Atlanta Jewish Music Festival Director Joe Alterman Explores Definitions, History Of Jewish Music

Mar 7, 2019

Note: The audio posted of this interview was edited from an earlier version because our guest did not feel he accurately characterized Ben Sidran’s research on some aspects of early Vaudeville and Minstrel shows.

In the United States, Jewish people were denied access to industries, education, neighborhood spaces and opportunities. The burgeoning popular music field in the late 19th and 20th centuries was an ideal space to find freedom and creative expression for Jewish musicians. Artists such as Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein wove their traditions into music that was more inclusive and indelibly American.




The Atlanta Jewish Music Festival celebrates the significant role of Jewish immigrants and their descendants in the creation and production of American classics. Joe Alterman, a jazz pianist and bandleader, took over as executive director of the festival last year. He joined "On Second Thought" to discuss stories and songs from Jewish musicians throughout the decades.


Alterman said defining Jewish music is complicated because its origins combine different cultural traditions.

"The most well known Jewish melodies, I found out, are actually Hebrew words put to German melodies," said Alterman. "This Rabbi, he basically said, ‘A lot of the stuff that we think of as sounding Jewish, it’s kind of like having Chinese food in America.' It’s really hard to define what makes something sound Jewish."


The Atlanta Jewish Music Festival opens with the Bill Charlap Trio performing the music of Leonard Bernstein and runs at venues throughout Atlanta until March 16.


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