Radical Jewish Culture

"There is a life of tradition that does not merely consist of conservative preservation, the constant continuation of the spiritual and cultural possessions of a community. There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to tradition and to which much of what is best in current jewish consciousness is indebted, even where it was—and is—expressed outside the framework of orthodoxy." —Gershom Scholem

As the jewish people continue to grow into the 21st century, they carry their culture along with them. Tradition, history and the past have always played a strong role in the life of the jews but it is also important to think about the future. As we grow as a people, it seems natural that our culture should grow along with us. Just as jazz music has progressed from dixieland to free jazz and beyond in a few short decades, and classical music went from tonality to chromaticism, noise and back again, it has occurred to me that the same kind of growth should be possible—and is perhaps essential—for jewish music. Questions arose, as did the need to address them. The cds on the Radical Jewish Culture series is a first attempt at addressing some of these issues.

The series is an ongoing project. A challenge posed to adventurous musical thinkers. What is jewish music? What is its future? If asked to make a contribution to jewish culture, what would you do? Can jewish music exist without a connection to klezmer, cantorial or yiddish theatre? All of the cds on the tzadik RJC series address these issues through the vision and imagination of individual musical minds.

I do not and have never espoused the idea that any music a jew makes is jewish music, nor do I pretend to be the sole arbiter of what is jewish or what is not. There have been occasions when the jewish content of the music delivered has been unclear, or even non-existent. My role as executive producer in these instances has been to question the artist. If the answer is simply "I'm jewish—this is what I'm doing—that makes it jewish music"—the project is rejected, returned to the artist to do with as they wish. If they can articulate a well thought out response and their sincerity and honesty is clear and unquestionable—I go with it—even if I don’t entirely go with the program. Arguably, some projects have been more successful than others, but in retrospect all have been interesting, honest and worth repeated listening.

Sometimes the bone of contention is not the jewish content at all. This is, after all, the Radical Jewish Culture series. My commitment has always been to the experimental and the avant-garde. Tzadik does not release "all things jewish", and often I have had to reject projects on this basis as well, much to the consternation of the artist, who is told, perhaps for the first time in their life that the music is not out enough.

Much controversy and discussion has arisen over the Great Jewish Music series and on several occasions this has taken the form of a personal attack on me, my work, my sincerity and my integrity. Clearly the inclusion of music with no overt jewish content may seem out of place in a series dedicated to jewish music and it is very gratifying to experience the power the word (or the image) continues to exert on the human spirit. The operational word here is "music"—if I had titled the series Great Jewish Composers perhaps there would have been no further discussion.

It seems important to mention that the name Radical Jewish Culture was chosen with serious deliberation. There is little question that the contributions of Franz Kafka, Mark Rothko, Albert Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Lenny Bruce and Steven Spielberg have all been embraced as central to jewish culture in the 20th century. The logical question that arises is—is there jewish content in their work? Well, at times yes, at times no—and in using the term "great jewish music" I am raising that question—albeit a bit tongue-in-cheek, and not without a small tip of the hat to the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The Great Jewish Music series is as much about jewish contribution to world culture—Serge Gainsbourg in France, Jacob do Bandolim in Brasil, Sasha Argov in Israel—as about any exposition of jewish culture. If I had titled the series accordingly perhaps we all would have been spared much of the polemical discussions and arguments—and I might have been spared a few vituperative attacks. But as several good friends have said—"if people are still arguing over these issues after 15 years, you must be doing something right"—and I am content with that.


john zorn
nyc 2006