Contemporary Jewry

, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 365–386 | Cite as

Singing in Hebrew or Reading in English? An Ethnographic Analysis of Music and Change Among Progressive Jews in the UK

  • Ruth IllmanEmail author


This article explores the role of music in contemporary processes of change within progressive Judaism in the UK. By analyzing ethnographic research material gathered among progressive Jews in London between 2014 and 2016, it illustrates a burgeoning trend in the Western world today: the wish to combine liberal theology with religious practices that are experienced as increasingly traditional, and the important role played by music and musical forms of expression in this process. Building on theoretical insights from religious studies and ethnomusicology, three research questions are put forward related to the role of music in processes of religious change concerning the perceived relationship between language and emotions, singing as a religious practice, and embodiment as a form of “doing” Jewish. The article also analyzes and discusses the views expressed in the interview material in light of the research questions arising from the literature. As a conclusion, the ethnographic analysis is summarized in a thought-provoking quotation from the interview data, aptly capturing the theoretical implications suggested by the research: “I’m convinced that reading English that you understand is no more helpful than singing Hebrew that you feel.”


Judaism Jewish music Religion and change Hebrew Embodiment Emotions 



The author wishes to thank the three anonymous reviewers, who by their insightful and constructive comments greatly improved the quality and analysis of this article. A warm thank you also to Dr. Clive Tolley for language editing the manuscript.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural HistoryÅbo Akademi UniversityTurkuFinland

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