Cite: Loeffler, The Invention of Israeli Music

Loeffler, James. "Do Zionists Read Music from Right to Left? Abraham Tsvi Idelsohn and the Invention of Israeli Music," Jewish Quarterly Review 100,3 (2010): 385-416.



Music is widely recognized as a central component of Israeli national identity, yet the putative Jewishness of Israeli music remains a subject of enduring cultural controversy and ideological confusion. I argue in this article that the roots of Israeli music’s distinctive national character can be traced to the pre-World War I activities of Abraham Tsvi Idelsohn, the pioneering Zionist scholar and ideological progenitor of a revolutionary new concept of Hebrew music. In his early writings, Idelsohn called repeatedly for a rejection of Diasporic Jewish music and the recovery of an authentic ancient Hebrew music for the reborn nation in its homeland. However, his two most influential early publishing projects, a songbook for Jewish schools and massive compendium of liturgical and folk melodies, reveal a more complicated cluster of attitudes towards European music, Diaspora Jewish culture, and the Arab Middle East. Analyzing Idelsohn’s aesthetics, I discuss his different strategies for reconciling ideological purity alongside cultural cosmopolitanism in Hebrew national culture. I conclude that Idelsohn’s aesthetic categories relied strongly on the semantic power of language to determine music’s cultural meaning. This move allowed Idelsohn to link his model of a new Hebrew national music to the very European (and European Jewish) culture he ostensibly rejected. I close by discussing how Idelsohn’s legacy exposes a deeper continuity in Israeli culture that cuts across the perceived ruptures of 1917 and 1948 to link the early Zionist idea of "Negation of the Exile" to contemporary concerns about Israeliness, music, and national identity.


Aesthetics, Cultural nationalism, Cultural politics, Cultural Zionism, Hebrew culture, Jewish music, Diaspora, Idelsohn, Israeli culture, Israeli music, Musicology, Ottoman Palestine, Orientalism

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