Judeo-Caribbean Currents: Music of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curaçao. Gideon Zelermyer, hazzan; Raymond Goldstein, piano. Liner notes by Edwin Seroussi.  Anthology of Music Traditions in Israel 22. Jerusalem:  Jewish Music Research Centre, 2009.

Reviewed by Rebecca S. Miller

The United Netherlands-Portuguese Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel in Curaçao is the oldest Jewish congregation in the Western hemisphere. Formally established in 1654 in the walled city of Willemstad, the synagogue served as a place of worship for the first Portuguese Jewish immigrants who arrived in Curaçao from Amsterdam.  This population—likely descendants of the original Sephardic Jewish population that left the Iberian peninsula during the Inquisition—was later joined by Jews emigrating from Brazil and elsewhere; by 1800, there were nearly 2000 Jews in Curaçao, comprising fully half the white population of this southern Caribbean island.  In 1864, a schism resulted in the establishment of a second congregation—Temple Emanuel—that has the distinction of being what Edwin Seroussi describes as “the first overtly Reform Sephardic congregation ever” (12).  A century later, this ideological split was resolved and, in 1964, the two were reunited; today, the United Netherlands Portuguese Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is affiliated with the American Jewish Reconstructionist movement.

The CD compilation— Judeo-Caribbean Currents: Music of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curaçao— offers representative settings of the liturgical music performed over three centuries at Mikvé Israel-Emanuel.  Culled from fifteen boxes of “old music” (16) from the archives’ manuscript collection, this CD contains settings of the ceremonial sections of the liturgical order for the Sabbath and Holy Days.  These include parts of the Torah Service (“Tehillat Adonay yidaber fi,” “Barukh ha-ba,” and “Etz hayim hi””), the Hallel Psalms for holidays and the New Month, and the ending hymns of the service (five different arrangements of “Adon ‘olam,” for example).  The producers write that they were limited by the sometimes fragmentary character of these sources—indeed, out of 28 tracks, three are shorter than one minute and only two are longer than four minutes, with most falling in the two to three minute range.   Most of the music was originally intended for cantor, soloists, choir, and organ, but “for practical purposes,” the producers choose to simplify these arrangements and, with the exception of a solo piano piece and three choral tracks, the rest are arranged for voice and piano only and ably performed by Cantor Gideon Y. Zelermyer and pianist Raymond Goldstein.  The three choral tracks feature organ and a SATB vocal quartet performing arrangements of “Lekha dodi,” “Yigdal,” and “Kohanekha”—all drawn from the collection of Norman P. Swerling, who served as Cantor at the congregation from 1964 to 1967. These quartet selections are a welcome respite because, despite whatever logistical difficulties the producers might have encountered, it would be nice to have more variety here, perhaps in the form of one or two pieces performed with the originally intended larger ensemble.

The sheer variety of music contained on this CD attests to the many cultural transformations experienced by the members of the Curaçao Jewish community over time.   Some of the music consists of original settings by local composers.  Among these are three generations of the Maduro clan including Charles Maduro (1883-1947) who was apparently key in the development of salon music there. There are also arrangements included in this CD that draw more specifically from Western European and American sources, pointing to the strength of the Ashkenazi influence by the late 19th and 20th centuries; these aspects can be heard in such selections as a wedding piece, “Huppah,” by Louis Lewandowski of Berlin. Other compositions on this CD are derived from older Portuguese pieces that appeared in manuscripts found at Temple Emanuel (one setting of “En Kelohenu,” for example) and “Bendiagmos,”  a Jewish song in Spanish that is performed often at Mikvé Israel-Emanuel.  This CD also contains music written by non-Jews in Curaçao, including the noted Venezuelan composer and pianist Sebastián Díaz Peña, whose “Marcha Nupcial,” was written to honor the wedding of a Jewish Curaçao couple in 1916.

The single-CD compilation includes a nicely designed hardcover booklet that contains several informative essays written in both English and Hebrew by series editor, Edwin Seroussi.  These essays help locate the music and its significance within the specific historical and social developments of this community in Curaçao over 300 years. One essay, for example, examines information on the historical and socio-cultural background specific to Jews in Curaçao, while another offers a thoughtful analysis of liturgical music as it informed the construction of Jewish identities in Curaçao over the years. A final brief essay looks at the repertoire itself.  Missing from these otherwise informative and detailed essays is any mention of the rest of the population of the island—most notably the Afro-Caribbean community.  Apart from the single description of Sebastián Díaz Peña’s arrangement of “Tehillat” (1912), which contains a “Curaçao dance-like rhythm” (34), there is virtually nothing in this collection that speaks to the inevitable intersections—historical, cultural, and musical—of this Jewish community with the once enslaved Afro-Caribbean population of Curaçao and their descendants.

That said, this compilation offers a fascinating glimpse into a unique Jewish community.  With well-recorded, clear renditions of the music and extensive explanatory information, this collection will be of interest to both scholars of Caribbean music and scholars of Jewish liturgical music .

Rebecca S. Miller, Hampshire College