Is your music really kosher?

Is your music really kosher?


norman lebrecht

January 21, 2010

I was sitting in an Indian restaurant the other evening managing a family birthday when an ooze of canned botulism smacked my eardrums and I summoned a waiter for edification. What I heard was not to be dignified with the noun ‘sound’. It was a conflation of Beatles songs and one or two Abbas played on a synthesiser that seemed to have been set on penny-whistle mode.

‘What the-?’ I demanded.

‘It’s the rabbis,’ said the waiter, by way of apology.

‘How the-?’ I exploded.

‘When they gave us a kosher licence, they forbade us to play Indian music because it might have women singing,’ he explained. ‘They said we could only play the discs they permitted. I’m so sorry, we can’t change it.’

Now I’ve been in the writing game long enough to know never to get into a fight with men in black coats, but this is the first time they have strayed onto my musical patch and I am – you may take this literally as you like – damned if I’m going to let organised religion take over the function of music production and criticism.

What’s more, if the best the rabbis can do as DJs is stamp their seals on pre-masticated Beatles, I will definitely book my afterlife in the nether regions. Heavens above! You mean to tell me Paradise is going to be some kind of Sartrean Huis Clos where I am confined for all eternity with musical nullity? Get me outa there.

I was on the verge of sending the nice young waiter a little light Webern for the amusement of his rabbinic supervisors when one of our birthday party pointed me to a link that suggests the kosher blight is spreading. According to, a Charedi insider website, rabbis in Jerusalem have been issuing edicts as to what is permissible in music, and what not.

In future, apparently, instrumentation will need to be ‘respectful’ of the words, percussion should be used sparingly, the saxophone is ‘indecent’ and any ‘misbalance (sic) between rhythm and melody creates negative feelings’. You can tell these guys have been through a crash course in Schenkerian analysis.

The new rules apply, for the moment, only to producers who need a rabbinic seal on releases of Jewish music, but it won’t be long before we’ll all be checking our record collections to see if they are kosher enough to keep in the house. Rhapsody in Blue? Indecent. Mendelssohn violin concerto? Blatant apostasy. Mahler 9? Disrespectful. Frank Sinatra? Neil Sedaka? Stephen Sondheim – downright negative, at the very least.

Go on – you try. Be holier than I. Ban some music. Let’s keep our records kosher. 


  • jeremy rosen says:

    Brilliant as ever. Thank you. Its getting exponentially worse. And we scorn the Taliban!
    Didnt some Jewish novellist we know say Monotheistic Monogamic and Monochromatic?????

  • peet says:

    It has always been thus. I have no experience with rabbis, but my own faith had quite a few problems with the development of the major third, among other musical apostacies. And, as I remember, Glenn Gould was politely requested not to play any Bach (!?) when he performed for the Pope.
    NL replies: I love the notion of the Pope’s faith being shaken by Gould playing Bach. Tim Page, is this so?

  • Jeffrey says:

    The restaurant owners certainly have the right to not be kosher if they don’t want to comply with the rabbis’ guidelines (which I agree are overly stringent) and you have the right to dine elsewhere if you don’t like the music.
    …And the rabbis have the right to say, “If you want our seal of approval, you must do things of which we approve.”
    No one’s forcing anyone to do anything here.
    NL replies: Not so. The restraurant owner is being forced to apply a precedent-setting interpretation of Jewish law and perhaps being pushed into insolvency by the customers who are driven away. Coercion, here, is the name of the game.

  • Bruce says:

    C’mon fellas. Think “win-win.” Is stupid music the only thing out there that doesn’t have female vocalists? I almost want to think, NL, that you’re in cahoots with the whole misguided doctrine by elevating premasticated Beatles to the straw man of “all we can do without women singers.”
    I personally think that there’s something amiss with women leading all men in times of worship behind the closed doors of house of worship. And probably I could have a debate with the Men in Black about where to draw the line. But you seem to be upset about religious convictions having any spillover at all into the rest of life. I assure you, America is in no danger of being too observant.
    NL replies: I’m amused, Bruce, not upset. The absurd is always amusing, even when it cuts close to home.

  • Tom Putnam says:

    At KlezKamp in December, the new-music improviser Marilyn Lerner played a solo piano improv that contained nary a Jewish note. The music was what I think is called “out there,” having risk and reference, and leaving the listener satisfied: something happened that was new and welcoming. There were no kosher police to intervene. Lerner’s performance was part of a concert that elsewhere was full of Jewish notes, and wonderful Jewish notes. As for music in restaurants, it should not be tolerated, whatever its genre; in that regard we have become sheep (and I really have no idea if a sheep is kosher).
    NL replies: What do you mean by ‘a Jewish note’? I’m curious to know – and to hear the lerner show.

  • RFS says:

    So, nu, you don’t really think there’s only one kind of Jew, do you?
    Depending on whether a rabbi and his congregation is old-school orthodox, modern orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist; whether they are from Eastern or Western Europe or the southern Mediterranean, Australia, Kenya, or Brazil, there will always be subtle and not-so-subtle “variations” on a Jewish theme. The point?
    If the spiritual leader mentioned in the posting rules out songs sung by women, it’s because of how that leader and congregation has chosen to interpret religious law and practices.
    The Torah says nothing about what makes music kosher (or light beer for that matter!!!) Followers of one rabbinic tradition can choose what establishments they wish to frequent. And, of course, they can set up their own establishments with their rules.
    If you don’t like their restrictions, don’t take their money. If they don’t like the way you do business, they’re free to visit elsewhere.
    Shalom, y’all!

  • Jonathan C says:

    I understand and share your indignation at this growing trend, but I also like Bruce’s “win-win” solution for this particular situation. Not only is there a tonne of instrumental classical music they could use, but there’s even plenty of genuine ethnic Indian instrumental music available. I can’t help wondering if your waiter wasn’t just passing the buck. And I’m quite certain none of those rabbis would object to the Bach – he was a great rabbi wasn’t he? Regards from Netivot.
    NL replies: Bach – as you know, Jonathan – was a close contemporary of the Baal Shem Tov, which may offend rabbis of some persuasions.

  • Richard says:

    I don’t think the Rabbis would care much for J.S.s’ cantatas, Passions or the b minor Mass. But then again, Evangelical, Fundamentalist Christians don’t care for them much either.