By Alan Zeitlin
(JNS) Maybe “bubbie” can win a Grammy.
Two Jewish musicians are working to create a Jewish music category for the Grammy Awards—one that might just have Jewish grammys singing along.
They might even have their answer from the Recording Academy of the United States, which puts on the annual program, by the fall.
Joanie Leeds, a Jewish Manhattanite who often performs at synagogues and Jewish institutions, won a Grammy for best children’s album in 2021 for “All the Ladies,” whose songs range from “If Girls Ruled the World” and “RBG” to “Glass Ceilings” and “Lioness.”
Leeds told JNS that she was at an event a few months ago in New York with about 40 other people in the music industry. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was at hand, and Leeds asked the congressman about his favorite music. When Nadler answered “liturgical, cantorial music,” Leeds inquired if he enjoyed the music of Debbie Friedman, an American Jewish songwriter whose music is a mainstay in many synagogue and temple youth group services. (Friedman died in 2011 at the age of 59; her inspirations were folk artists like Joan Baez.)
When Nadler confirmed that he was a big fan of the renowned singer, Leeds got the impression that others had no idea about whom they were talking.
“People were looking at me like I had two heads,” she told JNS.
After Leeds talked with friend and fellow Jewish recording artist Mikey Pauker in California, the two decided to lobby the academy to create a formal Grammy category of Jewish music.
“We were encouraged by members of the recording academy to create this petition to generate support in the world Jewish community,” Pauker told JNS.
He added that for a category to be considered, it must have two years of 100 albums that have a minimum of five tracks on each.
A petition the two posted on Change.org to create a Jewish music grammy category has garnered more than 2,000 signatures to date.
“Much like the Jewish Diaspora, Jewish Music is currently spread out over many categories (American Roots, Rock, New Age, World, Pop, Classical, Reggae … ),” per the petition. It adds that Jewish music spans many styles, and can be religious or secular and sung in many languages.
“Because Judaism and its music does not include the Second Testament or Christian themes, it does not fit into the Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music genre,” it adds. “While the music is created by musicians all over the globe, it doesn’t fit in Global, because this category excludes musicians of European descent.”
Decades ago, some might have said that there wasn’t enough Jewish music to justify a category. “We are living in a renaissance period, where there has never been so much Jewish music as there is today,” said Pauker. (Both Pauker and Leeds are voting members of the academy.)
‘There is so much beautiful music’
Jeff Klepper, a retired cantor and recording artist, told JNS an effort in the 1990s aimed to address a Best Jewish Album category for the Grammys. Nothing was submitted in writing to the academy, as far as he remembers.
“We had a discussion with other Jewish musicians, and we were trying to come up with the rationale,” said Klepper. “The Grammys are about the business of music and what people are buying. Word came back to us that there were existing categories. Debbie Friedman would be folk, and Ofra Haza would be in the World category.”
A Best Jewish Album category would be a good thing to Klepper, but he does not think the petition is a slam dunk for academy approval, despite an “explosion” of Jewish music in the past three decades.
For Klepper, the best-case scenario would be two Jewish categories: one for traditional and one for contemporary.
Leeds believes that the first official written request for a Jewish music category came from her and Pauker, and that the academy will make a decision in the next few months. Pauker noted that the academy will consider the petition on merit, irrespective of the number of signatories. The academy did not respond to a query from JNS.
Deborah Sacks Mintz, a rabbi and member of the female trio New Moon Rising, who is director of tefillah (“prayer”) and music at the Hadar Institute in New York, told JNS that she would like Jewish music to have as large an audience as possible.
“There is so much beautiful music, new and old, from across communities and traditions,” she said. “It would be impactful and exciting to share that more broadly with the music-loving world.”
Leeds is cautiously optimistic: “I’m a superstitious person, so I don’t know what will happen. I really hope it goes through—because it deserves to.”
Main Photo: Grammy Awards. Credit: Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock.