Music Historian to Conclude Series at JCC

Original Article Published On The Jewish Ledger

It is not easy to define “Jewish music.” And it is even more difficult to define Jewish “religious” music.

Fortunately, Boston’s Robert Cohen, writer, lecturer and music historian, has been tackling questions of Jewish music for many years. He has just released a compilation CD of contemporary music, “Open the Gates: New American- Jewish Music for Prayer, Vol. 1.”

Cohen asks provocatively in the liner notes, “Jewish religious music that sounds like American folk or roots music rather than Eastern Europe, the Sephardic Mediterranean, or Israel? That owes more to Woody Guthrie or Judy Collins than to the great cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, more to Peter, Paul & Mary than to the synagogue choirs of the 19th and early 20th centuries.” Travel the country and visit synagogues and you will hear worship services which run the gamut – from the traditional to upbeat to folksy.

Cohen has been sharing his musical and historical expertise through a series of lectures on Jewish music at the JCC of Greater New Haven. The lectures are part of a year-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of Jewish Life in America.

Cohen’s first lecture, entitled “The American-Jewish Immigrant Experience in Song” addressed the issue of music as social l history. Cohen’s second lecture, was entitled “Jewish Music Into the Mainstream: Themes in Popular, Classical and Folk.” In this talk, Cohen noted, “Throughout the past century, American-Jewish composers and some non-Jewish musicians as well have infused mainstream musical forms and styles: from popular song and musical theater to folk, bluegrass and country and from classical and jazz to reggae and world music.”

Cohen’s final lecture at the JCC of Greater New Haven will take place on Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 7:30pm In “American-Jewish Music Comes of Age,” Cohen will lead the audience through an exhilarating range of styles, with a focus on Hassidic and American folk music, and consider the key sources and influences behind this musical renaissance.

Cohen is perhaps best known for the documentary he wrote for NPR, entitled “One People, Many Voices.” The documentary, broadcast on NPR, incorporated 100 pieces of contemporary music and was narrated by Theodore Bikel. The program is now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of TV and Radio in New York City. Cohen has also been a featured speaker on both Jewish music and American folk and popular music at the New York Council for the Humanities.

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