bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

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

From Lag ba-‘Omer to the Bris – Da Lag ba-‘omer alla Milah

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/05/12

Each year at Lag ba-‘Omer I am reminded of the conundrum: why on earth is Shimon Ben Lawi’s ode to Bar Yochai included in the Roman mishmarah

OK, a few words for the uninitiated…

Shimon Ben Lawi (15th-16th century), a kabbalist who lived between Spain and North Africa and a commentator of the Sefer hazohar, wrote a rather funky (in terms of both language and imagery) ode to the alleged author of the Zohar itself, aka Shimon Bar Yochai. The poem, or piyyut, is commonly sung on Lag ba-‘Omer, precisely for the kabbalistic connections that the holiday has acquired in modern times. 

Now, the very same piyyut is ALSO sung by the Jews of Rome, Italy, on a very different occasion: the mishmarah, or night vigil, that precedes a brit milah, the circumcision of a male newborn. How did it end up in this interesting ceremony of medieval origins? Elliott Horowitz studied this and other nocturnal activities among the Jewish communities of North Africa, Italy and Germany in early modern times. Along with Nello Pavoncello (an Italian rabbi and scholar), he noted how the ceremony as we know it today was crafted by the intervention of Rabbi Tranquillo Vita (Manoach Chayim) Corcos (1660-1730), on the basis of a pre-existing folk Jewish custom. 

As both scholars already noted, Rabbi Corcos’ intervention was a way to claim the popular manifestation (a night vigil accompanied by food, beverages, songs and dance involving men and women) back into the realm of normative Judaism. It consisted in changing the lyrics of the songs with texts that conformed with a religious experience (the ceremony includes piyyutim like ‘Et sha’are ratzon and, of course, Bar Yochai), and having them performed by a “confraternity” of male singers. In other words, the Rabbi’s input focused on text and on performance. The texts were taken from piyyutim widely known: a poem for the High Holy Days and another for Lag ba’Omer  – hence, a direct testimony of how Kabbalah had spread to Rome at the beginning of the 18th century. The changes in the performance practice were probably inspired by the desire to conform to a more standard “moral” conduct. The combination of moral and textual concerns in the modification of a ritual is a distinctive trait predating the Reform movement, which will take place almost a century later. 

However, what was not touched by Rabbi Corcos’ reformist attempt was the music. Why do I say this? Well, the melody used to this day in Rome to sing Shimon Ben Lawi’s ode to Shimon Bar Yochai is certainly not a liturgical, or paraliturgical song. It is very close to the folk repertoire developed in Central Italy to celebrate Catholic Saints.

And it is almost the same as the satyrical ode to Sant’Antonio Abate collected in the Abruzzi region by Giovanna Marini in the 1950’s. The song, performed by Marini herself was popularized as part of the show “Bella Ciao” (1962, by Roberto Leydi and Gianni Bosio). Youtube has a lovely version by the Milanese folk-cabared group, I gufi: Sant’antonie a lu diserte (Saint Anthony of the Desert).  

The coincidence of a shared musical repertoire between Jewish and Christian confraternities is a very interesting phenomenon, that certainly requires further investigation. It certainly takes us to a time in which, without the help of online social media, ideas and material culture were shared across ethnic and religious barriers. 

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Bar Yohai (by Shimon b. Lawi, 15th-16th cent.)

Bar Yochai nimshachta ashrekha 
shemen sason mechaverekha

Bar Yochai shemen mischat qodesh 
nimshachta mimidat haqodesh
nasata tzitz nezer haqodesh 
chavush ‘al roshekha fearekha Bar Yochai 
nimshachta ashrekha shemen sason mechaverekha

Bar Yochai moshav tov yashavta
yom nasta yom asher barachta
bime‘arat tzurim she‘amadta
shem qanita hodekha wehaderekha Bar Yochai
nimshachta ashrekha shemen sason mechaverekha

Bar Yochai ‘atze shitim ‘omdim
Limude adonai hem lomedim
or muffle or hayeqod hem yoqdim
halo hemah yodukha morekha Bar Yochai
nimshachta ashrekha shemen sason mechaverekha

Bar Yochai welishre tapuchim ‘alita
lilqot bo merqachim sode torah
ketzitzim uprachim na‘aseh adam
neemar ba‘avurekha Bar Yochai
nimshachta ashrekha shemen sason mechaverekha 

Oh Bar Yochai, your anointment
Elevated you above your peers

Oh Bar Yochai, the ointment of holiness anointed you beyond measure
Your head is wrapped in a turban with the diadem of holiness, Bar Yochai…

Oh Bar Yochai, since the day you had to flee, you lived in a good place, in a cave among the rocks, where you gained fame and honor, Bar Yochai …

Oh Bar Yochai, those who devote themselves to the study of divine matters are like strong acacia trees, and shine of a wondrous light: they are your teachers, Bar Yochai…

Oh Bar Yochai, you rose to the apple fields to pick scented fruits, the secrets of the Torah, which are like sprouts and flowers; “Let’s create Man” was said on your behalf, Bar Yochai…

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