Ignoring religious music hits all the wrong notes

Ben Silvermintz is the high holiday choir director at Congregation Shaare Emeth and the great-grandson of Rabbi Jacob R. Mazur of Brith Shalom Keneseth Israel. He is a graduate of Parkway Central High School and has served as the school’s choir director since 2008. 


What is it that concerns Jewish parents about the programming of religious music in their children’s choral classrooms? I do not want to speculate. But in my position as a high school vocal music director, I have been given the responsibility to select music for study and performance that will foster our singers’ musical, cultural and intellectual development. Frequently, this music is of a religious nature.

I am contacted on a regular basis by choir directors from schools in our area regarding the performance of African-American concert spirituals. While our school programs spirituals on a regular basis as part of a complete music education, these calls and discussions are generally not pedagogical in nature. Rather, the conversation begins something like this: 

“Ben, do you think I can program ‘Spiritual X’ or ‘Spiritual Y’ without getting pushback from Jewish parents?” 

My initial response is usually surprise that my colleague does not frequently program spirituals, because they are an essential part of a comprehensive musical, historical and cultural education (more on this later). Nevertheless, I’ll generally say something along the lines of: 

“Is it a good piece of music? Does it need to be performed for reasons you, as the degreed professional in the room, think are important? If the answer is yes, then do it.” 

At this point, my colleague might say, “Well, the text includes ‘Jesus’ and not just ‘God.’ Is this going to be a problem?” 

I will, again, ask about the importance of the piece in the artistic or historical canon. 

A few weeks later, I might hear that my colleague decided not to rehearse and perform this piece with students for fear of parental objections even though it diminishes student learning and growth. 

As a teacher, parent and member of the Jewish community, this is equal parts frustrating, disappointing and just a little bit embarrassing. I do not believe my choral colleagues are attempting to evangelize; they are simply passionate about educating students using culturally significant works of art.

Let us, for a moment, ignore the fact that very few of the parental complaints I hear about are based on the programming and performance of works by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven (even though all three of these white, Western European men were patronized by the church). This trio alone produced hundreds of liturgical works full of references to God, Jesus, Mary and various other biblical figures but, fortunately for their respective legacies, they wrote in Latin, German and Italian. 

It appears that consternation over the programming of religious works extends neither across the North Atlantic nor through language barriers. Colleagues of mine frequently program music from the Latin Mass or the Requiem Mass unapologetically (and rightly so), with few objections from members of their respective communities. 

“Jesus,” it seems, is a problem. “Jesu” is scholarly. “God” makes us nervous. “Deus” is … fancy-sounding.

Conversely, African-American spirituals, given their English or American dialectic nature, are easy prey for parents who seek to ban the presence of any religious discussion from their children’s education. Yet, removing religious music from the educational setting is like teaching architecture while only studying bathrooms (a brilliant line by one of my colleagues here in the St. Louis area). 

The study of music, history or literature without the study of cultures that influence and are influenced by that music, history and literature is inadequate. It offers an incomplete context for the study of who we are as a nation and a society to a generation of young people who are more connected to each other than any in history. Teaching music that is historically relevant elevates our understanding of each other and those within our society who have been marginalized for hundreds of years.

African-American spirituals in particular offer students a chance to sing our nation’s history. Born in the heart of the Antebellum South, spirituals represent the nightmare of slavery as well as the daring of escape and the yearning for freedom of an oppressed people; might that story sound familiar? 

Spirituals bridge the gap between 19th century America, the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights era. If we are looking to make cross-cultural connections, look no further than the African-American spiritual. Why would we intentionally stunt our children’s exploration of this rich history, particularly when guided by subject matter experts?

If we want to be involved proactively in our children’s music education, if we want to call principals and school board members, it should be to assert our zeal for teaching students who will live in the real world, one that is vibrant, beautiful and diverse. We are not a people who ban books and ignore science. We celebrate cultural exchanges, and we believe in tikkun olam, “healing the world.” 

We can only be a part of that healing process when our children are encouraged to embrace that world, not taught to push it away, hiding in the fear and suspicion of its disrepair.