Restoring the Synagogue Soundtrack: Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth Century America. By Judah M. Cohen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. [318 p., 42 b&w illus. ISBN 978-0-253-04021-3. $25]
Many topics in music history are strewn with prejudice and received wisdom. Jewish music, especially nineteenth-century Jewish music that lies outside the perceived central-European 'mainstream', is a clear example of such a topic. Judah M. Cohen's new book succeeds in transcending received wisdom and sketches a convincing and, in many ways, pioneering narrative. To test the freshness of the narrative, one needs only to count Cohen's references to Abraham Z. Idelsohn's Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (New York: Holt, 1929)--four fleeting mentions in the main text, (excluding the Introduction and Conclusion). Idelsohn's absence from a book on nineteenth-century Jewish music has been almost inconceivable until recently, and Cohen earned this independence after having critically studied Idelsohn's legacy ('Rewriting the Grand Narrative of Jewish Music: Abraham Z. Idelsohn in the United States', The Jewish Quarterly Review 100, no. 3 : 417-453).
While the focus of the study is on a chain of pathbreaking tune books that were published along the second half of the nineteenth century, the bulk of primary sources consists of newspaper reports, letters, and contracts. The book is, therefore, useful not only for musicologists, but also to historians, historians of American Jewry, historians of religion, as well as for those who seek to understand some of the undercurrents in contemporary American-Jewish culture.
Cohen's book follows seven 'scenes' in the...