Arts & Culture

Streaming Jewish Music on My iPhone

How a radio app introduced me to Jewish religious music I didn’t know I needed Read More

By / July 19, 2012
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The Intersect World Radio application for the iPhone represents the promise of an earth made microscopic by technology. Whether you want the news from Lagos or the latest in acoustic Norwegian folk music, it’s got you covered. Hindustani classical, Persian Sonati, and Afghan pop are yours to explore. But perhaps the coolest thing about the app is the chance to discover an entire musical and artistic tradition that you didn’t know you needed. Of the tens of thousands of stations the application carries, the one I’ve listened to the most—indeed, the one I’m nursing a borderline-addiction to—is a one-man operation run off of a single computer. Its music is exotic in many respects, but also comforting and familiar, the stuff of Arrested Development marathons and warm glasses of milk.

But to place the Jewish Music Stream (JMS) on the same psychic or spiritual level as comfort food or television bingeing is to trivialize its higher significance and, indeed, its sheer awesomeness. The Stream plays solid, 24-hour blocks of contemporary Jewish religious music in stunning digital quality, and without the glitches or gaps in connectivity that are so common to small-cap internet radio stations. The website, which was created in 2009, has somewhere between 250 and 400 listeners at any given time, although that figure likely shortchanges the station’s actual reach through the Intersect World app.

After all, we’re Jews: Klezmer is our jazz, the Banai clan is something like our Rolling Stones (or maybe The Killers), and the Pro Musica Hebraica series, organized by the columnist Charles Krauthammer, even attempts to give us our own place in classical European art music. The music the JMS plays is our gospel; our soul music, even. As I’ve discovered, much modern-day yeshivish music comes from a place of emotional or spiritual jouissance. The semi-orchestral religious music played on the JMS reaches epic heights; it soars, tapers, and then soars even higher still. Musical cultures often have genres or modes of expression reserved for feelings, ideas or experiences that are too vast and too immediate for any other artistic form to contain (Robert Johnson and Brett Michaels both belong in this category). We Jews are no exception. Yeshivisha music is melodramatic and emotionally overstuffed, but even in its textures it is fundamentally, recognizably ours. It’s our people’s attempt at achieving something that, through pure feeling and sheer earnestness, aspires to a kind of musical transcendence.

So what does the Jewish Music Stream play, exactly? Female voices are regrettably assur, or prohibited, so a good amount of airtime is devoted to various boys choirs. The Yeshiva Boys Choir likes adding techno beats to traditional zmirot, although purists are sure to thrill to the Kol Noar or Shir Hadasha Boys Choirs, both of whom are in the JMS rotation. And then there’s the grandaddy of them all, the Miami Boys Choir. I’ve been somewhat disheartened but nevertheless fascinated to learn that AutoTune has made its way into even the most established choir-based acts in yeshivish music—as if the angelic counter-tenor of a nine-year-old cheder student can possibly be improved upon.

The JMS is delightfully Ashkenazi. There’s the occasional Sephardi tune but for the most part there is no Torah on the JMS. There is the Toyrah. Today is not hayom, it’s hayoim; this morning is haboyker. Melachto? Puh-leeze: Our King is Melachtoi. And so on. I don’t mean to mock—indeed, this antediluvianism (I’m a hard-tav pronouncing, largely assimilated American Jew, thank you very much) explains much of the JMS’s power over me. This is the music of a mythical and most-likely imaginary before-time; a time when dybbuks existed and Chelm was best known as a real place, and when Warsaw (or possibly Baghdad) was the center of the Jewish world. Some of the music the JMS plays is actually in Yiddish!

At the same time, it is the JMS’s modernity—its connection to a real and thriving and even Yiddish-speaking now-time—that makes it so consistently surprising. The studio version of Yoely Greenfeld’s “Zemer” ends in a New Orleans jazz breakdown; Dovid Gabay’s “Berum Olam” begins with a pretty mind-wrecking (although obviously synthetic) blast of bagpipes. Ya’akov Shweky’s infectious “Ten Lo” has a slow-building, almost dub-like lead-in, complete with a meandering and virtuosic oud solo. Even in the famously internet-averse ultra-Orthodox community, Yisroel Werdyger has won over 1,000 Twitter followers. And why shouldn’t he, considering the presence, the subtlety of feeling—the kavana, for lack of a superior English equivalent—with which he sings?

The JMS showcases musical eclecticism, and, the heck with it, cultural modernity within an ultra-orthodox Jewish context. My intrigue at such a harmony of apparent opposites might simply be the result of false preconceptions. I can’t say that my pre-JMS world allowed for the possibility of zmirot capped with power ballad-worthy electric guitar solos.

When I reached out to the man responsible for the JMS—an IT professional and sometimes computer-programmer who runs the site anonymously and asked not to be named—he was somewhere between winding down from work and preparing for a night at the Beit Midrash. He created the site, he said, because “I saw what was out there in terms of Jewish music streams and saw that I would be able to build a better system.”

“I’ve met a lot of these artists,” he continued. “They’re regular people who happen to be blessed with these talents and are happy to have others enjoy it.”

The clash between the ultra-Orthodox and modern technology has been in the news lately, and the mere existence of the JMS suggested to me that this relationship is more complicated than many have given it credit for. The JMS founder and proprietor actually attended the recent Ichud HaKehillos asifa against the Internet, which packed Citi Field and nearby Arthur Ashe Stadium with nearly 50,000 ultra-orthodox Jewish men, who had come to hear their teachers’ concerns over the web’s effects on religious practice and communal life. After the speech, more than a few attendees took to the web to share their reactions. Some argued that the Internet could be helpful so long as it could be controlled. Others insisted that the technology itself was irredeemably evil.

Unsurprisingly, the JMS’s founder sits on the more liberal side of this simmering communal debate. “Personally, I do computer work most of the day, and from a general background perspective I use the Internet all the time,” he told me. “But I’m always pushing myself to make sure everything’s filtered.”

For him, having a “Jewish listening experience” is one way the Internet can foster and celebrate Jewish culture. “If you try to take all these types of sites offline, people aren’t going to listen to Jewish music,” he said. And people like me will likely never hear a techno version of Kol Hamispalel.

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