Tag Archives: Jewish Musicians

Jews of the Week: Idelsohn and Nathanson

Hava Nagila

Abraham Tzvi Idelsohn (1882-1938) was born in Latvia to a religious Jewish family. He studied to be a synagogue cantor. At 27, he made aliyah to Israel and worked as a musician and composer. In 1919, he opened a Jewish music school. A few years later, he left for Ohio where he served as professor of Jewish music at Hebrew Union College, the major seminary of Reform Judaism. Between 1914 and 1932 he published his ten-volume magnum opus, Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies. Many consider him “the father of Jewish musicology”. His most famous melody is undoubtedly ‘Hava Nagila’. In December of 1917, British army general Edmund Allenby defeated the Ottomans and conquered the Holy Land for Great Britain. The Jews of Israel were elated, and celebrated the general’s arrival in Jerusalem. They asked Idelsohn to compose a song for the special occasion. Idelsohn remembered an old happy tune he had adapted from a Hasidic niggun. The song was a hit. A few years later, he asked his music class to write words for the song.

A young Moshe Nathanson (1899-1981) was in that class, and wrote a couple of simple lines based on Scriptural verses from Psalm 118. The rest is history. Nathanson was born in Jerusalem, the son of a rabbi. In 1922 he moved to Canada and double-majored in law and music at McGill University. He ended up studying at what is now the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York. From there, he was hired to be the cantor of the first Reconstructionist Synagogue, and served in that role for the next 48 years. He wrote an important four-volume tome of liturgical songs. Nathanson also spent 10 years broadcasting Jewish music on American airwaves (“Voice of Jerusalem”) and dedicated much of his life to promoting Jewish folk music. Today, Nathanson’s and Idelsohn’s ‘Hava Nagila’ is the most recognizable Jewish/Hebrew song in the world, and a staple of every bar mitzvah and wedding. There is even a full-length documentary about it, called Hava Nagila (The Movie). This past year marked the song’s centennial anniversary.

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Words of the Week

One who cannot survive bad times cannot see good times.
– Hasidic proverb

General Allenby’s December 1917 proclamation to the people of Jerusalem.

Jew of the Week: Drake

Drake, in one of his music videos

Drake sporting a kippah and tallit in one of his music videos

Aubrey Drake Graham (b. 1986) was born in Toronto to a Jewish-Canadian mother and an African-American father from Tennessee. His parents divorced when he was 5 so Drake was raised by his mother in Toronto’s predominantly Jewish area of Forest Hills. It was in high school that Drake began to act, and at age 15 landed a role on the teen show Degrassi: The Next Generation, thanks to his friend’s father who was an agent. He appeared in 138 episodes until his character “graduated” off the show in 2009. Meanwhile, Drake was recording various rap mixtapes, one of which got in the hands of Lil Wayne, who later invited Drake to tour with him and record a few songs. In 2009, Drake released his third mixtape, So Far Gone, for free download on his blog. It would find huge success and was called the ‘Hottest Mixtape of 2009’ by MTV. Drake became only the second artist in history to have two of his songs in the Billboard top ten within the same week. Later in the year, he was finally signed to a major label. Since then, Drake has released three successful albums, working alongside Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rihanna, Eminem, Timbaland and many others, as well as writing songs for Dr. Dre, Jamie Foxx and Alicia Keys. He has won a Grammy and three Junos, and holds the record for having the most number-one singles of any rapper. Drake has also become famous for proudly displaying his Jewish and Torontonian roots, particularly in his videos. Most recently, Drake became the global ambassador for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and a consultant for their 20th anniversary re-branding.

Words of the Week

When one looks truly at the good side of everyone, others come to love him very naturally, and he does not need even a speck of flattery.
Rabbi Avraham Itzhak Kook