20th-century developments, especially those after 1950, are characterized by many innovations in American Jewish musical content and liturgical performing practice. All have been influenced by three watershed historical events: the culmination, around 1920, of the mass migration of central European Jews to the USA; the annihilation of most of the remaining European Jewish community by 1945 in the Holocaust; and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. One important outcome was a renewed emphasis upon Hebrew language worship pronounced in a Sephardi style; another was the institutionalization of American Jewish religious musical life by three denominations, including the founding in 1947 of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College, New York (Reform), the Cantor's Institute in 1951 at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), and the Cantorial Training Institute in 1954 at Yeshiva University, New York (Orthodox). Cantorial schools provided settings in which liturgical continuity and purposeful change subsequently interacted, ranging from a shift from the German to the east European tradition following World War II (Schleifer, 1995, p.62) to the introduction of the female cantor in the 1970s. The professionalization of the cantorate, the emergence of the cantor-scholar and the open discussion of musical values and change at annual meetings and in sectarian publications have served to reposition much of the debate about musical innovation and change, extending it to the musical practitioners themselves, as well as rabbinical circles. At the same time, widespread interest remains in cantorial singing and its repertory, a tradition that has its roots in the ‘Golden Age’ of cantorial performances and recordings of the first half of the 20th century (Schleifer, 1995, pp.66–7).
Pluralism in American religious life has encouraged diversity in the American Jewish community, leading to multiple streams of Jewish musical tradition, most of which are centred in synagogues that serve both religious and social needs. Musical practice in the Reform Movement has been deeply influenced by the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, which brought openly experimental performing practices, including dance, into many synagogues (Shelemay, 1987). The compositions of Jeff Klepper and Debbie Friedman have gained an enthusiastic following, and through their accessibility, have spurred an increase in congregational singing. While many Reform (and some Conservative) synagogues continue to use a choir accompanied by an organ to perform the liturgy, the number of new art music compositions, as well as the special occasions on which they are performed (such as the annual Friday Evening Liturgical Music Service mounted by the Park Avenue Synagogue of New York City), appear to have declined since 1980.
Innovations have also taken place in more traditional quarters. The Havurah, usually considered a ‘traditionalizing trend’ shaped by the 1960s counter culture, is credited with inventing a practice of using traditional chants for Torah cantillation with English texts (Weissler, pp.2, 17). While the value placed upon the maintenance of tradition has limited large-scale liturgical and musical innovation in the Orthodox domain, the popular music of Israel and the USA has had a major impact on various Orthodox and hasidic practices. Many techniques are used to refresh the liturgy, such as the Syrian Jewish practice of improvising melodies in the Arabic maqāmāt. American synagogues have continued the time-tested practice of incorporating familiar secular or popular melodies into their liturgies. A prominent source of borrowings from the late 20th-century onwards has been Israeli folksongs, such as ‘Jerusalem of Gold’, which is widely used to set the qaddish prayer in American synagogues of all denominations. Similarly, a wide array of American musical forms provide rich resources for liturgical contrafacta, allowing melodies to cross boundaries in unexpected ways. Lubavitcher Hasidim have used the melody from a popular soft-drink commercial to compose a new nigun, while Syrian Jews have adapted American show tunes and patriotic songs for paraliturgical and liturgical use. Many American synagogues stage elaborate Holy Day rituals with colourful musical content, such as the integration of popular American tunes into the Simhat Torah observance at the Tremont Avenue Shul in Boston.
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