Jewish Contributions to American Music

To celebrate the 2018 theme of Jewish American Heritage Month, meet a few of the many Jewish composers, conductors, musicians, and singers who have contributed to American music. Want to suggest an addition to this list? Contact us here.

 
 

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Leonard Bernstein
1918-1990

Acclaimed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein made his conducting debut at Carnegie Hall in November 1943. Bernstein is best known for serving as the long-time music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, for conducting concerts by many of the world's leading orchestras, and for writing the music to West Side Story, the Broadway musical. Bernstein's other popular works include his collaborative adaptations of On the Town and Candide. He wrote several symphonies inspired by his Jewish heritage, including Jeremiah and Kaddish. Committed to musical education, Bernstein brought a new level of attention to the "Young People's Concerts" series at the New York Philharmonic.

The worldwide celebration of Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday officially began on August 25, 2017 and continues through his 100th year until August 25, 2019. You can learn more about #Bernsteinat100 at leonardbernstein.com/at100. Additionally, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia will explore his life, Jewish identity, and social activism in the special exhibition, Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music, on view March 16 - September 2, 2018: NMAJH.org/bernstein.


George Gershwin
1898-1937

George Gershwin was a very normal boy - he was the undisputed roller-skating champion of his neighborhood on the lower East side of New York. But one day a young violinist, Max Rosen, played at PS 25. George had not been interested enough to attend the performance, but heard it through the assembly hall window. Gershwin later wrote: "It was, to me, a flashing revelation of beauty." Max opened the world of music to George, and George taught Max wrestling. Gershwin wrote his first songs while working as a pianist with a music publishing firm; and his first revue Half Past Eight opened in 1918. Tragically, George Gershwin did not live to be 40, but his music will live forever. Gershwin was equally at home writing "pop" tunes, such as Swanee, The Man I Love, 'S Wonderful, and I Got Rhythm; musical comedies like Oh Kay, Girl Crazy, and Of Thee I Sing; serious music: Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, and An American in Paris; and he even pioneered in creating a genuine American folk opera: Porgy and Bess. Most of the lyrics for his revues and songs were written by his brother Ira (1896-1983). Rhapsody in Blue, commissioned by Paul Whiteman as a "jazz symphony," made jazz respectable for the American concert stage after it was performed in New York in 1924 ... and it made Gershwin famous. In less than two decades of productivity, George Gershwin left an indelible impression upon his country's culture. George Gershwin was inducted into the Jewish-American Hall of Fame in 1972.

Text courtesy of The Jewish-American Hall of Fame.

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Sophie Tucker
1884-1966

Sophie Tucker, known as the "Last of the Red Hot Mamas," was a popular vaudeville performer during the early and mid-twentieth century. Her humorous, slightly bawdy renditions of Yiddish and English songs captivated large audiences on the stage, radio, and television. Tucker was born in Russia and grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. Her musical career was launched when she began singing for customers in her parents' kosher restaurant. After marrying Louis Tuck in 1903, she changed her name to "Tucker." During World War II, copies of Tucker's recordings of "My Yiddishe Momme" were destroyed by the Nazis in an effort to wipe out any traces of nostalgia for Jewish culture. Although she is less well-known today, Tucker provided the inspiration for comedian Bette Midler's stage persona and performance style.

Text courtesy of The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.


Itzhak Perlman
b. 1945

Itzhak Perlman is one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century. He was born in Tel Aviv and trained at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv and at the Juilliard School in New York. Although stricken with polio at the age of four, Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 and began touring extensively. In 1987, he joined the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for their concerts in Warsaw and Budapest. While he plays primarily classical music, Perlman also includes jazz and klezmer in his repertoire and has scored a number of movies, including Schindler's List (1993).

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Barbra Streisand
b. 1942

Barbra Streisand is one of the most commercially successful recording artists in history, having sold more albums than any other female artist. She was born in Brooklyn and began her career singing in nightclubs. Her first album, "The Barbra Streisand Album" (1963), won two Grammys and her first film, "Funny Girl" (1968), earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Streisand became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song as a composer for "Evergreen," from the soundtrack of "A Star is Born" (1976). With "Yentl" (1983), she became the first woman ever to produce, direct, write and star in a major motion picture. She is the only artist ever to receive Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Grammy, Directors Guild of America, Golden Globe, National Endowment for the Arts, and Peabody Awards, as well as the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. She is the first female director to receive The Kennedy Center Honors. Since founding the Streisand Foundation in 1981, she has raised and distributed $21 million to organizations supporting environmental issues, constitutional rights, AIDS research, women's issues, and race relations, and has raised approximately $20 million, through performances and appearances, for additional causes and charities.


Irving Berlin
1888-1989

Leave it to a Jewish immigrant from Russia to write the most popular Christmas song ever recorded. Indeed, extraordinary song-writing success followed Berlin throughout his career. Berlin grew up on New York's Lower East Side. He launched his career in 1911 with the Tin Pan Alley hit "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which stayed on the charts for five decades. Over the years he wrote more than 900 other songs, including "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Easter Parade," and, of course, "White Christmas." Berlin also composed eighteen film scores and 21 Broadway scores, including Annie Get Your Gun (1946). His impact on culture and the art of popular songwriting endures to this day.

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Michael Tilson Thomas
b. 1944

Conductor, composer, and pianist Michael Tilson Thomas is currently Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. The grandson of Yiddish theater icons Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, Tilson Thomas studied at the University of Southern California and, at age 19, was named music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, Tilson Thomas was appointed assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and he went on to become principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Considered the foremost living interpreter of the works of Aaron Copland, Tilson Thomas has made more than 120 recordings.


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Fanny Brice
1891-1951

One of America's great clowns, Fanny Brice built her career on a Yiddish accent and a flair for zany parody. In an era when ethnic comedy was the norm, she delighted audiences for more than forty years and won a following in almost every branch of American show business. During the fourth decade of her professional life, she became precocious radio brat "Baby Snooks," and that is the role for which she is most often remembered. Yet "Snooks" was only one of Brice's many inimitable characters in radio, the last of the entertainment forms in which her comic genius found expression. Before focusing exclusively on "the airwaves," she appeared in burlesque and vaudeville, drama, film, and musical revues (including nine Ziegfeld Follies between 1910 and 1936). Brooks Atkinson, longtime drama critic of the New York Times, called Brice "a burlesque comic of the rarest vintage" and acknowledged her achievement in comedy, a field men had previously dominated.


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Richard Rodgers
1902-1979

Richard Rodgers, best known for his partnership with lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, composed music for more than 900 songs and forty Broadway musicals. With Hart, he produced the musical Babes in Arms (1937). Oklahoma! (1943), the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, introduced a new genre to the theater world- the musical play. The successful duo also produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). Rodgers and composer Marvin Hamlisch share the distinction of being the only persons to have won an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Pulitzer Prize.


Aaron Copland
1900-1990

One of the most celebrated classical composers of the twentieth century, Aaron Copland came to be known as "the dean of American composers." Born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Copland decided to become a composer at age 15. His early work was heavily influenced by jazz, but he later interwove folk themes into his classical compositions. Copland composed the scores for such films as Our Town (1940) and The Heiress (1949), which won the Academy Award for Best Music in 1950. In 1942 Copland composed the patriotic orchestral work, Lincoln Portrait, which included readings of Abraham Lincoln's letters and speeches. His score for Martha Graham's ballet Appalachian Spring (1944) won the Pulitzer Prize. Copland received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1987.

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Paul Simon
b. 1941

As one half of the folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel and as a solo artist, Paul Simon has put his stamp on American music. Between 1964 and 1970, Simon and Garfunkel released such memorable songs as "The Sounds of Silence," "The Boxer," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "Mrs. Robinson," which became the breakout hit of the 1967 movie The Graduate. When the duo split, Simon began experimenting with various styles, including reggae and South African music on the Grammy-winning album Graceland. Inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Simon received the first Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2009.


Stephen Sondheim
b. 1930

One of the greatest artists in American musical theater, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim burst onto the scene in 1957 as Leonard Bernstein's lyricist for the hit musical West Side Story. Sondheim stretched the creative possibilities of the Broadway musical in shows such as A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Into the Woods (1987). He has won more than 60 individual and collaborative Tony Awards, numerous Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and a Pulitzer Prize. Sondheim won the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal for Music in 2006, and received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre in 2008.

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Beverly Sills
1929-2007

Soprano Beverly "Bubbles" Sills began her career as a child, singing for bar mitzvahs and on the radio. An icon of American opera, she made her debut in 1947 with the Philadelphia Civic Opera and went on to perform around the world in works such as The Barber of Seville and La Traviata. After retiring from the stage in 1980, Sills became general manager of the New York City Opera. In 1994 she became the first woman and first performer to serve as chairperson of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. From 2002 to 2005 she was chair of the Metropolitan Opera. Sills received three Grammy nominations, five Emmy nominations, and five major awards for her humanitarian and charitable work, notably for her efforts for the prevention and treatment of birth defects.


Bob Dylan
b. 1941

"Bob Dylan is the uncontested poet laureate of the rock and roll era and the preeminent singer/songwriter of modern times," according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Much of Dylan's most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" chronicled American unrest. Dylan's lyrical compositions defied existing pop-music conventions and explored American song traditions, including folk, blues, and gospel. In 2008, Dylan received a Special Citation by the Pulitzer Prize jury, making him the first popular musician to receive the honor. The Pulitzer committee recognized his "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." On October 13, 2016, the Nobel Prize committee announced that Dylan would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Marvin Hamlisch
1944-2012

Marvin Hamlisch won four Grammys, three Oscars, three Golden Globes, and one Tony Award. He shares with fellow composer Richard Rodgers the distinction of winning all four of these types of awards plus a Pulitzer Prize - in Hamlisch's case, for the Broadway blockbuster A Chorus Line (1985). Hamlisch composed more than 40 movie scores, including The Way We Were (1974), The Sting (1974), and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). He served as the musical director and arranger of Barbra Streisand's 1994 concert tour of the United States and England. He was principal pops conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.


 

Jewish American Illustrators

JAHM’s 2019 theme provides an opportunity to recognize the many American Jews who have helped create the nation’s beloved children’s books, iconic graphic novels and their superheroes, and syndicated comics and illustrations. These Jewish artists, illustrators, and writers have been shaped by American life, society, and culture, and in turn enriched America’s imaginative landscape. Through the prism of their Jewish identity, and often by approaching their work through the lens of social justice, they have been able to make poignant observations about the world around them, offering powerful commentary on issues of the day through their unique and universal medium.

 
 
Photo by Bill Franzen

Photo by Bill Franzen

Roz Chast

Roz Chast has spent decades mining the craziness of her life and her imagination as one of the most popular staff cartoonists of the New Yorker. Chast earned a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1977, but chafed against the school’s highbrow aesthetic and scorn for cartoons. She moved to New York and began creating comics for Christopher Street and the Village Voice before selling her first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1978. Chast’s work owes much to both New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams’s unconventional Addams Family and to underground comix pioneers like Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Lynda Barry, with her shaky line drawings and her focus on neurotic families and the minutia of everyday life. Besides the New Yorker, her work has appeared in Scientific American and the Harvard Business Review. She has written or illustrated over a dozen books, including two collections of her New Yorker cartoons, The Party After You Left in 2004 and Theories of Everything in 2006. In 2014 she was a National Book Award finalist for her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? about her parents’ decline and deaths.

Courtesy of Jewish Women’s Archives.


Photo courtesy of Maira Kalman

Photo courtesy of Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman was born in Tel Aviv and moved to New York with her family at the age of four. She was raised in bucolic Riverdale, in the Bronx, and now lives in Manhattan. She is a world‐renowned artist, writer, illustrator, and designer. She has published more than twenty-eight books and creates editorial work for many magazines; she has illustrated many covers for The New Yorker. She has exhibited her work at institutions such as the Cooper Hewitt Museum (NYC), ICA (Philadelphia), The Jewish Museum (NYC), Madison Children’s Museum (Madison, WI), Monticello (Charlottesville, VA), and Skirball Cultural Center (Los Angeles). She is represented by the Julie Saul Gallery and owns a pair of Toscanini’s pants.


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Maurice Sendak

In 2008, The New York Times declared that Maurice Sendak's "originality and emotional honesty have changed the shape of children's literature." In 1964, the Brooklyn native won the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are, with its benevolent monsters and the defiant boy Max who confronts them. Both as author and illustrator, Sendak has brought to children (and their parents) such classics as In the Night Kitchen (1974) and The Sign on Rosie's Door (1960). In addition, he has designed the sets and costumes for several operas, ballets, and theater productions, and has produced animation for television.


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Stan Lee

From the fertile mind and nimble pen of Stan Lee have sprung such notable superheroes as the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the Mighty Thor, and X-Men, not to mention the movie megastar Spider Man. Born Stanley Martin Lieber, the American comic-book writer served as editor, and then president and chairman of Marvel Comics for over three decades. During his tenure, Marvel grew from a small division of a publishing house to a multimedia giant. Critics and readers credit Lee with breaking with tradition in creating nuanced personalities for his superheroes by endowing them with human faults and frailties.


Photo courtesy of Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

Photo courtesy of Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

Ezra Jack Keats

Born in 1916, the son of Eastern European immigrants, Keats grew up poor in Brooklyn. An interest in drawing led to a career as a commercial artist. Tired of dealing with antisemitism he faced because of his name, Katz changed it to Ezra Jack Keats.

Keats’s first solo author-illustrator effort, The Snowy Day, was published in 1962. In 40 pages filled with colorful collaged images, Keats told the story of a little boy exploring the wonders of an overnight snowfall in the city. The book was unusual, even revolutionary: The little boy, Peter, was Black. The Snowy Day marked the first time that any full-color American picture book featured an African-American main character.

The Snowy Day won the 1963 Caldecott Award, and inspired other artist/authors to bring more diverse characters into their works. Today, it is considered among the most important American children’s books of all time.


Photo by Steve Berman

Photo by Steve Berman

Bernard Waber

Waber, the son of Eastern European immigrants, grew up in an observant Jewish home, spoke Yiddish, and considered Jewishness central to his identity. He studied at the Wharton Business School before changing directions after WWII and enrolling as a commercial-art major at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (now University of the Arts). For most of his adult life, Waber worked in New York City, initially as a designer for Condé Nast and then at Time, Inc., where he worked on publications such as Life and People. Encouraged by an art director who saw the potential in his whimsical drawings, Waber began to develop and submit his own story ideas to publishing houses.

Eventually Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) offered him a two book contract for Lorenzo and the House on East 88th Street – the first book in the Lyles eries. Over his 50-year career, Waber created more than 30 picture books which sold over 1.75 million copies.

From the Archives:
Sunday, October 25, 2015 at 2:00 pm at National Museum of American Jewish History Leonard S. Marcus, curator of Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and Friends: The Art of Bernard Waber and leading writer about children’s books and the people who create them, joined illustrator Paulis Waber, Bernard Waber’s daughter, for an intimate conversation filled with firsthand insights into Bernard Waber’s life and work. Moderated by Patrick J. Rodgers, curator at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia and former curator of the Maurice Sendak Collection.


Photo courtesy of Liana Finck

Photo courtesy of Liana Finck

Liana Finck

Liana Finck finds new angles of approach into her life and Jewish history through her whimsical and expressive autobiographical cartoons. Finck graduated from The Cooper Union in New York in 2008 and earned a Fulbright Fellowship in Belgium to work on a project about the life of Georges Remi, the cartoonist who created the Tintin books. It was there, in 2010, that she first got the idea for her graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, which she published in 2014. The graphic novel interweaves illustrations of the eponymous advice column that ran in the Forward newspaper in the early 1900s with vignettes on Finck’s imagined conversations with the paper’s editor, Abraham Cahan. In 2012 she also created a short collage series on the golem for Tablet, and for several years ran an illustrated column in the Forward online. As of 2017 she regularly draws cartoons for the New Yorker and on Instagram, where her 40,000 followers devour her illustrated commentary on heartbreak and social anxiety.

Courtesy of Jewish Women’s Archives


Rube Goldberg,  Rube and Father Lighting Cigars , date unknown. Photograph. Artwork Copyright © Rube Goldberg Inc. All Rights Reserved. RUBE GOLDBERG ® is a registered trademark of Rube Goldberg Inc. All materials used with permission. www.rubegoldberg.com

Rube Goldberg, Rube and Father Lighting Cigars, date unknown. Photograph. Artwork Copyright © Rube Goldberg Inc. All Rights Reserved. RUBE GOLDBERG ® is a registered trademark of Rube Goldberg Inc. All materials used with permission. www.rubegoldberg.com

Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) was a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist best known for his zany invention cartoons. He was born in San Francisco on the 4th of July, 1883 – and graduated from U. Cal Berkeley with a degree in engineering. His first job at the San Francisco Chronicle led to early success, but it wasn’t until he moved to NYC and began working for Hearst publications that he became a household name. Rube Goldberg is the only person ever to be listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary as an adjective. It’s estimated that he did a staggering 50,000 cartoons in his lifetime.

Courtesy of Rube Goldberg, Inc.


Image Donated by Corbis-Bettmann

Image Donated by Corbis-Bettmann

Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster

The men who went on to change the world of comic books forever met as high-school students in Cleveland, while working together on their school newspaper. Jerome Siegel (1914-1996) and Joseph Shuster (1914-1992) created the prototype for Superman, who first appeared in 1938 on the cover of Action Comics comic book series. Shuster, who drew the character, later said he based the hero on the actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and the meeker alter ego, Clark Kent, on both himself and another actor, Harold Lloyd. The caped Superman soon began his long run as the star of newspaper comic strips, television shows, and movies, ultimately becoming one of the most recognized superheroes in the literary world.


Photo courtesy of Paste Magazine

Photo courtesy of Paste Magazine

Jack Kirby

In collaboration with Stan Lee, innovative artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), Lee created the Fantastic Four, the first comic in what came to be known as the “Marvel Universe.” FF featured different types of superheroes—outsiders like “The Thing,” a metaphor for minorities who felt out of place. Lee and Kirby also originated outsider heroes Iron Man and the X-Men. These and other iconic characters—notably, Spider-Man (created with artist Steve Ditko)—infused Marvel’s comics with an urban Jewish sensibility, resulting in tales filled with ironic humor, violent loss, and monumental regret that mirrored the global Jewish experience in the 20th Century. 

Lee and Kirby went on to introduce ethnically specific characters, such as the first black superhero, the Black Panther, and Izzy Cohen of the Howling Commandos.