Like the Jewish people, Jewish music has its roots in the Middle East, but it cannot be limited to a geographic location. Jewish music has been greatly affected by the Diaspora and as a result, Jewish music is a cross-cultural phenomenon appropriate for a people who have wandered the face of the earth. There are three major classifications of Jewish music: Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Mizrahi.
Music of the Ashkenazim
A well-known Ashkenazic music genre is klezmer. The term derives from the Hebrew words klei zemer, or “instruments of song.” Klezmer music was popular among the Ashkenazim in Europe and was played by groups of itinerant musicians who went from village to village entertaining the local populace with folk songs and folk dance as well as traditional music, usually performed in Yiddish.
Following the Holocaust and the devastation of European Jewry, klezmer music almost passed into oblivion. However, in the last decades of the twentieth century, there has been a resurgence of interest in klezmer among Jews, particularly in the United States.
Sephardic and Mizrahi Music
Sephardic music, sung in Ladino, is associated with Sephardic Jews and therefore incorporates some of the melodies and rhythms of Mediterranean cultures. Mizrahi is the music of those Jews living in North Africa and Arab countries, so the lyrics are frequently in Arabic. Today, both these categories of Jewish music are referred to as Sephardic.
Secular and Religious
Jewish devotional music is present during religious services in the synagogue. In fact, each congregation has a cantor (chazzan in Hebrew), who leads the worshippers in chanting prayers. Religious music is not confined to the synagogue. On certain holidays, blessings and prayers are chanted at home. More observant Jews will chant blessings many times a day.
Secular music frequently takes place on special occasions such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, and communal gatherings. At these events, while there is plenty of singing, more reliance is placed on musical instruments. Secular music includes folk music and popular music such as klezmer.