bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

[a bi-lingual blog on cultural identity] – [un blog bilingue di identità culturali]

The Thorny Issue of “Jewish Music” (English Only)

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/12/20

Below is the original text of my notes for tonight’s concert, Pomegranate and Figs, at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California. I am grateful to a new friend, Kaila Flexer, for including me in the program. (The published version of the concert notes can be downloaded here

I always felt that the “Italian link” in understanding the history of the notion of “Jewish music” deserves better attention, and here I tried to plug it into a general overview of the subject. 

Today, the thorny question of what makes music “Jewish” is often avoided (and feared) by scholars, musicologists and cultural historians alike, but it does occasionally spark heated discussions on e-mail lists, and gathers the attention of bloggers worldwide. It is indeed a question with a thousand possible answers, and one that generates additional questions, which in turn end up blending and overlapping with one another… Invariably, the answers fail to consider the world of sounds, and instead raise issues concerning the many Jewish identities and cultures that surround us.

However, it was not so in the past, when European scholars – Christian and Jewish – shaped the modern notion of Jewish music, and in a way almost invented it. The first interest in the musical world of the Jews – and especially in what Jews sang in their place of worship, the synagogue – arose since the 16th century among Christian humanists, to whom we owe the very notion of musica hebræorum (in Latin, “music of the Hebrews”). These scholars, who immediately understood that the music of the Jews had long been transmitted by way of oral tradition, hoped to find within Jewish liturgy the traces of Hebraic antiquity, and thus the roots of Christianity itself. Instead, what they found was a universe of diverse sounds (a ”world music” of sort) generated by the fact that Jews had lived in Diaspora for many centuries. In the fourth volume of his Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica (Rome, 1693), Father Giulio Bartolocci listed three different ways in which the Jews of his times chanted the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), and provided musical transcriptions according to the “German,” “Spanish” and “Italian” traditions, de facto stating the cultural differences between Jews who originated from ancient Palestine and those who lived in Central Europe (also known as Ashkenazi Jews) or that descended from the Iberian Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal after 1492 (Sephardic Jews). Other Christian researchers followed in this path and by the 19th century, when Jewish scholars also became interested in the topic, it was very clear that there was no such thing as one “Jewish music” that characterized all Jews living across the four corners of the earth, and that Jews sang and played a host of musical traditions, almost all transmitted orally, which shared their traits more with the host non-Jewish cultures than among themselves. This diversity preoccupied Jewish intellectuals, whom in the midst of the Romantic and nationalistic fervors of 19th-century Europe were instead trying to prove, once and for all, the unity and distinctiveness (and thus the intrinsic value) of Judaism. The study of Jewish music by Jews themselves was therefore initially aimed at creating a place for Jewish musical culture, and not just for its supposedly ancient Hebraic construct, within the canons Western cultural history. This preoccupation, and especially the rise of Zionism, led to a progressive focus on the diversity of the oral tradition and on the importance of non-European Jewish cultures. In 1907, when Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882-1938), the founder of modern Jewish musicological research, moved to Palestine, he was confronted with an overwhelming variety of Jewish oral traditions, which included liturgical music, folk songs and instrumental practice by Jews originating from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe, the Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East, the Arabian peninsula and Central Asia. Already then, the Eurocentric dicotomy between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish musical worlds was proving insufficient: Arab music, its modes (or maqamat) and aesthetic sensibilities were equally essential to Jewish musical history and required a whole new consideration. Throughout the 20th century, Idelsohn’s quest for the unifying traits in this panoply of sounds has morphed into a research field that combines musicology, ethnography and anthropology, and that examines the variables of musical production in the context of the cultures of the Jews in the Global Diaspora.


While the notion of “Jewish music” is clearly a scholarly construct, the place of sounds and of musical practice within Jewish life is a fascinating reality that presents itself in many different guises. Since at least the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish music has existed in two parallel arenas. On the one hand, it continues to be produced (and consumed) within the specific context of communal Jewish life, and thus as part of synagogue liturgy and life cycle events, throughout the globe. The Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel have had a great impact on Jewish musical traditions. The destruction of countless European communities forever changed the soundscape of Europe, and the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East equally changed the soundscape of the Islamic world. Reconstructed Jewish traditions were subsequently recreated in Israel and the United States, where new musical expressions, including secular musical cultures, have progressively been shaped. On the other hand, Jewish musical traditions have been the constant object of study and re-interpretation by Jewish performers and composers, primarily since the diffusion of commercial sound recordings. Artistic involvement has traditionally focused on Ashkenazi (i.e., East European) traditions, but also, and possibly for a longer time, on Sephardic (i.e., “Iberian” and/or “Mediterranean”) music. Early attempts to present the liturgical music of the Sephardic Jews on stage date back to late 19th-century Italy, while the “Jewish Folk Music Society,” active in St. Petersburg between 1908 and 1918, focused on the Klezmer (instrumental) music, and the Hassidic and Yiddish song of the Ashkenazi Jews. The fact that traditional Jewish music, performed by professionally trained musicians, has been prominently featured by the recording industry has in turn influenced the practice within communal life, and traditional performers have increasingly attempted to sound more “like a recording” by adopting the repertoires popularized by their artistic counterparts. A symptomatic by-product of the confluence between “tradition” and “art” is the flourishing, in Israel first and then in the United States, of a new musical genre – labelled musiqah mizrachit (in Hebrew, “Oriental music”) in Israel and “Mizrahi music” in the US – which includes Arab (and thus, “Oriental”) modes, pop and rock arrangements, hints to a “world music” aesthetics, and lyrics that combine religious references and liturgical Hebrew with nods to the international canons of the “love song” repertoire.

The Jewish musical genres that have been the center of artistic and cultural revivals are Klezmer music, and Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish (or Ladino) song. These genres are all prominently featured in tonight’s program through the interpretations of outstanding Bay Area performers. While music from their repertoires is sometimes presented together, often on the grounds of their shared “Jewish-ness,” they belong to very different soundscapes and social contexts. Klezmer music is the instrumental repertoire of the Jewish professional instrumentalists (klezmorim or, in Yiddish, “vessels/tools of song”) from Eastern Europe, who traditionally accompanied Jewish weddings and other festive occasions, and also earned a living by playing at the weddings of their non-Jewish neighbors. The klezmorim had to be fluent in a variety of musical styles in order to please their highly multi-ethnic patrons, and their musical repertoires incorporated elements from Bulgarian, Rumanian, Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian music, synagogue influences, and globalized styles like the Polka. Upon the mass immigration of East-European Jews to the Americas, the klezmorim adapted to the changing taste of their Jewish audience and incorporated elements of Swing and Jazz into their sounds, until their music became unappealing to the new generations of American Jews. Since the early 1970’s, the music of the klezmorim became the object of a new revival launched by musicians in Israel (Giora Feidman), New York City (Walter Zev Feldman and Andy Statman) and the San Francisco Bay Area (“The Klezmorim”). These early revivalists became the source for a small “army” of followers, and their music has become a new “primary source.” By the 1980’s, Klezmer music became a mass phenomenon within the World Music market, and it progressively incorporated Yiddish songs. Songs in Yiddish, which were not traditionally sung or accompanied by klezmorim, had been created in traditional Jewish contexts (bridging secular and religious themes) like other folk song repertoires in Jewish languages throughout the Diaspora, including Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Spanish. Beginning with the 19th century, however, Yiddish songs started to be written by Jewish poets and composers both as theater songs – in the growing arena of Yiddish theater – and as art songs, and to involve a virtually endless variety of musical styles, ranging from synagogue modes to Tango, from Russian folk themes to Jazz. The revival of Klezmer music has bridged the distance between these two genres, and today Yiddish songs (with all their aesthetic implications) are often considered an integral part its repertoire. Similarly, the genesis of Judeo-Spanish songs is the result of many layers of music and text. Their lyrics are in Judeo-Spanish, a language developed by the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula following the edict of 1492, promulgated by the Kings of Spain. Some of these lyrics originate directly from medieval Spanish literary models, and include detailed references to Spanish historical events. Others were instead created later, as part of the oral tradition of the Sephardic Jews living in the Ottoman Empire, where they found a new home after their expulsion. Their music varies greatly, as it was created in the Balkans, in Greece, the Turkey and Morocco, and it is often based on the Arab maqam system. Traditionally performed by women with minimal instrumental accompaniment, that of Judeo-Spanish song is, however, a relatively recent musical repertoire (traceable to the late 19th century), which bears traces of the melodies popularized by the global recording industry, and thus includes tangos and references to Opera. The staged versions of these songs, however, frequently include arrangements based on the canons of Medieval, Early and Mediterranean music, in an attempt to bring Judeo-Spanish songs back to an ancient, and often idealized past. 

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