bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

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Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

On the Music of the Jews in Rome

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2011/06/15

A slightly different version of this text appeared last month on the website of the Primo Levi Center, on the occasion of a concert presented by the choir of the Tempio Maggiore (the main synagogue) or Rome at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. (For a copy of the complete concert notes, click here).

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The history of Jewish music in Italy is long, fascinating, and filled with contradictions. Its length is due to the very history of Italian Jewry, whose origins go back more that two thousand years. Fascination stems from the meeting of the music of the Jewish Diaspora, represented in Italy by an unprecedented interaction among distinct Italian, Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, with Italian musical culture and its innumerable cultural, regional and linguistic differences. The contradictions concern the thousand identities, visible and invisible, of the Jews of Italy: the secrecy of the ghettos, places of exclusion and also of explosive musical ferments emblematically represented in the works of Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570-1630); the conflicts and the hidden consonances between Judaism and Christianity, and the distance between the liturgy of the Church and that of the synagogue, at once brief and unattainable; the integration, and the cultural symbiosis, of Jews and Italy, and the shared feeling so beautifully expressed by Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco (1842); the relentless liturgical modernization carried out during the Emancipation in the 19th century, which forever changed the “soundscape” of the Italian synagogue with the addition of choral repertoires and instrumental accompaniment imitating the operatic styles of Gioachino Rossini and others; and the tragic character of the Fascist parable, ended in the Holocaust and the destruction of Italian synagogue life.

Following the Holocaust, Italian Jewish communities large and small have attempted to reconstruct their liturgical repertoires by constantly revisiting the musical structure of synagogue services, by staging public performances of cantors and small choirs, and by releasing commercial recordings featuring historical choral repertoires no longer included in the liturgy. This reconstruction, based on both oral and written sources, highlights the complex dynamics that characterize Jewish musical memory, revealing some intimate aspects of Jewish communal life. Oral sources come from the individual memory of culture bearers, handed down by oral traditions, as well as from the important field recordings made by Italian-Israeli ethnomusicologist Leo Levi (1912-1982), which documented the local traditions of twenty different Italian Jewish communities. Written sources include the transcription of local oral repertoires, most notably those published by Benedetto Marcello (of Venice, 1724-27) Federico Consolo (of Livorno, 1892), Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (of Ferrara, 1936) and Elio Piattelli (of Rome, Piedmont and Florence, 1967, 1986 and 1992), as well as thousands of manuscript music scores. Music manuscripts include 17th– and 18th-century compositions often connected with Kabbalistic representations (in Venice, Casale Monferrato, Pisa and Siena), and thousands of settings of liturgical texts in Hebrew (and at times in Italian) by a host of professional and amateur synagogue composers, Jews and non-Jews alike, kept in Jewish community archives throughout the Peninsula (including Turin, Venice, Padua, Mantua, and Rome), at the Bibliographic Center of UCEI (the Union of Italian Jewish Communities) in Rome and in the Music Department of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, and in the private homes of Italian Jews in Italy and Israel. The comparison between oral and written sources shows their inter-relations. While many written sources were created to record an ever-changing (or vanishing) oral tradition, original musical compositions often ended up influencing oral repertoires. Oftentimes, the music sung by today’s synagogue cantors in a traditional solo-voice style and perceived by synagogue-goers as “ancient” and “authentic,” is nothing by a “re-traditionalized” memory of 19th-century choral pieces, of which only the main melody (and not the choral parts, at times sung by female or mixed choirs, or the original organ accompaniment) has been preserved in oral form.

The musical repertoires of the community of Rome represent an emblematic case of interaction among the different layers of Italian Jewish musical memory. The peculiar history of this community is indeed reflected in its music. The traditional soundscape of Roman Jewry was forever changed in 1904, when the inauguration of a new, monumental synagogue (the “Tempio Maggiore”), de-facto erased the pre-existing oral traditions kept in the “Cinque Scuole,” the synagogue of the ghetto that preserved the rituals of several congregations according to their geographic origins (including Italy, Sicily, Castile, and Catalunia), by merging them into a unified ritual. The notion of unifying Italy’s diverse Jewish liturgical rituals, an idea that goes back to the advent of Kaballah in 16th-century Venice, had been formulated in a Responsum (1841) by a leading 19th-century modernist Rabbi, Lelio Della Torre (1805-1871), a teacher at the Rabbinical College in Padua. The process had already been tested out in Florence with the inauguration of the monumental synagogue of that city (1882), the merger of local Italian and Sephardic traditions, and the adoption of the Spanish-Portuguese liturgy of Livorno.

As it had already happened in Florence, the pre-existing oral traditions of the Roman community never completely faded from memory, and have since been kept alive by individual cantors and families, and inserted in the new ritual through the elaborate mixture of musical syncretism and cultural negotiation that characterizes each and every Italian Jewish community. These traditions, however, had not existed unchallenged before the opening of the new Roman synagogue. On the contrary, they had already been sharing the liturgical stage with a new musical repertoire, made of choral music, for at least half a century. This new music was originally imported from other Italian communities, especially Livorno – a thriving center of Jewish cultural innovation, and the birthplace of many of Rome’s “Chief Rabbis” in the 20th century, including David Prato (1882-1951) and Elio Toaff (b. 1915) – from where composers like Michele Bolaffi, David Garzia, and Ernesto Ventura began changing Italy’s Jewish sounds since the early 19th century. Beginning in 1845, musical composition also became the domain of local composers and choir directors – including Settimio Scazzocchio, Saul Di Capua, Amadio Disegni and Salvatore Saya, among others – whose work was included in the liturgy. Their impact of synagogue music was tremendous, and their work began to be recorded in the Italian Jewish press. A report published in L’Educatore Israelita (a periodical issued in Vercelli, Piedmont), dated 1856, offers a vivid description of how choral music was influencing the culture of the Roman Jewish community, adopting an agenda inspired by modernization and interfaith dialogue (with the Catholic majority), in line with the development of the Jewish Reform movement in northern Italy and throughout Europe.

“In 1845, an association of young men, devoted to the uplifting of the decorum of the liturgy at least on the Sabbath and the major holidays, began studying music so that they could sing as a choir during said holidays, performing the Psalms and other texts. […] Shortly thereafter, three of our synagogues had their choristers trained by distinguished Jewish music teachers. It was also decided to turn these teachers into composers, and they produced excellent works, as heard from Capua, Di Veroli, Disegni, and Scazzocchio.”

Less than a decade later, the modernizing effect of this music had already taken the lead, attracting not only Jews, but also Catholic synagogue-goers. The same periodical thus reported in 1862:

“During the nights of Passover […] our synagogues were full of Catholics, who behaved with the utmost decorum. The synagogue most frequented by Catholics is the Scuola Catalana, since it is embellished by a choir of chosen young men, who truly honored the Festival with religious music, and on the last night [of the Festival] entertained both religious Jews and Catholic visitors with a new Yigdal, set to music by Settimio Scazzocchio, the young director of the choir.”

Posted in culture, italy, lectures, music | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

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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Bel Canto?!? A few notes on a recent Nextbook podcast — Pensierini a proposito di un podcast apparso recentemente su Nextbook

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/12/15

One of my favorite sites, Nextbook, recently posted a new podcast, Bel Canto, which centers around composer Yotam Haber’s Death Will Come and She Shall Have Your Eyes, which he composed during a year-long residency at the American Academy in Rome, and presented there last May. This composition, excerpts of which can be listened to via Nextbook, is based on — among other things — field recordings of Italian Jewish music that Leo Levi (Casale Monferrato, 1912 – Jerusalem, 1982) made between 1954 and 1962, kept in the Ethnomusicology Archives of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Italy’s National Music Academy, in Rome. I give some background information on Leo Levi in this blog (see my bibliography page), and I plan to give more in the future. 

I never enjoy criticizing other people’s work, and I will try to do it here in as few words as possible. Let me just clarify that my critique has nothing to do with Yotam Haber’s music (for one thing, I absolutely LOVE his reference to Cesare Pavese), and everything to do with his words in the course of the interview, and with Nextbook’s podcast itself. Normally, I would keep this kind of criticism to myself, or share it among my colleagues. However, the exposure that Nextbook gives to Haber’s misconceptions makes me want to take a slightly more public role than the one I am usually more comfortable with. 

A bit of background. In the years 1998-2002 I worked for the Accademia di Santa Cecilia and cataloged Levi’s field recordings of Italian Jewish music, which are kept both in Rome and at the National Sound Archives of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. I also edited an anthology based on these recordings: a CD+booklet was issued jointly by the Accademia and the Jewish Music Research Center of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In addition, Levi’s recordings are a major source for my dissertation, The Musical Traditions of the Jews in Piedmont (Italy), written at the Hebrew University, for several articles I published in academic journals, and for a bunch of papers I have presented at academic conferences around the world. I list these facts only to assure my readers that I have been giving a great deal of thought to these recordings. This of course does not automatically mean that I understand them better than anyone else, but it does make me a somewhat informed listener of Italian Jewish music, and a fairly conscientious listener of Nextbook’s podcast.  

It is not the first time that Nextbook deals with Italian Jewish music. They did so in an interview with yours truly (by Boris Fishman), which I enjoyed very much: Ghetto Music. And I am sure that Yotam Haber, whom I have not met in person, but with whom I had several e-mail exchanges after he contacted me while he was in Rome researching the sources of his work, was as excited as I was about being featured on Nextbook. I am also convinced that Haber meant well, and that his enthusiasm for Roman Jewish music is genuine and, altogether, a “good thing” for Italian Jewish music. 

This being said, my critique of Haber’s interview is very simple. There is virtually NOTHING in what he says in Nextbook’s podcast that matches anything I have learned about the musical traditions of the Jews in Rome: 

  • The “dusty old recordings of Roman cantors” mentioned in the podcast were digitized in 2001: their catalog is accessible online, either through the website of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia or through that of the Jerusalem National Sound Archives;
  • It is unlikely that the music of the Roman Jews is 2000 years old (or more);
  • Historically, Ashkenazi traditions have had very little to do with the Roman community (I am not sure why Haber suggests that they did);
  • The music of the Roman Jews is everything BUT “unadulterated” by external influences: in the 19th century, Roman Jewry was “colonized” by the Jewish communities of Northern Italy (Piedmont above all), and a host of new music was composed in order to “modernize” what the rest of Italian Jewry perceived (note: “perceived”) as a backwards tradition, still steeped in the darkness of ghetto life; in the 20th century, Rome’s synagogue music was “colonized” again, this time by the “Sephardic” music of Livorno, and by a host of Livornese Rabbis-Cantors, like David Prato and, more recently (but for over fifty years), Elio Toaff; in addition, some of Rome’s liturgical songs were arranged in the 1950’s by a handful of composers active in Cinecittà, like Nino Rota; finally, in the 20th-21st century, Rome’s ritual authorities “imported” aspects of the liturgy of other Italian Jewish communities: the Roman rendition of the haftarah, for example, was modeled on that of Turin, since its “original” tradition had been lost;  
  • The influence of the music of the Catholic Church on the sounds is particularly evident in Rome: most non-Roman Italian synagogue cantors commonly joke about how Rome’s synagogue “sound” is similar to that of the Church; 
  • These influences (Jewish and Christian) do not mean that Roman Jewish music is not “ancient,” or “authentic”: it is, by all standards, a unique body of Jewish music, in which some fairly ancient rituals (like the amazing Mishmarah) coexists with more recent additions. 

As any scholar of Jewish music knows, our field is crowded with misconceptions. These have to do with music, but more often with history, and with the cultural identity of the Jews. In some cases, these misconceptions give way to real — and really disturbing — stereotypes. This is when I feel like reacting strongly. It has very little to do with my integrity as a scholar, and everything to do with my responsibility as a thinking and culturally active person. 

When Yotam Haber contacted me last year, I did suggest all of the above to him in the course of a lengthy e-mail exchange. It would have been wonderful to find an echo of the complexity of Italy’s Jewish musical culture in his statements to Nextbook. It is really too bad that his interview became instead a vehicle to propagate a host of stereotypes about Italian Jewry (its antiquity and exoticism, just to be precise) that really do not belong in an informed narrative about Judaism and its cultures. 

Well, at least I am glad that Yotam Haber is not a musicologist: we can always enjoy his music.

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Uno dei miei siti preferiti, Nextbook, ha recentemente pubblicato un nuovo podcast, Bel Canto, che si occupa di Death Will Come and She Shall Have Your Eyes (“Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi”) del compositore Yotam Haber, un brano composto durante la sua residenza di un anno presso l’Accademia Americana di Roma, e presentato là lo scorso mese di maggio. Questa composizione, di cui si possono ascoltare alcuni brani su Nextbook, è basata — fra altre cose — sulle registrazioni sul campo di canti ebraici italiani che Leo Levi (Casale Monferrato, 1912 – Gerusalemme, 1982) realizzò tra il 1954 e il 1962, e che sono conservate presso gli Archivi di Etnomusicologia dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia a Roma. Ho già fornito alcune indicazioni su Leo Levi in questo blog (vedi la mia pagina bibliografica), e conto di fornirne ancora in futuro. 

Non mi piace criticare il lavoro degli altri, e cercherò qui di farlo con il minor numero di parole possibile. Vorrei chiarire che la mia critica non ha nulla a che vedere con la musica di Yotam Haber (ad essere franchi, ADORO il riferimento a Cesare Pavese), e tutto a che vedere con quanto dichiara nel corso dell’intervista, e con l’intero podcast di Facebook. In genere tenderei a tenermi le critiche per me stesso, o a distribuirle fra i miei colleghi. La pubblicità che Nextbook offre alle nozioni strampalate espresse da Haber, però, mi suggerisce che sia il caso di adottare un profilo leggermente più pubblico di quello al quale sono solito.

Un po’ di retroscena. Tra il 1998 e il 2002 ho lavorato per l’Accademia di Santa Cecilia e catalogato le registrazioni dei canti ebraici italiani di Leo Levi, che sono conservate sia a Roma e alla Fonoteca di Stato presso la Biblioteca Nazionale e Universitaria di Gerusalemme. Ho anche curato un’edizione antologica di queste registrazione: un CD+libretto è stato pubblicato congiuntamente dall’Accademia e dal Jewish Music Research Center dell’Università Ebraica di Gerusalemme. Le registrazioni di Levi hanno inoltre avuto un ruolo importantissimo come fonti per la mia tesi di dottorato (Le tradizioni musicali degli ebrei in Piemonte, scritta presso l’Università Ebraica), e per svariati articoli che ho pubblicato in riviste accademiche, e in un bel po’ di conferenze che ho tenuto in varie parti del mondo. Elenco queste cose solo per assicurare i miei lettori del fatto che ho prestato parecchia attenzione a queste registrazioni. Questo non significa automaticamente che io li comprenda meglio di chiunque altro, ma di certo mi rende un ascoltatore abbastanza informato della musica ebraica italiana, e un ascoltatore altrettanto coscenzioso del podcast di Nextbook.  

Non è la prima volta che Nextbook si occupa di musica ebraica italiana. Lo aveva fatto in un’intervista con il sottoscritto (condotta da Boris Fishman), che avevo molto apprezzato: Ghetto Music. E sono sicuro che anche Yotam Haber, che non ho mai conosciuto di persona ma con cui ho avuto diversi scambi di e-mail dopo che mi ha contattato durante il suo soggiorno romano, quando stava facendo ricerche sulle fonti del suo lavoro, sia altrettanto felice di quanto lo sia stato io per l’inclusione in Nextbook. Sono anche convinto delle ottime intenzioni di Haber, e che il suo entusiasmo per la musica ebraica romana sia genuino, e tutto sommato positivo per la musica ebraica italiana. 

Ciò detto, la mia critica all’intervista a Haber è molto semplice. Non trovo praticamente NULLA di quanto lui dichiara nel corso del podcast di Nextbook che coincida con quanto ho appreso sulle tradizioni musicali degli ebrei di Roma: 

  • Le “vecchie registrazioni polverose dei cantori romani” citate nel podcast esistono in versione digitale dal 2001: il loro catalogo è accessibile in rete, sia tramite il sito web dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia che quello della Fonoteca Nazionale di Gerusalemme
  • Mi pare assai improbabile che la musica degli ebrei romani sia vecchia di 2000 anni (o più); 
  • Storicamente, le tradizioni ashkenazite hanno avuto ben poco a che vedere con la comunità di Roma (non sono sicuro del perchè Haber suggerisca il contrario);
  • La musica degli ebrei romani è tutto meno che “incontaminata” da influenze esterne: nel XIX secolo, l’ebraismo romano venne “colonizzato” dalle comunità ebraiche del nord Italia (soprattutto il Piemonte), e un nuovo repertorio musicale venne composto allo scopo di “modernizzare” quanto il resto dell’ebraismo italiano percepiva (nota: “percepiva”) come una tradizione primitiva, ancorata nell’oscurità della vita nel ghetto; nel XX secolo, la musica sinagogale di Roma fu “colonizzata” nuovamente, questa volta dalla musica “sefardita” di Livorno, e da una piccola schiera di rabbini-cantori di estrazione livornese, quali David Prato e, più recentemente (ma per oltre cinquant’anni), Elio Toaff; inoltre, alcuni dei brani liturgici romani vennero arrangiati negli anni Cinquanta da una manciata di compositori attivi a Cinecittà, come Nino Rota; infine, tra il XX e il XXI secolo, le autorità rituali di Roma hanno “importato” aspetti della liturgia da altre comunità ebraiche italiani: la versione romana della haftarah, per esempio, è basata su quella di Torino, in quanto la tradizione “originale” era andata perduta;  
  • L’influenza della musica della Chiesa Cattolica sul “sound” ella sinagoga è particolarmente evidente a Roma: molti fra i cantori di sinagoga italiani (non romani) scherzano spesso sul fatto che questo “sound” romano assomiglia a quello della Chiesa; 
  • Queste influenze (ebraiche e cristiane) non significano che la musica ebraica romana non sia “antica”, o “autentica”: è un corpus unico di musica ebraica, in seno al quale alcuni rituali piuttosto antichi (come la fantastica Mishmarah) coesistono con aggiunte ben più recenti. 

Come qualsiasi studioso di musica ebraica sa bene, il nostro campo è pieno di idee balzane, che spesso hanno a che vedere, più che con la musica, con la storia, e con l’identità culturale degli ebrei. In alcuni casi, queste nozioni aprono la strada a veri – e sgradevoli – pregiudizi. E’ in casi del genere che mi viene da reagire con una certa veemenza. Sono casi che hanno poco a che vedere con la mia integrità di studioso, e tutto a che vedere con la mia responsabilità di persona pensante e culturalmente attiva.  

Quando Yotam Haber mi ha contattato lo scorso anno, gli suggerii tutto quello che ho elencato sin qui nel corso di un lungo scambio di e-mail. Sarebbe stato bello trovare un’eco della complessità delle culture musicali ebraiche in Italia nelle sue dichiarazioni a Nextbook. E’ invece un peccato che questa intervista sia diventata un veicolo per propagare una serie di stereotipi sull’ebraismo italiano (la sua antichità, il suo esotismo, per essere precisi) che non sono di casa in un discorso bene informato sull’ebraismo e le sue culture.  

Beh, almeno Yotam Haber non è un musicologo: possiamo sempre goderci la sua musica. 

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