(Shabbat) Angels in America: Israel Goldfarb, “Shalom Aleichem,” and the Search for Nusach America





Jewish Music, American Music, Liturgy, Migration, Music Education


Contemporary American synagogue congregations love to sing a flowing melody for the hymn “Shalom Aleichem” to welcome the Sabbath on Friday evenings. The song has entered the Jewish folk tradition, and speaks to singers of home and nostalgia. However, the song’s history and construction reveal both its genesis in an American Jewish community in the midst of a significant transformation of nation and practice and the crucial role that it played in bringing that community together and forming the basis of a truly American style of Jewish worship. I approach this song on two fronts. My primary approach is historical, delving into the immediate circumstances under which Rabbi Israel Goldfarb composed the song in May of 1918, and the broader forces affecting Jewish religious life in the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. I address changes taking place in American Jewish life, generation gaps between American Jews, and the rise of the Jewish education movement, and I demonstrate how Goldfarb’s song reached a significant audience of adults and children alike and helped to address these transitional challenges in Jewish life. My secondary approach is socio-cultural. I ask why this particular one of the many melodies that Goldfarb composed caught the American Jewish imagination and became a foundation of contemporary American synagogue song. Its mode and its structure reveal Goldfarb’s compositional skill at combining both Jewish and Western elements into a flexible song that children could learn and pass on to their children, creating a folk song through generations of use. Taken together, these approaches demonstrate how a four-stanza hymn could pave the way for the development of an American Jewish soundscape.

Author Biography

Rachel Adelstein, Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel

Dr. Rachel Adelstein is an ethnomusicologist, and the Ritual Coordinator at Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven, Connecticut.  She received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 2013.  Between 2014 and 2017, she was the Donnelley Research Fellow at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge.  Her published work addresses women's music and agency in Jewish sacred spaces, music in British synagogues, and the history and meaning of congregational melodies.