviews, he wrote down melodies.

. . . While Mr. Reich’s Jewish identity was not yet fully awakened when he composed his earlier works, today he is a shomer Shabbat Jew. His piece “Tehillim,” created in 1981, “is arguably the first one in which he draws extensively from his Jewish background.” A later piece, “Daniel,” composed in memory of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was based on verses from the Book of Daniel.

“His [Jewish] literacy enables him to do so much more to instill his Jewish values into his music,” Mr. Marans said. “He is the first person to have gotten to this point – a proud, learned religious Jew who is using that to create his music.”

From the article, an interesting comparison between Reich and Schoenberg:

Pointing to the composer’s many accomplishments, Mr. Marans noted that Mr. Reich was a pioneer of minimalism, which started in the 1960s and ’70s. Breaking with the tradition embodied by such composers as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven – who based their music on the idea of a melody, and people harmonizing with that melody – Mr. Reich chose a different path, following in the footsteps of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Contemporary classical music does not necessarily provide “an easy listening experience,” Mr. Marans said, adding that while the old forms are still available, “if you’re doing that, you’re not as original as you can be. People are constantly adapting and changing things.”

For example, after learning music theory and harmony, “Schoenberg began to radicalize his understanding,” creating serialism, or patterns of melodies and rhythms in a self-contained series, Mr. Marans said. Toying with Schoenberg’s idea, Mr. Reich, who studied philosophy as an undergraduate and eventually moved on to study composition at Mills College, “also started to rethink how we envision composition.”

And on the Jewishness of Steve Reich's music: 

“Conceptually, Jewish music revolves around the idea that the artist is putting his Jewish self into his music,” Mr. Marans said. “Different Trains,” for example, incorporates Holocaust music. But it is not sad; instead, it tells a story, juxtaposing the composer’s own experience traveling on trains when he was young with the use of trains during the Holocaust.

More scholarship on Mendelssohn and his religion

It is interesting that the facts remain the same – the date of conversion, the family relationships surrounding Mendelssohn – but the interpretation of his feelings, his own identity, and his own actual beliefs are easily swayed one way or another. Since Mendelssohn himself wrote little about his beliefs, researchers can only infer from his actions, his music, and small hints here and there, such as the keeping of his grandfather's family name.

An article by Manfred Lehmann, of the Lehmann Foundation:

"In Felix's voluminous letters there is hardly a mention of Christianity. Felix was a Jew until 1816 when he was baptized at the age of 7, while his parents remained Jews until 1822 when they, too, were baptized. Felix was almost bar mitzvah age in that year."

"Besides his family, Felix Mendelssohn also socialized with the well-known Jewish banker, Salomon Heine, the uncle of the famous bard, Heinrich (Chayim) Heine—also a convert of convenience—who retained his Jewish consciousness very conspicuously throughout his poems. (When a childhood friend once asked Heine if he really believed in Jesus, he answered: "Have you ever met a Jew who has faith in another Jew?")"

Who is a Jew?

Found this article by Rabbi Michael Chernick interesting. He was a professor at Hebrew Union College, holds a doctorate from YU, and is based in Teaneck, New Jersey! This article in his blog at the Times of Israel addresses the Chief rabbinate and diaspora Jews, and the question: who is a Jew? His bio says he regards himself as a “Jew for all Jews.” :)

Full article:

"Since Orthodox rules are in force for Israelis who wish to marry, a person’s choice of spouse may be limited. For example, if a kohen wants to marry a convert or divorcee, he will find his way blocked. Such marriages are not permitted according to traditional Jewish law, which is what the Chief Rabbinate follows. The Rabbinate also maintains a database of who may or may not marry a fellow Jew for easy reference, should any of those people apply to the office for marriage."

"Essentially, such a monopoly implies that Israel recognizes Orthodox Judaism as the only legitimate form of Jewish religious expression. That being the case, the message delivered by Israel to Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews and their rabbis is that they practice a second-class form of Judaism, or perhaps no Judaism at all. Yet the majority of affiliated Jews in America belong to one or another of these movements."

Reform Jews in America

After the Pew Center's 2013 study of American Jewry, the Times of Israel published an interesting fact sheet about Reform Jews in America. I underwent a Reform conversion before my Orthodox conversion, and my husband is Jewish, so numbers about intermarriage and conversion tend to interest me. Here are some points I wanted to share:

One in three American Jews identifies as Reform; the movement constitutes America’s largest Jewish religious denomination.

Half of all married Reform Jews have non-Jewish spouses. The movement has moved away from discouraging intermarriage and has focused instead on welcoming intermarried families.

Every year, at least 800-900 people undergo Reform conversions to Judaism.

9 percent of all Reform Jews were raised as non-Jews.

About 10,000 campers attend the Reform movement’s 15 summer camps!

About half of new Reform rabbis are women! The gender breakdown of newly ordained Reform rabbis is about 50-50 these days, according to HUC. 

Read the article in the Times of Israel here: