Funny, You Don’t Sound Jewish: Three Stories about Sound

November 1, 2010
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Ari Y. Kelman

1. Sometime in the early 1990s, I heard Israeli author David Grossman give a lecture. I don’t remember what he spoke about, but I do remember that he spoke the most beautiful English in the thickest imaginable Israeli accent. His grammar and style were as impeccable as his accent was labored. I left the lecture having decided that I, too, could speak unapologetically in my native accent, no matter what language I was speaking. So, when I returned to Israel a year or two later, I brushed up on my grammar but retained my American “r”s and the broad vowels of my California upbringing.

I’m both happy and fortunate to speak Hebrew, but I wasn’t convinced that I had to learn to sound like an Israeli. In other words, language is different from sound, and given the myriad of ways in which we communicate extra-verbally — accent, cadence, dynamics, and what French critic Roland Barthes called “the grain of the voice” — all of these things matter; in fact, they matter profoundly.

Grossman inspired me to pursue fluency in my second language but to retain my accent, because my accent sometimes reveals more than my words. My accent is a part of who I am and how I identify. As a proud Diaspora Jew, speaking Hebrew like an American was not about laziness or ignorance. Rather, it was about the hegemony of sound.

2. A few years ago, I was interviewing a Christian songwriter who told me that he had been commissioned to write a song for a Messianic Jewish congregation. He expressed curiosity as to why the congregation’s rabbi seemed to prefer songs in a minor key. I laughed and tried to explain how the terms “lament” and “mourning” (which, for the record, I don’t even believe to be inherent to Jewish prayer) have been woven throughout Jewish liturgy. A preference for the minor keys still seems synonymous with “Jewish music,” despite the fact that Jews have written songs as varied as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn” and “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night (and Party Every Day).”

A Jewish songwriter does not make a song Jewish; neither does a minor or freygish (a mode characteristic of klezmer music) scale, a clarinet, or a fiddler (on or off the roof).

Nevertheless, there is something we can hear as Jewish music. There are musicians who make it, scholars who study it, stores that shelve it, audiences that hear it, festivals that feature it, and so on. But when we’re listening to Jewish music, what is it that we’re hearing? The musician? The notes? The intervals? The modes? The keys? Or does the choice of what to hear inform, or influence, what an individual hears in a piece of music?

3. The first time I heard Lenny Bruce was something of a revelation. I had developed a fascination with Bruce when I was 13 years old, but I didn’t hear him perform until years later; by then, I could recite many of his bits by heart, thanks to his books.

I first heard him in “The Lenny Bruce Performance Film,” a film he made shortly before he died, in which he obsessively rehearses a recent court appearance on charges of obscenity. What struck me — more than his Yiddish words or his Jewish references — was how Jewish he sounded. It could have been his speech patterns, conditioned by a childhood in Brooklyn, or his near-talmudic obsession with the details of the transcript.

At that point in my life, Jews on television and film sounded either like Woody Allen and his imitators (Paul Reiser, Fran Drescher), or like Jews who sounded like everyone else (Barbra Streisand, David Lee Roth). Bruce didn’t sound like any of them, but his Jewishness was so audible, so pitch perfect, so clear that his Yiddishisms and his Jewish stories seemed to matter less to me than the way his voice bent around his words. He could have been reciting the phone book and his Jewishness would have sounded as clear as a bell, even without Yiddish, without Ladino, without Hebrew, without klezmer or minor keys, without prayer books. Even absent those telltale sounds of Jewish life, and somewhere between his voice and his delivery, he sounded somehow like something I could only define as “Jewish.”


What made Bruce sound so Jewish to me remains something of a mystery. Indeed, what it means to say that someone or some melody or some accent “sounds” Jewish is the source of some debate. For a spell, to “sound” Jewish meant that you had a Yiddish-like accent, or, at least, that you hailed from Brooklyn. But now? Where does that leave Israelis? Or Mizrachi Jews? Or the ba’alei teshuvah, who adopt Yeshiva-driven Yiddish as adults? Or me? This issue of Sh’ma turns a few keen ears to the question of what sounds Jewish and what it might mean for those of us who like to listen.

To see and hear “The Lenny Bruce Performance Film,” visit

“Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn” can be heard at:

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Ari Y. Kelman is an associate professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of books and articles about Jewish culture that cover the sonic spectrum from radio to comic strips, and from synagogues to soundscapes.

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