bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

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

Posts Tagged ‘jewish culture’

Sounds of Two Cultures: Music, Synagogue Life, and Jewish‐Christian Relations in Italy

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/11/02

Web announcement of Francesco Spagnolo's lecture at the Center for Jewish Studies of the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, California), Nov. 2nd, 2009.

Following are my notes for the talk (these are only notes to guide my presentation, which lasted approximately 70 minutes, and no, I did not have a “powerpoint”).

  1. Most of the research about Italian Jewish musical culture has focused, since the mid-19th century, on the scant written sources from the [late] Renaissance (16th-17th centuries), more than on the wealth of later, often written and oral sources. This is also true of other, non-musical, scholarly endeavors on Italian Jewry (i.e., the 18th and 19th centuries have been researched somewhat less than previous epochs). There are indeed very good reasons supporting this choice of focus: the “Renaissance” is a period that defined the modes of production of what we commonly call “Jewish culture” in modern times. Music rests at the core of those modes of production.
  2. Researchers have focused more on defining the cultural products of this era (how are they “Jewish”? are they “art”? etc.) than on the ways in which they were produced. (By “musical production” I refer to three aspects: 1. Composition and creation of musical sources; 2. Performance; 3. Reception). The historiography of Jewish music has thus generated a narrative populated by cultural heroes (“Jewish musicians” fighting cultural assimilation and religious conversion: first and foremost Salamone Rossi) and acts of cultural heroism (the performance of “art music” in the Italian ghettos as acts of defiance against anti-Semitism).
  3. An understanding of the modes of production of Italian Jewish musical culture can benefit from a shift of focus, geared towards the specific context in which music was produced: synagogue life. (Synagogue life in a broad sense includes the architectural spaces, the performance of text, the symbolic roles of its “cast of characters,” and the coexistence of assembly, study and worship). This shifts prompts us to reconsider the notions of “Jewish musician” [or artist] and “Jewish art music” [or art] within the broader context of music-making inside and around the synagogues of Italy.
  4. How does one study music in the context of synagogue life?
  • Two stories: 1. The Rabbi and the congregants arguing over whether the shema’ yisrael ought to be recited while sitting or while standing [How many traditions does it take to create a “tradition”?]; and 2. The guy who cannot say “I don’t know” without using his hands [Jewish music occupies the liminal space between text and performance];
  • Intersecting sources (oral, written and literary) and methodologies (ethnography, history and sociology), and an anti-chronological approach.

5. The context of synagogue life allows for the emergence of previously unidentified roles involved in the production of “Jewish music.” Among them are:

  • Rabbis and rabbinic authorities
  • Lay community leaders
  • Young community members vs. old community members: an intergenerational dynamics
  • “Marginal” roles: 1. Women; 2. Children; and 3. Non-Jews (members of the Catholic majority), the latter involved at all levels of musical production (Production; Performance; Reception).


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Purim and Subversiveness in a Song from Livorno — Purim e Sovversione in un canto ebraico livornese

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/03/10

Mi pare che il canto ebraico livornese, Wal viva, viva, nostro Burino!  – che pubblico qui sotto, e che ho incluso nell’antologia Tradizioni musicali degli ebrei italiani – sia un ottimo esempio dell’immaginario sovversivo degli ebrei. Basta leggere le invettive rivolte ad Haman, che viene chiamato “cane” e della cui sorte cruenta si gioisce nel testo, per convincersene.

Secondo lo storico israelo-americano Elliott Horowitz (“The Rite to Be Reckless: On the Perpetration and Interpretation of Purim Violence” in Poetics Today, Vol. 15, No. 1, Purim and the Cultural Poetics of Judaism. (Spring, 1994): 9-54, e poi in un suo libro), le espressioni di violenza contenute nelle manifestazioni “popolari” della celebrazione di Purim sono state nei secoli rivolte alla maggioranza cristiana (o islamica), e più tardi all’oppressione antisemita. Elliott suggerisce che queste espressioni vadano prese sul serio, oltre la sfera prettamente rituale. E ha ragione nel notare che gli storici, soprattutto nel XX secolo, hanno cercato di occultarle. 

Di certo è che questo canto livornese del XVII secolo (noto come Cantica di Purim alla moresca) – sul quale ci sarebbe parecchio altro da dire (per esempio riguardo al fatto che probabilmente si faceva beffa degli ebrei immigrati dal Nord Africa a Livorno, che pronunciavano la “p” come “b” e dunque “Burino” invece di “Purim,” e vengono caratterizzati attraverso espressioni in Arabo “maccaronico”…) – indirizza l’immaginario carnascialesco ebraico verso un epoca in cui gli ebrei erano in grado di manifestare, seppure in forma rituale, il loro disappunto verso una società e una cultura a loro sostanzialmente ostili. E ci fa pensare a come la pubblica espressione del disappunto verso il potere (una sorta di “I would prefer not to” alla Bartelby, per intenderci), sia sempre e comunque sovversivo. 


It seems to me that the Livornese Jewish song, Wal viva, viva, nostro Burino!  – which I am posting below, and that I’ve included in the anthology, Italian Jewish Musical Traditions – is an excellent example of the subversive imagination of the Jews. It’s sufficient to read the invectives uttered against Haman, who is called a “dog” and whose gruesome end causes endless joy in the lyrics, to be convinced of this. 

According to the Israeli-American historian, Elliott Horowitz (“The Rite to Be Reckless: On the Perpetration and Interpretation of Purim Violence” in Poetics Today, Vol. 15, No. 1, Purim and the Cultural Poetics of Judaism. (Spring, 1994): 9-54, and later in a book), the expressions of violence found in the “popular” manifestations of Purim celebrations have over the centuries been turned towards the Christian (or Muslim) majority, and later on to anti-Semitic oppressors.  Elliott suggests that these expressions ought to be taken very seriously, and that they reach beyond the ritual sphere. And he is right when he notes that historians, especially in the 20th century, tried to hide them. 

What is sure is that this Livornese 17th-century song (known as Cantica di Purim alla moresca) – on which a whole lot more could be said (for instance, about the fact that it probably made fun of the Jews who immigrated to Livorno from North Africa, who pronounced “p’s” as “b’s,” as in “Burino” instead of “Purim” and who are stereotyped in pidgin Arabic…) – points the carnival imagination towards a time in which Jews were able to display, even if in a ritual form, their disappointment about a society and a culture that were essentially hostile to them. And this makes us think about how the public display of disappointment about power (a sort of “I would prefer not to” à la Bartelby, to be clear) is always subversive. 


Wal viva, viva, nostro Burino! (or, Cantica di Purim alla Moresca)

Wal viva, viva, nostro Burino! (or, Cantica di Purim alla Moresca)

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Fascism and the Jews – Il Fascismo e gli ebrei

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/11/18

You can read below about an interesting and important academic initiative, which reminds the general public that 1938 (seventy years ago) was not only the year of Kristallnach, but also that of the nefarious Italian anti-Semitic “Laws”. It seems to me, however, that it does not tackle the issue of the impact of Fascism on Italian Jewish life before 1938. In other words, it focuses on the anti-Semitic aspects of Italian Fascism, but disregards (as it commonly happens) how Fascism was also an important factor in the shaping of the cultural identity of the Jews in Italy during the early part of the 20th century, before it became openly persecutory towards them. Very few people have articulated this complex issue, among them Renzo De FeliceAlexander Stille in his book, Benevolence and Betrayal, and Alberto Cavaglion  (the link opens a text in Italian only). 


Potete leggere qui sotto di un’interessante e importante iniziativa accademica, che serve (anche) a ricordare al grande pubblico come il 1938 (settant’anni fa) non sia stato solo l’anno di Kristallnacht, ma anche delle nefaste “Leggi Razziali” italiane. Mi sembra, però, che non si occupi della questione dell’impatto del Fascismo sulla vita ebraica in Italian prima del 1938. In altre parole, si concentra sugli aspetti anti-semiti del fascismo italiano, ma accantona (come spesso accade) come il Fascismo fosse stato un fattore importante nella formazione dell’identità culturale degli ebrei in Italia durante la prima parte del XX secolo, prima che diventasse apertamente persecutorio nei loro confronti. Sono in pochi quelli che hanno articolato questa faccenda delicata, fra loro Renzo De FeliceAlexander Stille, nel suo libro Uno su mille, e  Alberto Cavaglion


(Oh, and here’s a Yutube video with Mussolini’s words announcing the “Laws,” conveniently posted by a user who seems to be a fan — Ed eccovi un video da Youtube con le parole di Mussolini che annunciarono le “Leggi”, utilmente concesso da un utente che ne sembra essere un fan)



Fascism and the Jews: Italy and Britain

Academic Workshop
26th November, 2008, 11am-5pm
Hosted by the Italian Cultural Institute, 39 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8NX
Supported by Royal Holloway, University of London

By taking a comparative approach between two fascist paradigms, this workshop will examine the complicated relationship between fascists, Jews and antisemitism. The principal fascist movements in Italy and Britain were founded with antisemitism absent from their programmes, and although both
eventually adopted it as official policy, their reasons for doing so were far from straightforward. Equally, Jewish responses to fascism varied greatly and developed over time, causing discord within the communities of both countries.

The workshop will be divided thematically into two sections, with each set of papers to be followed by a discussion, led by the relevant speakers but with all attendees encouraged to participate. Academics, students and other interested individuals are invited to join this interactive forum. As
capacity is limited, to book a place please contact  


Keynote Lecture

Dr Aristotle Kallis (Lancaster University)
“The Ambivalent Gaze: Fascists and Jews in Interwar Europe”


The Evolution of Fascist Antisemitism

– Dr Matthew Feldman (University of Northampton) – Make It Crude: Ezra Pound’s Antisemitic Propaganda for the BUF and PNF

– Janet Dack (University of Teesside) – Beyond the Pale? Antisemitism in the British Fascist Press, 1925-36

– Salvatore Garau (Royal Holloway) – The Ideological Development of Antisemitism in Fascist Italy


Jewish Responses to Fascism

– Dr Nigel Copsey (University of Teesside) – Early Jewish Responses to the British Union of Fascists

– Dr Tommaso Dell’Era (Tuscia University, Viterbo) – TBC

– Daniel Tilles (Royal Holloway) – Leading a Divided Community: The Board of Deputies of British Jews and Fascist Antisemitism, 1936-40

– Dr Elena Mazzini (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa) – Facing 1938: The Response of the Italian Jewish Community

Posted in domande, italy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Italian-Jewish/Italian-American (in San Francisco)

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/09/09

I returned last night from an amazing visit to (Jewish) Italy, and will begin reporting on it very soon.

In the meantime, here’s some preliminary coverage of an upcoming exhibition with a very broad/ambitious focus, “Il Ghetto: Forging Italian Jewish Identities, 1516-1870,” opening soon at the Italian-American Museum (or Museo ItaloAmericano) located at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

The article, by Jean Schiffman, appeared last week in the San Francisco Arts Monthly. I was pleasantly surprised to see how my notion of a “shared ownership” of Italian Jewish culture made it into the headline. For me, this is a core idea about culture in general, which I owe, in its musical context, to my teacher and friend Israel Adler.

It is an idea with direct (and complex) political and financial implications. If the ownership of Jewish culture is a shared endeavor, whose responsibility is it to look after, care for and maintain the overwhelming legacy that it leaves behind? Jewish Italy is an interesting paradigm for this discussion: there are hundreds of Jewish “sites” around Italy in which Jews no longer live. And, of course, thousands and thousands of historical documents, which include music – music manuscripts, organs and choir stalls, and the melodies of the oral traditions.


Sono tornato ieri sera da un viaggio straordinario attraverso l’Italia (ebraica), e ne scriverò presto.

Nel frattempo, ecco un iniziale reportage su una mostra dal tema piuttosto ampio e ambizioso, “Il ghetto: La formazione delle identità ebraico-italiane, 1516-1870”, che tra breve aprirà al Museo ItaloAmericano di San Francisco.

L’articolo di Jean Schiffman, è apparso la scorsa settimana sul San Francisco Arts Monthly, e sono rimasto gradevolmente sorpreso dal fatto che la mia nozione di una “proprietà condivisa” della cultura ebraica italiana sia finita nel titolo. Per quanto mi riguarda, si tratta di un’idea centrale rispetto alla cultura in genere. Nel suo contesto musicale, la devo certamente al mio amico e maestro Israel Adler.

Si tratta, tra l’altro, di un’idea dotata di implicazioni politiche e finanziarie dirette (e complesse). Se la proprietà della cultura ebraica è un mandato condiviso, di chi è la responsabilità di prendersi cura e mantenere l’imponente eredità che essa lascia dietro di sè? L’Italia ebraica è un paradigma interessante in questa discussione: vi sono centinai di “siti” ebraici in Italia, dove gli ebrei non abitano più. E vi sono, inoltre, migliaia di documenti storici, che tra l’altro includono la musica – manoscritti, organi e strutture per i cori, e ovviamente le melodie di tradizione orale.

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Ruth Gruber on the European Day of Jewish Culture

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/09/03

Hadassah Magazine runs an article Ruth Gruber wrote on the European Day of Jewish Culture in its current edition. You can read it online — click HERE, then click on current issue (August/September 2008 Vol. 90 No. 1), then scroll down to Letter from Europe: A Jewish Holiday for Everyone.

She writes:

Italy is one of the most enthusiastic participants. Last year, events in more than 55 towns and cities at­tracted 50,000 people—about 15,000 more than the country’s entire Jewish population. This year, even more venues have been added.


Ruth Gruber ha scritto un articolo sulla Giornata Europea della Cultura Ebraica per Hadassah Magazine. Lo si può leggere in rete – fate click QUI, poi su “current issue” (August/September 2008 Vol. 90 No. 1), e infine su Letter from Europe: A Jewish Holiday for Everyone (“Lettera dall’Europa: Una festa ebraica per tutti”).

Ruth scrive:

L’Italia è fra i partecipanti più entusiasti. Lo scorso anno, eventi svoltisi in oltre 55 località hanno avuto 50mila visitatori – circa 15mila in più dell’intera popolazione ebraica della Penisola. Quest’anno sono state aggiunte nuove località.

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