Mikey Pauker, seen here performing at Cornerstone Brewery in Berkeley, is one of the musicians behind a petition to add a Jewish music category to the Grammys. (Photo/Courtesy Pauker)
Mikey Pauker, seen here performing at Cornerstone Brewery in Berkeley, is one of the musicians behind a petition to add a Jewish music category to the Grammys. (Photo/Courtesy Pauker)

Why these two musician friends want the Grammys to add a Jewish music category

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There is a Grammy Award for just about every kind of music — from pop to metal to New Age to Contemporary Christian — but there’s no Jewish category. Two Jewish musician friends hope to change that.

Mikey Pauker, a “devotional rock” artist who lived in Northern California for many years, is working with Grammy-winner Joanie Leeds of New York on a formal proposal to add Best Jewish Music Album to the list of Grammys awarded each year. They plan to submit their proposal to the Recording Academy, the body that governs the Grammys, by March 1.

Pauker, who was the music director at Wilderness Torah and a song leader at Camp Newman, told J. that he and Leeds have consulted with rabbis and Jewish educators about what constitutes Jewish music. “We’re doing our best to be as clear as possible and as inclusive as possible, because not everybody knows that Jewish music is diverse,” he said. “It’s transdenominational, it’s based in spirituality, it’s based in culture and it’s not just Ashkenazi.”

In the past, albums of what is traditionally considered to be Jewish music have been nominated in a variety of categories, including Best Contemporary World Music. The Klezmatics earned what some referred to as “the first Jewish Grammy” when their album “Wonder Wheel” won in that category in 2006.

In their proposal, Pauker and Leeds make the case for a new category that will encompass Jewish religious music, such as cantorial music, nigguns and Mizrahi music, as well as secular music, such as klezmer, Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic music. Albums with Christian themes, including those produced by Messianic Jews, would not be eligible.

“Jewish music is amazing and there’s a lot of it, and it’s not being recognized yet,” Leeds told J. “We’re so niche, and we need to educate the [Jewish] community, not just the Recording Academy.”

The Recording Academy regularly adds and modifies Grammy categories. This year, it added five new ones, including Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media and Best Spoken Word Poetry Album.

Pauker said this is not the first time musicians have petitioned the Recording Academy to add a Jewish category. But this time, he said, he and Leeds can point to the consistent output of high-quality Jewish music in recent years. He noted that in the past two years alone, more than 100 albums were released that could have been nominated in such a category.

“We’re at a point in music history where we’re having a Jewish renaissance, and the market has arrived,” he said. “We have enough artists where we can get this done.” He added that the Recording Academy has been very supportive of him and Leeds in their endeavor.

In an effort to raise awareness about their proposal, they have launched a petition on the Change.org website. By Friday afternoon, it had more than 700 signatures, including from non-Jewish musicians.

Among the signers is Sephardic singer and activist Sarah Aroeste. In a message to J., she said she supports the push to add a Jewish category at the Grammys because her albums, including 2021’s “Monastir,” do not fit cleanly into the other categories.

“Jewish music crosses so many musical boundaries, yet we get lost, or are ineligible, in existing categories,” she wrote. “As a Ladino musician specifically, I’ve always been put in the global music category. I am literally up against musical acts from all around the globe!”

She added, “Having our own category — much like other ethnic or religious groups have them — would highlight the breadth and diversity of Jewish music as a genre and would allow those Academy members knowledgeable about the music to be able to vote.”

Pauker, 37, lives in Orange County and recently launched his own folk-rock-reggae-chant record label called Beautiful Way Records. He will help lead Shabbat services during Wilderness Torah’s upcoming Passover in the Desert festival in Southern California. Leeds, who is based in New York City, won a 2021 Grammy in the Best Children’s Music Album category for her ninth, secular children’s album, “All the Ladies.” Pauker said the two became close friends during the pandemic, when they spent many hours on the social media app Clubhouse discussing Judaism and music.

As the Recording Academy considers their proposal in the coming weeks, Pauker said he and Leeds will hold community conversations about trends in Jewish music. “One of our hopes is this will launch hundreds of new artists, new records and collaborations that can really help push this genre forward,” he said.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.