To be a musician ‘is like being Jewish’

To be a musician ‘is like being Jewish’


norman lebrecht

March 02, 2015

The pensive pianist Stephen Hough never shrinks from expressing a provocative thought, even if it’s still in an embryonic form. This morning he has come up with a terrific idea. You are not Jewish until you live like a Jew, not Christian until you act like one, not a musician until ‘until the vibrations are excited, in the head or in the air or in the soul’.

Read Stephen’s blog here. I’ll join his next road show.

hough lebrecht


  • May says:

    What a rambling mess!?!

  • Martin says:

    Oy. I’m a Jew by choice, a musician and not entirely dim but I have no idea what he is talking about. Help.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    It sounds rather like confused morning murmurs from before having had coffee, by a by itself good musician. It might even be racism. The header ‘To be a musician ‘is like being Jewish’ does not make things better.

  • MacroV says:

    I think he means you’re a Jew, a Christian or a musician not because you label yourself as such but because you live by the precepts of each. Not that being a musician = being Jewish.

  • John Borstlap says:

    I thought that it was impossible to BECOME Jewish, you must be the offspring of Jewish parents, or at least from one Jewish parent. And is that not a bit racist? You cannot belong to the ‘chosen people’ if you are not chosen yourself. Is ‘being Jewish’ a notion of race or of religion or both? Is a non-religious Jew still a Jew? And as far as I know, the Jewish religion does not have missionary urges. It seems to me that the most a non-Jew can hope for, so to speak, is to become a ‘honorary Jew’ (as had once befallen to me).

    The high number of brilliant musicians from Jewish ethnic background, in relation to the total number of Jewish people in the world, which – according to Brian Magee – is ca. thirteen million, more or less the total population of Greater London, is something that calls for an explanation. And it does not seem likely that this explanation would be genetic or biological in nature, given 20C history. It may have something to do with the experience of pressure, bringing-out the best in talented people and burning away less important considerations.

    Hough’s tea excursions refer to British tea only, where black tea is burned to poison with boiling water and then diluted with milk to compensate for the side effects. Normal tea however, is indeed served with water at lower temperatures, so as to give the leaves the opportunity to shed their aroma calmly and majestically, and of course any milk is a desecration.

    • Matt Denerov says:

      I remember reading an article that claimed many Jews have an inherent strength in interpreting symbols. I.e. the ability to read quickly and retain the information. This would help in intellectual pursuits, including music. I am part Russian Jew, part Italian and Swiss Catholic (what a combination!). I have relatives who are 100% Jewish. Stereotypes abound in the different lines. The purely Jewish lines have quite a few doctors and lawyers, while my goyish branch tends to be more technical, including an automobile mechanic, a cartographer (me!), several engineers, and a chef. What you see in Jews’ success is mostly culture, which includes your ”bringing out the best”, though genes play a strong role too. I can say this based on my own observations of my family. Some traits are just too strong to not be genetic.

    • Shalom Rackovsky says:

      In the interest of promoting interfaith understanding (including atheism and agnosticism in the general category of religions) I’d like to correct some of John’s (no doubt well-intentioned) statements.

      1. It is absolutely possible to convert to Judaism. [I speak here, and in all that follows, of Orthodox Judaism, which is the flavor I adhere to and know about.] There is a well-established, millenia-old procedure for doing so.

      2. It is a central tenet of Judaism that one who converts according to that well-established procedure is considered to be Jewish in every particular, and there is an absolute, specifically and clearly enunciated prohibition in Jewish law against discriminating against a convert in any way whatsoever.

      3. John’s confusion may arise from the fact that it is not EASY to convert to Orthodox Judaism. Traditionally, conversion is actively discouraged, and those who express an interest in doing so find that the Rabbi(s) they consult set them on a long, deliberately tiring obstacle course before agreeing to actual conversion. This is because Jews traditionally feel that it is difficult enough observing the legal requirements of Orthodox Judaism when one is born into the faith, and that those who actually want to adopt these practices must prove beyond any doubt that they are really, really serious about it. Orthodox Judaism shares one thing in common with the Avada Kedavra curse- you have to MEAN it.

      4. You never have, and never will, meet a Jewish missionary. This is due to an important, under-appreciated, fundamental fact which distinguishes Judaism from most of the world’s other religions. Jews do NOT believe that those who are not Jewish are obligated to become Jewish, or that they will be better off in any way by doing so. Therefore, there is no reason to proselytize among them. (This has nothing to do with Jews being a “chosen people” who look down on others. In Orthodox Judaism, the “chosen-ness” is regarded as a heavy responsibility, not a reason to disdain others. I wish to specifically emphasize this idea, because it is so often misunderstood.)

      5. The speculation which John indulges in with respect to the prominent role of Jews in music has been put forward in similar terms with respect to science, medicine, business and finance, and various other fields. In athletics, not so much….

      • John Borstlap says:

        Very interesting…. Brian Magee says that all those brilliant people from Jewish background could spread their wings because of having left orthodoxy behind. With the conferring of civil rights to Jews at the beginning of the 19th century, they were no longer restricted to the ghettos, and could employ their cultural training in a wider context and thus, shedding their Judaism. What remains seems to be the genetic element. It seems that cultural conditioning gradually becomes encoded genetically.

  • James says:

    To reply to John Borstlap, although Judaism is not evangelical, you can become Jewish – it is quite difficult (at least to become an Orthodox Jew) and takes a couple of years but can be done. None of which I think is Stephen’s point, but may be of interest.

  • baron z says:

    Or perhaps he’s trying to say that Jews make the best musicians.

  • William Safford says:

    For those who didn’t read his musings (it’s an easy read), here’s a three-word summary: *walk the walk.*