Inspired in part by all the Jewish artists on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs, the Forward decided it was time to rank the best Jewish pop songs of all time. You can find the whole list and accompanying essays here.
After Rolling Stone magazine published its list of the 500 Greatest Albums last September, we started asking ourselves what are the greatest Jewish songs of the rock era? We began drawing up lists of our own, but soon realized that were we to be serious about it, this was a task that required input from a larger cohort. We then sent out invitations to a couple dozen writers, musicians, and writer/musicians, asking them to share their lists and thoughts about their favorite rock songs that address Jewish culture, ideas, themes, history, or religion.
We got back from them an astonishing list of 300 songs in all, as diverse as the contributors themselves, not all of whom are Jewish – at least we don’t think so; we didn’t ask. We then culled the replies down to a somewhat manageable list of 150, with annotations and links. We could easily have populated the entire list with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs, so many of which touch on Jewishness that entire books have been written about them, so we tried to limit those entries in the spirit of inclusiveness.
About a dozen contributors chose to delve more in-depth in the form of short essays on songs and related topics. We have no doubt that for every song included in our list some readers will have alternative choices. Others will quibble with some of our selections. So be it; this is all in fun. What follows is our list of the 150 Greatest Jewish Pop Songs of All Time.
Contributors:Peter Aaron (PA), Jackson Arn, Steven Lee Beeber (SLB), Scott Benarde (SB), Doug Brod (DB), Michael Eck (ME), Dan Epstein (DE), Mira Fox (MF), Jennifer Gilmore (JG), PJ Grisar (PJ), Howard Fishman, Jon Karp (JK), Harold Lepidus (HL), Alan Light (AL), Gary Lucas (GL), Julie Potash Slavin aka Hesta Prynn, Ira Robbins (IR), Wayne Robins (WR), Nathan Salsburg (NS), Ed Siegel (ES), Jim Sullivan (JS), Rob Tannenbaum (RT)
WARNING BEFORE YOU CLICK:
Some of the songs linked here include explicit lyrics, terms and imagery that some might find offensive or disturbing, and graphic references to the Holocaust.
Intentionally or not, Bob Dylan pretty much invents rock ‘n’ roll midrash with this 1965 hit, a “slapstick retelling” of the Akeidah — the binding of Isaac. It opens with the line, “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’,” to which “Abe” (which happens to be Dylan’s father’s name) replies, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.” Extra points for the Borscht Belt humor, and more extra points for accompaniment by Jewish guitar slinger Michael Bloomfield and keyboardist Al Kooper. — AL
The title song of Leonard Cohen’s final album in 2016 features backing by the choir from his childhood synagogue in Montreal, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, and an authentic khazonish solo by Cantor Gideon Zelermyer. It includes a line from the Kaddish — “Magnified and sanctified be thy holy name” — and a quotation from Avraham Avinu in the original biblical Hebrew — “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord.” The song was released on Cohen’s 82nd birthday. He died 19 days later. He was ready. — WR
No, this is not an ode to the hipster trend of inking every inch of flesh. Rather, the tattoo in question is one of the dehumanizing elements of the Holocaust. In this story of a young woman at Auschwitz, Janis Ian sings, “Centuries live in her eyes / Destiny laughs over jack-booted thighs / ‘Work makes us free’ says the sign / Nothing leaves here alive.”
A soulful Holocaust remembrance with an unlikely country beat. — ES
Psychedelic guitar wunderkind Randy California — born Randy Wolfe — solemnly intones the first line of Psalm 133 (aka “Hinei Ma Tov”) in Hebrew before letting loose with an ecstatic flurry of velvet fuzz over his band’s jazzy 6/4 groove. Just to title a rock song “Jewish” in 1968 was a provocative statement. — JK and DE
A searing rap statement on the Holocaust by Remedy (born Ross Filler aka Reuven Ben Menachem), the first non-Black and only Jew affiliated with the epochal hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan. Introduced with the familiar words of the Kiddush blessing over wine (in pointedly Ashkenazic pronunciation), the narration then descends into a Dantesque tour of genocidal horrors. Some listeners may flinch at the politics (“The final solution is now retribution,” “Never again shall we march like sheep to the slaughter”), but this is a tour de force performance and striking statement of American post-Holocaust Jewish sensibility in popular song. — JK
As Jenny Singer noted in these pages, when the Haim sisters sing: “The tears behind your dark sunglasses / The fears inside your heart as deep as gashes / You walk beside me, not behind me,” they appear to be riffing on the lyrics to “Lo Yisa Goy,” the perennial anti-war anthem heard at Jewish summer camps throughout North America. There’s also the off chance that they’re drawing from Camus or the Police’s ode to a pervy teacher, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” Given the sisters’ quite explicit Jewishness, the Hebrew tune is a more likely source of inspiration. — PJ
A midrashic rewriting of the story of Samson told from Delilah’s point of view and chock-full of biblical references, by this Russian-Jewish singer-songwriter, whose family left the USSR for the Bronx when Regina Spektor was nine years old. — MF
How did a song written by a west coast hip-hop group, a Catholic pop star and a French DJ become a Jewish dance tune second in popularity only to the hora? Read Julie Potash Slavin’s accompanying essay to find out.
How one cheesy 2009 pop song became the most massive Bar Mitzvah hit of all time
On its surface, “Eternal Flame,” is a harmony-laden power ballad about everlasting love that the Bangles rode to the top of the charts in 1989. The title, however — according to cowriter Billy Steinberg — refers to the ner tamid (eternal flame) that burns above the ark in every synagogue. As a child learning about the different aspects of his synagogue, Steinberg was fascinated by the concept of an eternal flame and jotted it in a notebook he calls his “Wonderment File.” Years later, he would rediscover the phrase and turn it into a pop hit. — SB
In which Jill Sobule asks that essential question: “Would you have hidden me in your attic … or pack me on that awful train?”
In 1967, Lou Reed extolled the high he got from junk in the Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” in which he sang, “Heroin, be the death of me / Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life.” About 30 years later, Reed changed his tune in this nostalgic reverie about the simple pleasures of the egg creams of yesteryear, replete with recipe: “When I was a young man, no bigger than this / A chocolate egg cream was not to be missed / Some U-Bet’s chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk / You stir it up into a heady fro, tasted just like silk.”
This haunting track, penned by Human Sexual Response lead vocalist Larry Bangor, is the final cut on the new wave band’s 1980 debut, “Fig.14.” Bangor, who is not Jewish, told the Forward that he grew up reading Anne Frank’s diary and she became “an iconic presence” in his mind. “I was pretty affected by her story and what she lived through.” The band recorded the track in Boston’s historic Cyclorama, which lacked proper soundproofing. “Just at the very end we could hear a siren going by,” says Bangor. “We thought it would ruin the take, but given the nature of the song, it was perfect.”
In a four-and-a-half minute Rolling Stones-ish rocker, Bob Dylan recounts the story of the Jewish people in a manner leading inevitably toward an unrepentant Zionism. “The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land / He’s wandered the earth an exiled man / Seen his family scattered, people hounded and torn / He’s always on trial for just being born.”
Growing up surrounded by liturgy, Leonard Cohen often fondly recalled the awesome power of his shul’s cantor and the ritual of the High Holidays. He was seldom more explicit about this influence than in this song, which pulls directly from the piyyut “Unetanneh Tokef.” — PJ
An acoustic blues number by the late, great guitarist Michael Bloomfield (perhaps best-known as a favorite Bob Dylan sideman) may be the quintessential Jewish pride song. It starts out with a laugh and ends with a thunderclap of defiance: “I’m glad I’m Jewish, I’m glad I’m Jewish / Hebrew to the bone / It kept me strong all my life…” — SB
Though far more comfortable singing goofy lyrics about mental illness than political commentary, Joey Ramone was so disgusted by Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to the military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany — and the President’s remarks that the soldiers buried there, including members of the S.S., were victims just like those who died in Nazi death camps — that he felt compelled to pen this uncharacteristically angry missive: “You’re a politician / Don’t become one of Hitler’s children / Bonzo goes to Bitburg, then goes out for a cup of tea.” — DE
“And the man upstairs I hope that he cares / If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire / We’re just 3 M.C.s and we’re on the go / Shadrach, Meshach, Abednago.”
On their landmark 1989 album, “Paul’s Boutique,” the Beastie Boys — Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz —liken themselves to three Jews from the Book of Daniel — Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago — who, when thrown into a fiery furnace for failing to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar II, dance in the flames, protected from harm by God. Whether the song is a Holocaust allusion or a statement of pride in the face of accusations of cultural appropriation (“Music for all and not just one people”), it’s deeply Jewish. — SLB
Neil Diamond’s evocative 1968 ode to his working-class Jewish upbringing is a compelling mixture of warm nostalgia and unresolved emotional trauma and remains one of the best things he ever wrote. — DE Read Dan Epstein’s accompanying essay.
How Neil Diamond’s most personal song chronicled his journey out of Brooklyn
Think what you will about her stance on Israel (and keep in mind that she campaigned for Bernie Sanders for president), dance-pop singer Dua Lipa apparently had the Bible on her mind when she was putting together the songs for her eponymous debut. The album kicks off, appropriately, with a song titled “Genesis,” whose first line is, “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth.” A few tracks later comes “Garden,” a retelling of the first couple of chapters of Genesis as a love story, replete with burgeoning self-consciousness, embarrassment, and nudity, and probably accurate to how Adam and Eve felt. — MF
“Honor Them All” is a hidden jewel from Janis Ian’s 1997 album, “Hunger.” Although Ian admits she didn’t have the Fifth Commandment in mind when she wrote it, it’s hard not to see the song as an exhortation to abide by it: “Honor your mother / Honor your father / Honor yourself above all / Honor the gifts you bring one another / Each time you rise or you fall / Honor them all.” — SB
In which the singer recounts a nightmarish ride in a taxi, where the driver reveals himself to be an avid neo-Nazi.
As a kid, Randy Newman took a train trip with his mother from Los Angeles to New Orleans aka “the land of dreams.” In this 1988 mid-tempo ballad that sends up assimilation, Newman — whose family name was originally Nemorofsky — sings, “Her brothers and sisters came down from Jackson, Mississippi / In a great green Hudson driven by a Gentile they knew / Drinkin’ rye whiskey from a flask in the back seat / Tryin’ to do like the Gentiles do / Christ, they wanted to be Gentiles, too / Who wouldn’t down there, wouldn’t you?” — JS
In which Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart sings, “One mad man, six million lose / Down in Dachau blues,” accompanied by appropriately mad, discordant electric guitar noise. Read Gary Lucas’ accompanying essay.
A ‘Dachau’ song so shocking and transformative, there’s nothing else like it
The title gives us three cities that weave a complicated tale of Diaspora, death and Jewish return, complete with a New York Jew’s sometime ambivalence toward the Jewish state. “A hundred years or more / It feels like such a dream / An endless conversation since 1917,” Koenig sings, which, as Jenny Singer noted in her full Jewish debrief on “Father of the Bride,” is the date of the Balfour Declaration. Koenig laments the “Wicked World” in which he, a Jew, always loses, when “all I want is to win.” In the end, his decision is to remove himself from the situation and its dynamics while hoping history is not repeated — either in Jerusalem, New York or Berlin. “Let them win the battle,” Koenig offers, “But don’t let them restart / That genocidal feeling / That beats in every heart.” — PJ
Always one for blurring biblical time and contemporary references, Leonard Cohen used a poetic retelling of the Akeidah in this 1969 song to condemn those who would so blithely send their offspring off to fight an unjust and unpopular war: “You who build these altars, to sacrifice these children / You must not do it anymore.” — PJ
Granted, David Bowie’s Kabbalistic education owed more to Aleister Crowley than to Gershom Scholem, but “Station to Station” remains one of the very few songs by a major rock star to reference elements of the sefirot, the vessels of divine energy — “from Kether to Malkhut” — sung in the original Hebrew.
The fiery reggae-rocker “All You Zombies” by the Hooters brims with biblical references: Moses, Noah, the Golden Calf, the Ten Commandments, the Israelites. Band co-founders Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman, both Jewish, who cowrote what became the band’s signature song despite it not being a hit single, have long said they didn’t really know what it was about, but agree that, “It took two Jewish guys to write it.” Read Scott Benarde’s accompanying essay.
In 1985, they wrote the granddaddy of all Bible story songs
A young warrior in training is given some rules: “First rule is: The laws of Germany / Second rule is: Be nice to mommy / Third rule is: Don’t talk to commies / Fourth rule is: Eat kosher salamis.” Joey Ramone grew up as Jeffrey Hyman in Forest Hills, Queens, and eventually became the emblematic punk rocker from the most essential punk-rock band in the world. Read Steven Lee Beeber’s accompanying essay.
How a dysfunctional New York punk band personified the postwar Jewish struggle
On the Dictators’ landmark 1975 debut album, “Go Girl Crazy!,” these predominantly Jewish, New York City-based punk progenitors wasted no time declaring their Hebraic heritage: “The Next Big Thing,” the album’s hard-rocking leadoff track, features the brilliant couplet, “I knocked ‘em dead in Dallas, I didn’t pay my dues / Yeah, I knocked ‘em dead in Dallas, they didn’t know we were Jews.” — DE
Not only does Mick Jagger drop Yiddish into this 1978 Top 40 hit dissection of New York City — he even gets the historical geography correct when he sings, “Shmatta, shmatta, shmatta, I can’t give it away on Seventh Avenue.”
Inspired by famous Jewish songwriter King Solomon and a chapter of his book “Koheles” (aka “Ecclesiastes”), Pete Seeger first assembled the lyrics and recorded a version before the Byrds applied their jingle-jangle folk-rock magic, turning these ancient words of wisdom into a hit single that went all the way to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1965. The message: Life as we know it is cyclical. — JS
On Paul Simon’s criminally underrated 1983 solo album “Hearts and Bones,” the title track directly addresses his Jewish heritage in the somewhat comic, somewhat cryptic opening line, “One and one-half wandering Jews,” a reference to himself and his then-wife, Carrie Fisher, daughter of non-Jewish actress Debbie Reynolds and Jewish actor Eddie Fisher. Hence the “half.” — HL
In which Lou Reed reveals himself to be a one-man Anti-Defamation League, calling out former Nazi and United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, Jesse “Hymietown” Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and even the Pope.
The psychedelic prog-rock outfit Electric Prunes followed up their “Mass in F Minor” concept album with 1968’s “Release of an Oath,” whose opening track, a version of “Kol Nidre,” is replete with English translation of the declaration preemptively nullifying all vows. Absolutely one of the most bizarre moments in Jewish rock history.
Presumably folk singer-songwriter Tom Paxton had in mind the traditional gospel tune “This Train (Is Bound for Glory)” when he penned the line “This train is bound for Auschwitz,” in a song that pulls no punches and vividly describes the journey from boxcar to death camp to gas chamber. So much for “glory.”
Leonard Cohen never found the “secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord,” but after a decade or so, he did manage to find a vast audience for this majestic 1984 composition, which also includes references to Samson, Delilah and Bathsheba — and which has since been covered by hundreds of other artists and even translated into Yiddish. — DE
How Jewish is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah?’ A Forward investigation in 9 verses
In which Marc Cohn finds common ground between Jews and the victims of Hurricane Katrina: “The chosen ones are walking through the new desert / All the way uptown to Riverside / The faces of the fathers / They look a lot like mine … Today they have all been forgiven / Washed clean before another year begins…” — SB
What’s this peppy novelty song by Good for the Jews (co-written by Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum, a well-known music journalist and contributor to this feature) about? The title pretty much spells it out: persecution and celebration throughout the ages, set to a jaunty melody with comic lyrics referencing a Pharoah who looked like Yul Brynner, Madonna gone Jewish, Jews who sing Christmas music, Hitler, “Schindler’s List” and so much more. — JS
One of Randy Newman’s greatest satirical numbers, wherein no one is spared: Lester Maddox, Dick Cavett, and “some smart-ass New York Jew.” Read the accompanying essay by Howard Fishman.
Audacious and transgressive, Randy Newman’s satire of bigotry still has the power to shock and awe
The late Chuck E. Weiss will always be best known as the inspiration for Rickie Lee Jones’ 1979 hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love.” In 1999, Weiss, much influenced by his friend, Tom Waits, wrote “Rockin’ in the Kibbitz Room,” a gruff-voiced tribute to the Tuesday Night Jam Session at the Kibitz Room, the small nightclub inside the fabled Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. “Have a matzah ball if you want to,” sings Weiss, “or maybe have some cabbage soup / You’ll be sittin’ ’round diggin’ all that rock ‘n’ roll music and hangin’ with those hepcat Jews.” — SB
Recounting a bar fight between the Jewish narrator and a racist “redneck nerd,” Kinky Friedman sings, “No, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore / We don’t turn the other cheek the way we done before.” — IR
Most hard-rock Jews (e.g., David Lee Roth, Gene Simmons) don’t really address their heritage directly in their music. Rush bassist/singer Geddy Lee (born Gary Lee Weinrib) is the son of Holocaust survivors, and drummer Neil Peart, the group’s primary lyricist, based this song on stories Lee told about his parents’ experiences: “Ragged lines of ragged gray / Skeletons, they shuffle away / Shouting guards and smoking guns / Will cut down the unlucky ones.” — AL
“Springtime for Hitler” in punk-land, this seemingly happy-go-lucky tune bops with Holocaust-induced shpilkes. — SLB
This Texas trio still looked more like cowboys than Hasidic Jews back in 1975 when this rocking paean to the pursuit of callipygian delights reached #20 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their pronunciation was a little off, and Billy Gibbons always claimed that the word was also southern slang for “deluxe,” but “Tush” nonetheless remains an extreme rarity: a classic rock hit with a Yiddish-derived title. — DE
In what is ostensibly a satirical take on the religious ban against Western music in post-1979 Iran, the partly-Jewish English punks of the Clash paint a portrait of Middle East peace symbolized by a Hasidic Jew and a kaffiyeh-bedecked Arab dancing their way through the song’s video, even though “Sharif don’t like it, he thinks it’s not kosher.” — DB
A cri de coeur lamenting white supremacy has plenty of Jewish musical precedent to begin with. But Ezra Koenig and his crew went above and beyond, identifying the specific stigma neo-Nazis and their precursors pin on Jews and Koenig’s own deep, ancestral memory. “Beneath these velvet gloves I hide / The shameful, crooked hands of a moneylender,” Koenig sings, a jarring line in a jaunty radio-ready hit, “‘cause I still remember.” — PJ
Warren Zevon, whose father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant, did not write particularly Jewish-themed songs, but here he kicks off one of his foreign intrigue numbers in a nuclear-armed Middle East where “Israel’s attacking the Iraqis.” When he comes around to singing about Syrian guns being trained on the Israeli capital, he pauses for a solemnly drawn-out, prayer-like, “Oh, Jerusalem,” seemingly hinting at where his loyalties lie. — JS
Jay Black, who died this year, may not have made it through yeshiva, but he was keenly aware of his Jewishness, going so far as to devote a 1966 B-side to this song, sung in Yiddish and then in English as a tribute to family lost to the Shoah. His plaintive voice is unmistakable, his nigunim impeccable and — no surprise given it was his first language — his Yiddish is perfect. That Black’s label agreed to print a song in Yiddish for an English-speaking crowd tells you all you need to know about the power of his performance. — PJ
“Way on the other side of the Hudson, deep in the bosom of suburbia….” To launch a pop song with that scene-setting description is pure genius. And the rest more than lives up to this promising start. Dean Friedman details a date between the singer and a girl he spotted one day at the Paramus Park shopping mall, “collecting quarters in a paper cup” for the socialist radio station WBAI. Ariel is a post-Sixties hippie and a free spirit; while he dresses up in his best blue jeans, she wears “a peasant blouse with nothing underneath.” He greets her with “Hi” and she responds with, “Yeah, I guess I am.” Following a bout of the munchies, the evening climaxes, literally, as they make love in front of the TV “to bombs bursting in air” (in the days when stations signed off at night with the “Star Spangled Banner”). A fantasy? For sure, but it’s made more affecting when we discover that “She was a Jewish girl; I fell in love with her.” Ariel offered by the standards of the day an adoring and appreciative, if objectified, image of Jewish femininity. — JK
Written while Leonard Cohen toured Israel during the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, “Lover, Lover, Lover” reads as a primal plea for Jewish renewal. It is a pantheistic reinterpretation of the Hebraic tradition along Canaanite lines, whereby the supplicant seeks to cleanse himself of the “fear and filth and cowardice and shame” of millennial Jewish exile and reconcile with his estranged divine lover in “a spirit that is calm.” Anything but calm, “Lover” is as joyous, even ecstatic a performance as the monotonal Cohen could pull off, and it sounds like nothing he or anyone else ever recorded. — JK
In this swinging three-minute tootle, Lou Reed imagines trading in life as a middle-class nebbish for becoming a Black Panther with “a big prick” and “a stable of foxy little whores,” while using his newfound might to “f—k up the Jews.” He rhymes “jism” with “natural rhythm” and expresses envy for Martin Luther King Jr., 10 years after his murder. Too soon? Reed seems to be having some ironic sport with Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” essay, which prompted James Baldwin to observe that for white men, African-American men are “walking phallic symbols.” — RT
Joan Baez’s hit song “Donna, Donna” began life as “Dana Dana,” also known as “Dos Kelbl,” or “The Calf,” written by Sholom Sekunda and Aaron Zeitlin for the Yiddish musical theater. Later on, Sekunda translated the song into English, along the way changing the title to “Dona Dona.” In the mid-1950s, Arthur Kevess and Teddi Schwartz retranslated the song into English, and it was their version—now spelled “Donna Donna” but still pronounced with a long “o” — that Baez included on her eponymous debut album. The song, about a calf being led to slaughter, became a staple of Baez’s concerts and entered the canon of folk-protest (and summer-camp) songs of the 1960s.
For his second album with the Modern Lovers, circa 1976, Jonathan Richman went back to his roots: camp-fire singalongs, nonsense songs about abominable snowmen in the market, Martian Martians, and heartfelt paeans to Boston’s Lonely Financial Zone. In “New England,” the one-time kibbutznik looks back nostalgically on his stint in the Promised Land: “I have seen old Israel’s arid plain / It’s magnificent, but so’s Maine.” — GL
Written in the wake of the Yom Kippur war, “Silent Eyes” could well be Paul Simon’s most Jewish song. It is manifestly about longing and weeping for Jerusalem in prayerlike phrases — “She is sorrow, sorrow / She burns like a flame / And she calls my name.” And it envisions a time when all will be called to account — “We shall all be called as witnesses / Each and every one / To stand before the eyes of God / And speak what was done.” It isn’t too much of a stretch to wonder if the Jerusalem of the song is a stand-in for the Jewish people. With its central image of “silent eyes,” its latent subject could be the Holocaust.
Madonna engaged the services of Yitzhak Sinwani of the Kabbalah Centre to help get across her most Jewish song, replete with Aramaic lyrics based on a Yemenite poem, a cantorial-style improvisation, English lyrics (“Open up my heart / ‘Cause my lips to speak / Bring the heavens and the stars down to earth for me”) inspired by Psalms 19:15, and a verse inspired by Jacob’s dream of wrestling with angels (“Wrestle with your darkness / Angels call your name / Can you hear what they are saying / Will you ever be the same?”). She gives Sinwani the last word when he intones, “The gates of heaven are always open.”
Vampire Weekend’s third album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” is full of references to Jewish thought. This catchy single has a chorus that goes: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only ‘I am that I am’,” a reference to G-d’s reply to Moses (“Ehyeh asher ehyeh”) when the latter asks G-d’s name. Jews don’t say the name either, even if they knew it. That is why they say “Hashem” or “Ya Hey.” — WR
On its surface, the theme song from “New York, New York” is the unofficial anthem of the unofficial capital of Jewish America, writes Jackson Arn in his accompanying essay, but scratch the surface and you might find Maimonides peeking out at you.
Is the most popular song about New York really a stealth Jewish anthem?
This song from Bob Dylan’s 1989 album “Oh Mercy” is not just a litany of things that are broken (e.g., lines, strings, threads, springs, bottles, plates, switches, gates). Rather, it refers to the concept from Lurianic Kabbalah, whereby the tzimtzum of Creation resulted in shattered vessels of divinity sprinkled throughout the universe. This is where the process of tikkun olam – repairing a broken world – begins.
The highly literate English rock singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock (Soft Boys, Egyptians) lived on a kibbutz as a youth, and he toured Israel as recently as February 2020. “Cynthia Mask” kicks off his fourth solo album, 1990’s “Eye.” The song’s second verse reveals his strong identification with the tribe: “Chamberlain came crawling from Munich / With one piece of paper / He waved at the camera / Peace in our time / Oh thank you Herr Hitler / Tell that to the Polish / Tell that to the Jews.” — HL
Elvis Costello originally intended for his third album to be called “Emotional Fascism,” but his record label put the kibosh on it, instead titling it “Armed Forces.” The song “Goon Squad” is a vestige of the original concept, as Costello sings from the point of view of a young man beset by a group of Nazi-like characters: “You must find the proper place for everything you see / But you’ll never get to make a lampshade out of me.” — HL
On this song from Leonard Cohen’s 1992 masterpiece, “The Future,” Cohen sings, “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” The couplet is an allusion to the Creation story of Lurianic Kabbalah, wherein shards of Divine light, the klippot, or broken vessels, fall to the Earth, spilling over from the contraction of God’s energy, the tzimtzum, into Himself.
Somehow, and for some reason, Don McLean, the troubadour behind “American Pie,” followed up that hit with a song called “Dreidel.” With lyrics like “I feel like a spinning top or a dreidel / The spinning don’t stop when you leave the cradle / You just slow down,” it’s no “Ma’oz Tzur.” It’s barely “I Have a Little Dreidel.” But it is the rare Hanukkah-adjacent song from a Gentile and, for that, it deserves a spot on this list. — PJ
Without getting into the whole Rastafarian-Jewish relationship, consider this reggae classic by the Melodians, from the soundtrack to “The Harder They Come,” which incorporates words from Psalm 137 — “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down / Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion” — and Psalms 19:14 — “Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart / Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight” — set to a lovely groove, guaranteeing that I forever sing the wrong melody in Rosh Hashanah services. — AL
On his 1975 album “Rock Around the Bunker,” French pop provocateur Serge Gainsbourg took “Springtime for Hitler” and ran with it, creating an entire concept album mocking Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The bouncy boogie-woogie of “Yellow Star” contrasts with darkly humorous musings on the identifying patch that he was forced to wear as a Jewish child in Vichy France. “Difficult for a Jew, the law of struggle for life,” he shrugs, smiling inwardly at the irony of having outlived Hitler by three decades. See also “Nazi Rock” and “Rock Around the Bunker.” — DE
Though he’s mostly remembered these days for his ripping 1962 rendition of “Misirlou,” Dick Dale — aka “The King of Surf Guitar” — was one of the most exciting and influential guitarists who ever plugged into an amp. And his double-picked, reverb-soaked 1963 take on “Hava Nagila” is unquestionably the most badass version of the classic folk song ever committed to vinyl. — DE
Forget Jimi Hendrix. Bob Dylan’s original, acoustic version of “All Along the Watchtower” is much more haunting and chilling, as it recounts an ominous scene with imagery lifted from Isaiah 21:4-9, wherein the watchmen spy a pair of horseman (“two riders were approaching”) galloping toward them, calling out like a lion (“a wildcat did growl”) to announce the fall of Babylon.
One of Metallica’s greatest songs, this standout track from 1984’s thrash-tastic “Ride the Lightning” album features numerous references to the Plagues of Egypt as recounted in the Book of Exodus. The song’s title came from bassist Cliff Burton, who reportedly exclaimed, “Whoa — it’s like creeping death!” while watching the 10th and final plague do its firstborn-killing thing in “The Ten Commandments.” Made all the more sweet by the fact that guitarist Kirk Hammett originally wrote the music to the middle section while he was a member of a band called Exodus. — DE
Since he debuted this song on a 1994 “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live,” comedian Adam Sandler has been having fun updating this seasonal confection intended to instill Jewish pride in children feeling alienated during Christmas. “When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree / Here’s a list of people who are Jewish just like you and me / David Lee Roth lights the menorah / So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas, and the late Dinah Shore-ah.” — ES
While living on Coney Island’s Mermaid Avenue, Woody Guthrie spent plenty of time with his children’s bubbe, his wife Marjorie Mazia’s mother — Yiddish poet and songwriter Aliza Greenblatt — from whom Guthrie soaked up Jewish history and culture. He wound up leaving behind a cache of Jewish-themed song lyrics that his daughter Nora Guthrie wound up giving to the Klezmatics, who won a Grammy Award for their settings of Guthrie’s lyrics on the 2006 album “Wonder Wheel,” which included this song recounting the story of Moses and the burning bush. — ME
Sometimes you have to read between the lines to detect the Jewish traces in American popular music. In this case, the lines were all written by American Jews — musically, by the stellar Brill Building composers Barry Mann and Mike Stoller and lyrically, by their respective songwriting partners Cynthia Weill and Jerry Leiber. The title was borrowed from the 1958 best-seller by the Charlotte, North Carolina, Jewish journalist Harry Golden, which lampooned both Southern segregation and Northern liberal hypocrisy. Like Golden, Weill employed the expression “Only in America” ironically to expose the fake promise of equality as it pertained to Black Americans. Finding this approach too controversial for 1963 pop radio, Leiber remade the lyric as a paean to unlimited possibility in America, “land of opportunity.” His twist was that the song would be performed by the great African-American vocal group, the Drifters, thereby transforming it into a subtle deconstruction of American Dream mythology. Yet even this move proved unpalatable to Atlantic Records president Jerry Wexler, so the song wound up sung straight by Jay and the Americans, an all-Jewish vocal group. As the lyrics patriotically proclaimed, “only in America” could a “kid without a cent … maybe grow up to be president.” And surely a Jew would become president long before an African-American. Right? — JK
Capturing Lou Reed at his most cynical and misanthropic: “You can’t depend on the goodly hearted / The goodly hearted made lampshades and soap.”
Ofra Haza, Israel’s all-time greatest pop singer – whose music transcended borders, reaching throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. – included this Holocaust-themed song, with lyrics in English (“Endless nights, tortured days, trains of no return”) and Hebrew, on her 1992 album “Kirya,” which was produced by Don Was (born Don Fagenson) and garnered her a Grammy Award in the “Best World Music Album” category, the only Israeli singer to have as yet attained such recognition.
English journeyman singer-songwriter, musician and producer Martin Page — who has worked with everyone from Earth, Wind & Fire to Bernie Taupin to Robbie Robertson, and who wrote the music for the Starship hit “We Built This City” (now you know who to blame) — wrote this touching song from the point of view of a death-camp survivor looking back on the horrors of the Holocaust: “Tears in her pillow, she tightens her lips / Touches the number tattooed on her wrist / The sign says ‘Treblinka,’ again she can’t breathe / For all of these children she’ll always see.”
Don’t be fooled by the lovely Central European cabaret-style melody. When Leonard Cohen sings, “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,” he’s talking about the string quartet that serenaded Jews at Auschwitz on their way to the gas chambers.
Jewish references abound throughout the songs of indie-rock group Say Anything, the nom-du-bande for singer-songwriter Max Bemis, who once had a modest hit with a song called “Shiksa (Girlfriend)” and whose sixth album is called “Hebrews.” The song “Alive with the Glory of Love” might seem tasteless on its face, until you learn that it is based on the true story of Bemis’s Holocaust survivor grandparents, who, according to the song, made it through the war riding on the power of their love and lust (and, undoubtedly, with more than a little good luck).
While this Paul Simon song seems to question any religious belief at all — “How can you be a Christian? / How can you be a Jew? / How can you be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu?” — it is filled with Jewish imagery. Simon refers to the Sabbath — “Everyone hears an inner voice / A day at the end of the week / To wonder and rejoice.” He discusses Jewish prohibitions and customs — “How can you tattoo your body? / Why do you cover your head?” And in the final verse, he seems to park himself solidly in the tradition of his ancestors — “I’ve been given all I wanted / Only three generations off the boat / I have harvested and I have planted / I am wearing my father’s old coat.” Spoken like the true grandson of a tailor.
In this 1964 song, Bob Dylan portrays the end days that will usher in the Messianic era. The scene culminates with imagery borrowed from the books of Exodus and Samuel: “And like Pharaoh’s tribe / They’ll be drownded in the tide / And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.” — ES
Hip-hop star Drake addresses his Jewish upbringing on any number of songs, including “Still Drake,” in which he raps, “I was born to do it, born to make bomb music / I flow tight like I was born Jewish / Well, actually I was born Jewish / I guess at this point you could say I was born foolish.” Drake has the last laugh.
Following a visit to Israel in 1966 and the subsequent outbreak of the Six-Day War, Pete Townshend began work on “Rael,” a song cycle loosely based on Israel’s struggle to survive despite being massively outnumbered by its enemies. It was going to be the first rock opera. “Rael” — short for “Israel” — got sidetracked, partly due to the demands of the Who’s record company for faster delivery of more hit singles, and the project was consigned to the shelf. The only song that has surfaced from that project is the title track, which appears on the late 1967 album, “The Who Sell Out.” Its lyrics hint at what Townshend was aiming for, as well as revealing his deep empathy for the Jewish people: “Rael, the home of my religion / To me the center of the Earth…. My heritage is threatened / My roots are torn and cornered / And so to do my best I’ll homeward sail.”
For two decades indie-rock avatars Yo La Tengo have been performing eight-night residencies at nightclubs in the Metro New York region to correspond with the eight nights of Hanukkah. While they farmed out the writing of this bossa nova-inflected Hanukkah song to their friend Sam Elwitt, they give it their indelible musical imprint while paying tribute to the miracle of light: “They’re alive and the window’s aglow / Teasing shadows with nowhere to go.”
Released the day after he turned 80 in 2014, this highlight from Leonard Cohen’s “Popular Problems” album paints the sort of dark, gloomy portrait of the world for which he became famous. In what could be a reference to the Shoah, the song opens, “I saw some people starving / There was murder, there was rape / Their villages were burning / They were trying to escape.” It only gets more depressing, although Cohen leavens the bleakness with a bit of black humor: “There’s torture, and there’s killing / And there’s all my bad reviews.” Toward the end of the song, he brings it all back home: “Though I let my heart get frozen / To keep away the rot / My father says I’m chosen / My mother says I’m not / I listened to their story / Of the gypsies and the Jews / It was good, it wasn’t boring / It was almost like the blues.” — HL
A crunchy 52-year-old love-gone-wrong song from Steppenwolf, heavy metal pioneers whose ratty leather biker image held strong sway over later (partly) Jewish rockers Blue Oyster Cult. Thematically, the number casts an eye at Moses and his peoples’ time in the desert — significant in that East Prussian-born singer John Kay escaped the Nazis, along with his mother, at age five, and lived for a number of years in both the Soviet and British occupation zones before emigrating to Toronto. — ME
Armed with a piano, a pleasant voice and an endless well of ingenuity and barbed wit, MIT math professor Tom Lehrer (who is still among us at 93) became the 1960s leading musical satirist, with pointed songs about organized religion, the nuclear threat, pornography, war, folk singers, education and celebrity politicians. In this wry number, he undercuts the good intentions of a national can’t-we-all-get-along campaign with a bracing dose of reality: “Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics / And the Catholics hate the Protestants / And the Hindus hate the Muslims / And everybody hates the Jews.” — IR
“The Sound of Silence” is a song about prophecy. It begins with visions implanted in the singer’s brain. His eyes are stabbed by the flash of a neon light, revealing 10,000 people, maybe more — a number often used in the Bible for an army — seemingly unable to speak or hear or communicate in any way. The singer grows enraged, calling the people fools for refusing to listen to him. Instead, they bow and pray to a Golden Calf-like neon god they made. But then a sign flashes out a warning: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” Will the people listen now? — MF
Five Jewish studio musicians from New York City, including the legendary Al Kooper, combined forces for a brief time in the mid-1960s to form the incredibly influential Blues Project. This garage-band hit of theirs was based on a soul-gospel tune of indeterminate origin. But its thematic origin might surprise a casual listener. Read Wayne Robins’ accompanying essay.
How a Jewish song with gospel roots became a 1960s garage band standard
This terribly underrated and overlooked alt-rock supergroup, featuring members and associates of groups including R.E.M., Dream Syndicate, Young Fresh Fellows and Hindu Love Gods, writes songs exclusively about America’s favorite pastime. On “Long Before My Time,” Steve Wynn pays tribute to Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, who became a Jewish hero when he sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Singer-songwriter Dan Bern’s family history is drenched in the tragedy of the Shoah. In this number, Bern turns his sardonic wit – which for a while had him performing under the moniker “Dan Bern & the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy” – to the stark contrast between his life in America and that of his ancestors murdered by Germans: “I saw my dad tell jokes, and teach me how to laugh / Thirty years after his parents, brothers, and sister were all shot / Murdered in the streets of Lithuania.”
On their second album, Sparks, the Los Angeles art-rock band led by Ron and Russell Mael, wryly imagined an awkward social occasion: a young Jew takes his German girlfriend to meet his parents. “Bring her home and the folks look ill / My word, they can’t forget, they never will / They can hear the storm troops on our lawn when I show her in / And the Fuehrer is alive and well in our paneled den.” — IR
Time magazine’s best song of the 20th century was written by a Jewish communist poet, Abel Meeropol, about the lynchings of African-American. As Harold Heft recounted in these pages, an earlier short poem Meeropol wrote, “I Am a Jew,” made explicit the connections he felt between the two groups: “I am a Jew / How can I tell? / The Negro lynched / Reminds me well / I am a Jew.” — ES
“Are you one of the chosen few / who will march in the procession.” Robbie Robertson’s lyrics for this beloved gem from the Band’s masterful third album, “Stage Fright,” essay a Faustian/Robert Johnson-at-the-crossroads parable that serves as a metaphor for, as Levon Helm explained it, “selling your soul for music.” The song’s titular character, whose handle is Hebrew for “God is my judge,” is that of the hero of the Book of Daniel. — PA
How many songs, especially from the MTV era, open with the blowing of a shofar? Well, this calypso-tinged classic—ostensibly inspired by the biblical tale of Jonah—is one of them. — ME
In her accompanying essay, Jennifer Gilmore explores the relationship between Lou Reed and poet Delmore Schwartz, whom Reed refers to here as “the Wandering Jew.”
The second time Lou Reed paid homage to his Jewish mentor
A remarkably heartfelt song from a couple of Jewish wiseasses — one Jewish (Donald Fagen), one “honorary” (Walter Becker) — who were never known for their emotional directness, this track from 1975’s “Katy Lied” is the plea of a survivor who finds himself with no choice but to seek a new life in another city or country. “Any World” could certainly be the theme song of any immigrant of any nationality or religion, but it feels especially pertinent to the Jewish experience. — DE
War is best known for its unique blend of Latin, funk, jazz and R&B, mirroring its multi-ethnic, multiracial lineup, which included Lee Oskar, the Danish-born son of a Holocaust survivor (a topic he addresses on his new solo album, “Never Forget”). Oskar deserves credit for the concept behind the album and title track to “The World Is a Ghetto,” with its refrain, “Don’t you know that it’s true / That for me and for you / The world is a ghetto.” Be sure to check out the brand-new remake of the song by trumpeter/composer Frank London of the Grammy Award-winning band The Klezmatics.
Is this epic number from Bob Dylan’s widely hailed 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” album a divorce song? A vitriolic, vengeful tirade of invective? A grand statement about the lost promise of America in the age of Watergate? In his accompanying essay, Seth Rogovoy suggests its true meaning might be found in a verse from the Talmud.
In Bob Dylan’s mysterious 1975 masterpiece, is he referencing the Talmud?
Though L.A.’s 1980s hair metal scene featured a remarkably high percentage of Jews, you wouldn’t have known it from the songs. It wasn’t until 2014’s “L.A. Deli,” comedian Nick Kroll’s satirical salute to Canter’s, Langer’s and other City of Angels delicatessens — “Where the pastrami’s pilin’ high / While you’re comin’ down” — that we finally got the Jewish hair-metal anthem we deserved. — DE
The “Monster Mash” of the 21st century, “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” began life as a short-but-ingenious “30 Rock” joke, which somehow managed to lampoon Michael Jackson, the Black Eyed Peas and holiday novelty songs in just eight seconds. But it proved so popular that Morgan (assisted by pre-Childish Gambino Donald Glover) went back into the studio to record a full-length version that built hilariously on the original “Boys becoming men / Men becoming wolves” concept. — DE
Sounding not unlike a clarinet-led Ventures, this instrumental by the world-punk collective led by former Cop Shoot Cop captain Tod Ashley melds rambunctious klezmer to West African rhythms for the perfect soundtrack to a Bukowskian pub crawl through Tel Aviv. — DB
Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear exhorts us repeatedly, “Do you remember the Days of Slavery?” Well, do you? Probably not, but this reggae song will tickle something profoundly deep in the Jewish collective unconscious. — GL
This fiery instrumental shuffle from Barry Goldberg’s 1969 album “Two Jews Blues” — legendary guitarist Mike Bloomfield is the other member of the tribe on the album, though record company politics prevented him from being credited — pays homage to the once-vibrant outdoor Chicago market. It was here that Chicago-style electric blues was born, when Jewish merchants encouraged Black musicians to play in front (and plug into the power sockets) of their shops. — DE
From the band Paul Weller formed after disbanding the Jam, “Ghosts of Dachau” was a B-side to their 1984 U.K. single, “Shout to the Top!” Lines like “Come to me angel, don’t go to the showers / Beg, steal or borrow, now there’s nothing left to take” were inspired by Polish author Tadeusz Borowski’s book, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” which chronicled his experiences in Dachau and Auschwitz. The song’s final verse, “Stay with me angel, don’t get lost in history / Don’t let all we suffered lose its meaning in the dark that we call memory,” honors Borowski’s accomplishment and, by association, what Weller did with this song. — HL
The piano-pounding architect of 1950s rock and roll, Richard Penniman aka Little Richard was, for a time, an ordained Baptist and Pentecostal minister. He temporarily eschewed rock ‘n’ roll for a completely religious oeuvre, something one of his admirers, Bob Dylan, would do in the late 1970s. After his time in the ministry, Penniman recorded this track in 1967, although when he sings “Thou shall not love no other one but me,” he seems to be speaking of himself and not quoting Torah. Richard later became an observant Jew, having converted apparently with the encouragement of Dylan himself. — HL
No song quite captures the spirit of the Festival of Lights like “Ha Ha Hanukah,” the theme song from the masked Chicago punk rockers’ 1997 cable-access TV comedy/variety special of the same name. Over ringing guitar chords and a driving beat, Goblins frontman the Phantom Creeper breaks down the holiday to its key visual elements — dreidels, menorahs, the hora, the Torah — before leading the band in a rousing chant of “Antiochus, boo! Maccabees, yeah!” — DE
Inspired by the inscription on his father’s tombstone, 18-year-old songwriter and budding record producer Phil Spector wrote this song and assembled a band of mostly Jewish friends called the Teddy Bears to record a single, which spent three weeks at the top of the pop charts in 1958. It was later recorded or performed by, among others, the Beatles, Peter & Gordon, and Amy Winehouse. It was also a number-one country hit from the album “Trio” by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt. Although to know Phil Spector was probably not to love him. — HL
Following a nearly respectful rock rendition of the venerable folk number on the supposedly live-at-the-event album “Me First and the Gimme Gimmes Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah,” the all-star California punk rock cover band does it again at hardcore speed, with a nod to Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” and the unaccountable non sequitur of a refrain, “I want to wish you a Rosh Hashanah.” Like everything else the band has recorded, it’s good fun. — IR
Phranc — the self-described “all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer,” born Susan Gottlieb — pays tribute to her grandmothers.
Since 1977, Sic F*cks have taken the piss out of punk on New York’s indie scene. Led by the Bronx borscht belter Russell Wolinsky, with able vocal and theatrical support from Manic Panic entrepreneur sisters Tish and Snooky, the group offers such genial exhortations as “Chop Up Your Mother,” “Rip Up the Seats” and “Rock or Die.” They routinely perform “Hava Nagila,” but “Spanish Bar Mitzvah” establishes its own standard: “We’ll invite the Garcias and the Schwartzes, drinking Manischewitz and tequila by the quartses / Lots of tacos, lots of kreplach, you’re a man now.” — IR
The Shlomones are a Connecticut-based rock band that performs at simchas dressed up like the Ramones. Parody songs can be groaners; this one — sung to the tune of “I Wanna Be Sedated” — is right on the mark: “Just put me in a big chair / A pillow for my bum / Cook me up some matzah balls / I’ve got to get me some.” — JS
Droning doom metal out of Philadelphia, with shredding guitars and the inestimable Dan Blacksberg on trombone, named for an ancient, slow, meditative style of niggunim. The song’s title — and presumably its sonic aim — refers to the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, whereby the divinity contracted its infinite self to make room for Creation. — ME
Fed up with slanted news coverage of Israel’s response to terrorist attacks emanating from Gaza, Peter Himmelman was moved to pen this sarcastic analysis of the world’s calls for the Jewish state to roll over and play dead. “When someone comes to kill you / In the middle of the night / Don’t try to defend yourself / Don’t use an ounce of might / Just sit there quietly and try hard not to faint / As the world calls out for maximum restraint.” If the song reads like the offspring of Bob Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully,” that is perhaps no surprise, given that Himmelman is Dylan’s son-in-law.
Matisyahu deserves at least one song on this list just for breaking through to the mainstream representing with tzitzis and kippa and lyrics in Hebrew. Talk about an inspiration! This plea and prayer for peace, anthemic in scope, is a poignant and beautiful reminder of what our world can and should be, and the work that must be done to achieve a better world for our children. Just one of many songs by this artist that could be included here. — SB
In keeping with the Sex Pistols’ conscientious effort to offend, aggravate and alienate as many people as they could (starting with Her Majesty in “God Save the Queen”), this jaw-dropping, strictly-for-effect affront to decency (“Belsen was a gas I heard the other day / In the open graves where the Jews all lay / Life is fun and I wish you were here / They wrote on postcards to those held dear”) appears twice on the posthumously assembled Great Rock and Roll Swindle soundtrack album: a live take from the band’s final concert in 1978 and a studio version titled “Einmal Belsen War Wirflich Bortrefflich (Belsen Vos a Gassa)” with even more appalling lyrics sung by escaped train robber Ronnie Biggs. — IR
When pop music’s fascination with Nazi symbols and history went way over the line
Dan Bern has earned his stature as a cult favorite with songs like “My Little Swastika,” wherein he reclaims the Nazi emblem (“Now I’m decorating my house with it”) while sounding like a low-rent Elvis Presley. — RT
“No one laughs at God in a hospital / No one laughs at God in a war,” sings Regina Spektor in this cynical take on humanity’s relationship to God. — MF
June Tabor is an English folk singer with an all-embracing choice of repertoire that has included works by Joni Mitchell and Joy Division, as well as this exquisite, art-song version (in English and Yiddish) of “Mayn Rue Plats (My Resting Place),” one of Morris Rosenfeld’s famous sweatshop songs, which she picked up from a recording by the Klezmorim. — NS
Originally formed in Israel, the Sabras became a popular act on the vibrant Borscht Belt scene in New York State’s Catskills region. Their 1967 album “Jerusalem of Gold” — a longtime thrift store staple that’s now hard to find thanks to the inclusion of their wild cover of “La Bamba” on a 1985 garage rock compilation called “Riot City!” — serves up this surfy, savory ode to everyone’s favorite chickpea fritters. — PA
I long thought this recording by Israeli pop vocalist Esther Ofarim was an arrangement of the 19th-century German composer Peter Cornelius’ setting of Psalm 122, as I could not make out the lyrics and relied solely on the album’s composer credit, which read “Cornelius.” Only recently, in the wake of his death, did I learn that it was written by Ron Cornelius, a member of Leonard Cohen’s band, after a concert in Israel in which, as the song says, the audience sang to the performers: “Jerusalem sang to me one night / Made me feel as light / As any star is bright / She sang ‘I bring you peace’.” — NS
The combined forces of the Weavers and mainstream bandleader and orchestra conductor Gordon Jenkins powered this bizarre fusion of swing, light-classical, folk and Israeli music all the way to No. 2 on the pop charts in 1950. Listen closely and you can hear Pete Seeger and his banjo. Bonus points to Jenkins for signing the Weavers to Decca Records.
Founded in Tel Aviv at the dawn of the 1980s and still active as of 2019, this dark, postpunk band — which attained recognition in Europe but remains obscure in America — brings an idiosyncratic Middle Eastern flavor to the doomy depths mapped out by U.K. acts like Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire. “Ready-Made Diary” seems to recount the circumstances of their self-imposed exile to Amsterdam around the time of its recording. — PA
“Don’t be stupid, be a smarty / Come and join the Nazi party.” With that line and this song, Mel Brooks singlehandedly decides that it’s okay to make Holocaust jokes — as long as the joke’s on them. Read Rob Tannenbaum’s accompanying essay. — RT
How Mel Brooks’ Hitler ditty became the best worst song ever written
Hidden in a propulsive indie track is a CliffsNotes on the three Abrahamic religions, complete with skepticism about some interfaith partners: “Judeo-Christianity, I’d never heard the words / Enemies for centuries, until there was a third,” Ezra Koenig crows, questioning how much the newfound sympathy for Jews and Israel in certain quarters is genuine, and where it may be in need of more empathy, particularly with regard to the “third” partner missing from — and the victim of — the “Judeo-Christian” construction, i.e., Islam. — PJ
Just as Jews can claim key contributions to the creation of punk rock, we can say the same for punk’s Lincoln Center corollary, minimalism. In this transitional 1981 composition, Steve Reich, who was raised as a secular Jew and began to study Torah later in life, integrates psalms into orchestral music that still echoes “Music For 18 Musicians,” his 1976 landmark, in its lively use of pulsing clarinets, oboes, marimbas, organs, and voices. Lyric sopranos singing Hebrew — take that, Wagner. — RT
“Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why” is the opening line of one of the darkest this grimly comic, self-described atheist has ever written. “I burn down your cities, how blind you must be,” Randy Newman-as-God sings indifferently. “You all must be crazy to put your faith in me.” — RT
“Little Diane” and “I Was Born to Cry” were inspired by Dion’s visit to Bronx cantor Henry Rosenblatt, who played him recordings by his father, the famed cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, while trying to help Dion overcome some vocal problems he was having at the time. Dion explained that he was so inspired that he ran home and wrote the two songs. He recalled, “I used a lot of influences, but here there certainly was a Jewish-fusion-rock ‘n’ roll thing. It’s weird. I lifted it right from the Rosenblatt record.” You can hear the cantorial ornamentation in the first few measures of “Little Diane” and in the last line of “I Was Born to Cry.” — SB
David Berman, the late great songster, here invokes a different kind of Sabbath in his cover of a classic George Strait song. Retaining a country twang, when Berman, the frontman of Silver Jews, sings “I’ve got that Friday Night Fever / Sometimes a man just needs a breather,” the honky-tonk sound can be taken as an ode to keeping Shabbat, complete with his drink of whiskey and his partner’s preferred kiddush (“a small glass of Chablis”). Who is this person? A lover? When Berman sings, “She knows I love her and I need her, and I’m no cheater,” could he be referring to the Shekinah, the Sabbath Bride? Well, not in an Orthodox sense. He’s cheating on her prohibitions by listening to a jukebox and “watching ‘Dallas’ on TV.” But then, we all keep the day holy in our own way. — PJ
“Eve of Destruction,” which hit No. 1 in late 1965, may have been sung by a born-again Christian, but the writer, P.F. Sloan (born Philip Gary Schlein), was not only Jewish, but wrote the Dylanesque song listing the social and political ills that needed to be addressed to repair the world. It was, he said, a tikkun olam checklist. — SB
In a few short lines — “Though they murdered six million / In the ovens they fried / The Germans now too / Have God on their side” — Bob Dylan skewers the hypocrisy of superficial beliefs and unearned pieties, taking down not only the Germans but their newfound American friends, neither of whom let a little thing like the Holocaust get in the way of a heartwarming Cold War alliance. — SLB
With references to Jesus, the Pope, saints and prophets, this Top 5 hit for Joan Osborne may seem not to belong here. But the song’s writer, Eric Bazilian, says, “It’s got Hashem written literally all over it…. It was written by a Hebrew with a Hebrew perspective.” — SB
When Tuli Kupferberg, a co-founder of the 1960s neo-Beatnik rock group the Fugs, set out to write the group’s nihilistic manifesto, “Nothing,” he didn’t stray far from his Ashkenazic roots. Tuli simply took the melody and format of the popular Yiddish folk song, “Bulbes,” and transmuted it for a new time and place, replacing “potatoes” with “nothing,” so that “Montik bulbes, dinstik bulbes, mitvokh un donershtik bulbes” became “Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing, Wednesday and Thursday nothing.” Kupferberg even threw in a little Yiddish to acknowledge his source material: “Montik gornisht, dinstik gornisht, mitvokh un donershtik gornisht…” The song went on to invoke a litany of nothingness: “Stevenson nothing, Humphrey nothing, Averill Harriman nothing. John Stuart Mill nil-nil, Franklin Delano, nothing. Carlos Marx nothing, Engels nothing, Bakunin and Kropotkin, nothing, Leon Trotsky, lots of nothing, Stalin less than nothing.” And so was borne from “Bulbes” one of the most influential countercultural documents of an era.
Marc Cohn, winner of the 1991 Best New Artist Grammy Award for his hit “Walking in Memphis,” has throughout his career dropped hints in song about searching for his place in Judaism. He had already been featured on a 1996 Hanukkah compilation singing a passionate version of “Rock of Ages / Ma’oz Tzur” when he released the album “Burning the Daze” in 1998. It opens with “Already Home,” which appears to be about rediscovering and embracing his Jewish heritage, and closes with “Ellis Island,” a reminder of where he came from and how he got here. — SB
Jewish references are sprinkled throughout Lou Reed’s work, none perhaps more troubling than in this all-but-indecipherable track off the Velvet Underground’s first album, in which he sings, “What had he to lose / Not a ghost bloodied country / All covered with sleep / Where the black angel did weep / Not an old city street in the east.” Is it a symbolist take on the Holocaust, or a suburban Jewish kid’s nightmare induced by the same? Hard to say, but one thing’s for sure: you definitely wouldn’t want it darker. — SLB
Largo, also the title of the album, was a side project of the Hooters’ Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian, their longtime producer Rick Chertoff, and musician and songwriter David Forman. “Gimme a Stone,” one of the album highlights, which features vocals by the Band’s Levon Helm on several verses, recounts the epic battle between David and Goliath, and then some. — SB
Northern State is a two-thirds Jewish all-female hip-hop trio comprised of classmates from Half Hollow Hills High School West in Dix Hills, Long Island. While mainstream success was not to be theirs, they did release one album on Sony and worked with Questlove and Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) of the Beastie Boys. The group made their somewhat unlikely backgrounds a subject of some of their songs; on “Mic Tester,” Hesta Prynn aka Julie Potash Slavin (a contributor to this feature) raps, “Every time I walk by all the people on the avenue like, ‘Why so fly?’ / And if you got a sweatsuit and you’re dripping with diamonds, tell me are you a rapper or a mom from Long Island?”
A novelty song about Manischewitz wine by a black vocal group whose early doo-wop single “Gee” is considered to be one of the best early rock ‘n’ roll songs. Jews were a captive audience for their Passover wine before kosher varietals became available for the seder, but that was just once a year. The Manischewitz people aimed their ads at the Black community, which company research showed preferred sweet red wine year-round. The song is based on the wine company’s radio ad (“Man oh man”), first performed by the Ink Spots. — WR
English psychedelic singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, who once led a band called the Egyptians, told the Forward, “My most Jewish song, in terms of reference, not necessarily attitude, is ‘I Wanna Go Backwards,’ which is set during Passover, imagining that Elijah sits down in the place laid for him…” — HL
From her Hebrew School childhood to the Star of David she wore around her neck onstage, Amy Winehouse was a classic sort of secular Jew, more at home in being the “other” than in joining the tribe. Her style was all retro soul, and this nugget from her album “Back to Black” reeks of that sound and its fury. The key line is: “Who’s playing Saturday? / What kind of f—kery are you? / Side from Sammy, you’re my best black Jew.” But just who is her “best black Jew”? An unnamed lover who threatens to keep Winehouse from Slick Rick’s show, a lover who’s right up there with Sammy Davis Jr. in the black Jew department? Consider this: there’s a long tradition of Jewish performers identifying with black ones, from Al Jolson to Doc Pomus to Michael Bloomfield, and Amy Winehouse was cut from the same cloth. If Sigmund Freud — a secular Jew par excellence — was correct in stating that we’re everyone in our dreams, then the best black Jew in this dream of a song might be none other than a projection of the writer herself, Amy “Back to Black” Winehouse. — SLB
It’s never clear how seriously to take David Berman at his word and how much to assume he’s putting you on. Here he sings of the title character, “He was a rebel Jew / And he died for you and your sins.” — JG
Born Genyusha Zelkowitz in Lodz, Poland, Genya Ravan came to New York with her parents after the war, the rest of her family dead at the Nazi’s hands. Forbidden to wander the dangerous city streets, Genya (now dubbed Goldie) rebelled, hanging with bikers and eventually fleeing to the West Coast. Before long she was fronting the first all-female rock band, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, touring with the Rolling Stones, then moving on to found Ten Wheel Drive, which she led like a Jewish Janis Joplin. By the time punk rolled around, she’d become the first female producer in the male-dominated field, behind the boards for the Dead Boys’ first album, where she told the goose-stepping punks to “take off those f—-ing swastikas.” Here, Genya owns her sexuality and power, telling the men in her life to treat her right. — SLB
Mostly a throwaway pass-the-mic freestyle with Q Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, but Ad-Rock’s rhyme “You know I’m getting silly / Got a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tilly” might be one of the most Jewish lines of all time. — AL
The title track of the low-rock band’s final album is a moody tune penned by the late, great Mark Sandman, who grew up in a Jewish family in Newton, Massachusetts. “I can’t make it on my own,” Sandman sings sadly in this ghostly, posthumous release. Soon, Lilah enters the song. She’s his only possibility for deliverance, his only home. Saxophonist Dana Colley tells me, “It has some Jewish associations. Mark was working with the name ‘Lilah,’ which means ‘night’ in Hebrew, and he was playing around with that association.” — JS
After time and space collapse in an eschatological lurch toward eternity — “though you might call it Paradise” — and we’re teased with a mishmash of signs and portents suggesting (dubious) mystical resonances, the little neighbor boy says perhaps the truest (and most Jewish?) words Dylan ever sung: “Nothing is revealed.” — NS
Sufjan Stevens wrote the quintessential songs for the soundtrack to the film “Call Me By Your Name.” While Stevens is devoutly Christian, the song fits the deeply Jewish movie so perfectly, absolutely nailing the aesthetic and spirit of the film, and calls its iconic scenes to mind instantly. — MF
Jewish self-loathing, rhinoplasty, and cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s race. — SLB
As Israel’s first psychedelic band, the Churchills had a more legitimate claim to the use of Middle Eastern drones than any of the British or American bands who were copping that sound in the late 1960s. “Debka,” a 1968 collaboration with Israeli composer and conductor Noam Sharif, showcases both the band’s instrumental chops and their hashish-addled sense of humor — not even the Beatles were daring enough at the time to include the sounds of belching or bubbling hookahs on their records. — DE
Composer/guitarist Gary Lucas’s album “Skeleton at the Feast” is sublime in the religious sense. Its second half, a score for the 1921 silent film “Der Golem,” is a moody incantation full of medieval gloom and suppressed Jewish rage. (Gary Lucas is a contributor to this feature.) — SLB
Though there’s nothing explicitly Jewish about Paul Simon’s pugilist protagonist, the song’s New York City references do bring to mind the city’s abundance of Jewish prizefighters in the years between the World Wars, when guys like “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, Joseph “Jewey” Smith and Ruby “The Jewel of the Ghetto” Goldstein fought their way out of poverty to become kings of the ring. Simon once told an interviewer that he attributes some of the song’s language and imagery to the fact that he was reading the Bible at the time of the song’s writing. — DE
George Clinton — Dr. Funkenstein himself —says that the chant in the middle of this dance floor classic (“da-da-da-DEE-da-da-da…”) is a melody he remembered hearing at a bar mitzvah party. — AL
Scottish “post-rock” band Mogwai based this 20-minute instrumental drone on the familiar melody of “Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father Our King),” which they learned from Jewish hip-hop producer Arthur Baker. The group describes it as “two parts serenity and one part death metal,” and often plays it as a concert-ending encore. Their version is as awe-inspiring as the original.
Members of Santana and Tower of Power help lay down a funky groove for Latino-Jewish collective Hip Hop Hoodios on this celebration of one of our favorite Jewish delicacies: “We’re knishin’ in the Mission / Let’s nosh tonight.” Replete with a klezmer-influenced clarinet break and allusions to “Merchant of Venice.”
What’s a Jewish song anyway — and how can you recognize one when you hear it?
Join us at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, Feb. 16, for a spirited discussion of the Greatest Jewish Pop Songs of All Time featuring Forward contributing editor and author Seth Rogovoy; executive editor Adam Langer; former Vibe and Spin editor-in-chief of Vibe, Alan Light; DJ and SirusXM host Hesta Prynn; novelist and screenwriter Jennifer Gilmore; and Forward contributing music critic Dan Epstein. Register here:
The 150 greatest Jewish pop songs of all time
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Inspired in part by all the Jewish artists on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs, the Forward decided it was time to rank the best Jewish pop songs of all time. You can find the whole list and accompanying essays here.