Discovering Jewish Music

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Charles Krauthammer's office in Washington does not lack for artifacts. He obviously cherishes the snapshot of himself with a laughing Ronald Reagan and the board where he plays chess with Natan Sharansky. But the room's centerpiece is the sepia photograph of a serious-looking man in a fur hat. He was a chief rabbi of Krakow—and Mr. Krauthammer's great-great-grandfather. Mr. Krauthammer is not a believer, but the affinity across the generations is strong. "I consider myself a Shinto Jew," he tells me. "I engage in ancestor worship."

Mr. Krauthammer, a Washington Post columnist and Fox News analyst, grew up in Montreal in a modern-Orthodox home. By the age of 16 he was no longer living a religious life, but a class on Maimonides at McGill University brought him back into the fold. It was there that he understood for the first time "that Jewish philosophy was not parochial, was not superstitious, but was at the level of the great philosophies of Western culture."

This "moment of revelation" renewed in Mr. Krauthammer "a sense of wonder about Jewish tradition and culture" even as his career took him into the world of political commentary. His great-great-grandfather, he jokes, "spent his life writing commentaries on the Torah. I spend my life writing commentaries on New York Times editorials—which is an argument against evolution."

So how does this religious nonbeliever practice his Judaism? By highlighting an overlooked aspect of Jewish culture. Together with his wife, Robyn, Mr. Krauthammer runs Pro Musica Hebraica, a concert series they launched last year to change the common view that "Jewish music" is hava nagila, liturgical music, klezmer and not much else. Earlier this month, Pro Musica Hebraica presented its fourth concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

There is a rich tradition of Jewish classical music, though it is largely unknown even within the Jewish community. For Pro Musica Hebraica, such music is not defined strictly by the composer's ethnicity. It must simply be "self-consciously Jewish"—by drawing on Jewish folk music, Hebrew texts or Jewish themes. Pro Musica Hebraica is an attempt to recover a tradition, Mr. Krauthammer says, and to encourage audiences to judge whether it might be worthy of "a place in the Western canon."...

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