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A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi. Edited and with an Introduction by Aron Rodrigue and Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Translation, Transliteration, and Glossary by Isaac Jerusalmi. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8047-7166-5
Reviewed for Musica Judaica Online Reviews by Kathleen Wiens
A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica presents the personal diary of Sa’adi Besalel a-Levi (1820-1903) in English translation and Ladino transliteration from the original in soletreo (Hebrew script of Ottoman Ladino dialect). Penned starting in 1881, the autobiographical account incorporates event descriptions and commentary on Jewish community life in Salonica (now Thessaloniki, Greece). Sa’adi’s motivations for writing his memoirs included a desire to record customs and events for future generations, and to voice his personal concerns and hopes for Jewish life in Salonica. Sa’adi’s primary occupations were as an editor and print-maker, but he was also respected within the Jewish community and city as a singer and composer of songs for synagogue and special occasions. It is this second occupation that makes A Jewish Voice a valuable resource for readers with interest in music and Jewish life.
A Jewish Voice is divided into three main parts: a 47-page Editors’ Introduction, the English translation of Sa’adi’s diary, and a transliteration of the diary into Romanized Ladino text. (Facsimiles of the original hand-written manuscript are accessible online via the publisher’s website.) Sa’adi divided the diary into 42 chapters, some of which were further divided into event-specific or thematically-based sections. The editors have added numeric symbols beside chapter and section headings to allow cross-reference with the online soletreo manuscript, while also providing introductory notes on dialect, pronunciation, translation, transliteration, and explanations of in-text references (weight, currencies, measurements). An extensive glossary of Ladino, Turkish and Hebrew terms and a list of works referenced complete the edition. Read the rest of this entry »
Jewish Music and Modernity. Philip V. Bohlman. New York: Oxford University Press/AMS Studies in Music, 2008. xxxiii + 280 pp. ISBN 978-0-1951-7832-6
Discourse about “Jewish music” has traditionally raised complex questions about the identity of “Jewishness” in music. The ontology of “Jewish music” in modern Jewish history is as elusive as the nature of music itself. The reason for this, as Philip Bohlman argues in Jewish Music and Modernity, is that Jewish music in modernity exists not within a definable space or time, but rather at moments of disjuncture – in between regions, amid moments of transition and transformation, and at the border of ethnic, religious, and social boundaries. Jewish music, as an aesthetically autonomous object in Jewish society, was conceived of for the first time at the modernist moment, when Jews entered the public sphere of modern European society, broadening the purely ritualized devotional function that music formerly served. But the structural transformation that modernity brought about in musical culture had the paradoxical effect of confounding the very notion of “Jewish” music. Exposed to modern musical practices and genres in the non-Jewish public sphere during a period of political and aesthetic transformation, Jewish music became “Jewish” precisely in its confrontation with non-Jewish genres, forms, languages, and performers. Bohlman demonstrates that Jewish music, in responding to the political and aesthetic challenges of modernity, is inherently hybrid, unstable, and dynamic. It represents a dynamic site where national, ethnic, and gender identities are constructed and contested. Thus, borders between Jewish and non-Jewish became permeable, so that “musical repertories that for some were entirely Jewish—say, cabaret at the turn of the twentieth century—were not the least bit Jewish for others” (xvii). In other words, music participated in the transformation of modern Jewish identity itself.
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Maqam and Liturgy: Ritual, Music, and Aesthetics of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn. Mark L. Kligman. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009. 267 pp. + CD. ISBN 978-0-8143-3216-0
During my public lecturing on Judeo-Arab liturgical music, I often play recordings. Invariably, after hearing the thoroughly Arab sounds—sounds that, for many attendees, evoke images of the Muslim muezzin’s call to prayer—someone in the audience asks, “What is Jewish about this music?” Mark Kligman artfully answers this question in his comprehensive study of the Judeo-Arab synthesis between the music and text of the Shabbat liturgy of Syrian Jews living in Brooklyn. The author endeavors to provide a descriptive analysis of the Sabbath liturgy as well as a cultural lens for understanding Syrian Jewish identity (11). The Aleppo Syrian Jews of both Brooklyn and Israel are known for their appreciation and punctilious maintenance of the Arab maqam—traditional Arabic music’s system of melodic modes—in their liturgy. While other studies have examined other aspects of Syrian Jewish liturgy, Kligman’s is the first to document and analyze Syrian musical practices in the Sabbath service. Read the rest of this entry »
Jewish Musical Modernism, Old and New. Edited by Philip V. Bohlman, with a foreword by Sander L. Gilman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 218 pp. with CD supplement. ISBN 978-0-226-06326-3
In his 2002 essay “Inventing Jewish Music,” Philip Bohlman called our attention to a surprising fact rarely noted by previous scholars: the term “Jewish music” hardly existed before the late nineteenth century . Tracing its first appearance among German Jewish cantors, Bohlman argued that that the new locution reflected a crucial turning point in the emergence of modern Jewish historical consciousness as a whole. He has gone on to develop this thesis in various publications that emphasize the centrality of music in the modern European Jewish experience. In his new anthology, Jewish Cultural Modernism, Old and New, he now expands this line of inquiry from Jewish modernity to European modernism. His goal is to break down the familiar dichotomy between studies of modern Jewish music and those of individual Jewish musicians within the movement of European modernism. Read the rest of this entry »
Der Zionismus in der Musik. Jascha Nemtsov. Jüdische Musik: Studien und Quellen zur jüdischen Musikkultur, vol. 6. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009. 380 pp. ISBN 978-3-4470-5734-9
“Zionism was known as one of the few realized utopias in the twentieth century, probably the only one that in addition to addressing social concerns also had a distinct humanistic character,” writes Jascha Nemtsov in the epilogue to his monograph on the role of music in the Zionist movement in the first half of the twentieth century (349). A somewhat nostalgic tone permeates this truly amazing volume, which relates many facets of Jewish musical life to Zionism, commonly defined as a late nineteenth-century political movement dedicated to establishing a Jewish homeland. Nemtsov, who is well aware of the negative connotations of nationalism in the twentieth century (he quotes Ernest Gellner’s view of nationalism as “diabolical and lethal”), pleads for exception for Zionism. Probably even more forcefully than other nationalist movements in the twentieth century, he claims, Zionism put an emphasis on culture and thus brought about a Jewish cultural renaissance around the globe. It is these cultural, and specifically musical, ramifications of Zionism that interest Nemtsov, who presents Zionism as the unifying force that enabled a heterogeneous Jewish Diaspora culture to have a common focus. Nemtsov’s nostalgia derives from his sense that Zionism’s idealistic goal fractured as Zionism developed from an energetic political and cultural movement in the Diaspora to ossified official policy in modern Israel. According to Nemtsov, there were also other factors that made Zionism anachronistic by the second half of the twentieth century: the almost total annihilation of European Jewry, which served as the cradle of Zionistic ideals; the repression of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union, which was the center of Jewish life before the Revolution; a new Israeli culture that consciously tried to eliminate characteristics associated with the Diaspora; and a postmodern sensibility in the arts that fits uneasily with the optimistic ideals of Zionism. What Nemtsov does not mention as a contributing factor to the demise of the Zionist idea is the conflict between radically different visions of Zionism in present-day Israel, manifested in a less nostalgic account of Israel’s Zionist past by “new historians” such as Tom Segev.
‘Empezar Quiero Contar’: Canciones de Sefarad. 2000. Pneuma PN-370. CD & booklet, 31 pages. Liner notes by Judith R. Cohen.
Sefarad en Diáspora. 2006. Pneuma PN-780. CD & booklet, 23 pages. Liner notes by Judith R. Cohen.
From the perspective of someone who derives little aesthetic pleasure from folksongs, but recognizes that bringing Jewish history to life in the classroom sometimes entails glancing up from conventional, printed texts, these recent CDs by ethnomusicologist and performer Judith R. Cohen are worthy of serious consideration. The use of traditional music in the classroom can help maintain attention spans. But music can also be a learning tool, and, as Cohen often demonstrates, some essential aspects of Jewish civilization can only be adequately contemplated by using our aural faculty.
The Organ and Its Music in German-Jewish Culture. Tina Frühauf. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 296 pp. ISBN 978-0-1953-3706-8
Recent studies in Jewish art music have contributed significantly to an emerging continuum of Jewish identities in Western music, from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, to Ernest Bloch’s “Jewish cycle,” to Leonard Bernstein’s symphonies. Dealing with the migration of liturgical and paraliturgical Jewish musics into Western art music, these studies try to assimilate “Jewish music” into the expanding canon of Western music while struggling with both the historical lagging of Jewish musical literacy and the pitfalls of essentialism. In the process, scholars find themselves harassed by the many sonic stereotypes that connote with “Jewish music” and are in urgent need of dispelling. Tina Frühauf’s book highlights such a stereotype, but in an inversion: the introduction of the organ, regarded emblematically as Christian (3), into the synagogue and the way it stimulated liturgical, paraliturgical, and art music—even as it “remained an oddity for Jews and non-Jews alike” (viii).
Jews, Race and Popular Music. Jon Stratton. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. 238 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6804-6
In Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton attempts to stage an intervention at the fulcrum of the peculiar relationship between Jews and popular music. The historical coincidence of Jewish people and African American musical styles—from Al Jolson to Amy Winehouse—has become something of a cottage industry both in and beyond the university (Stratton includes a comprehensive listing of titles in his introduction). In this work, Stratton is trying to reframe this well-documented yet still vexing area of research through the lenses of race and performance. The trouble is that he offers an argument that tries so hard to deconstruct Jewishness that he ends up reifying it.
Leo Zeitlin: Chamber Music. Paula Eisenstein Baker and Robert S. Nelson, eds. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2009. lxxxiv+199 pp. ISBN 978-0-89579-645-5
Leo Zeitlin’s life and music became a subject of Paula Eisenstein Baker’s research about twenty years ago. Fascinated by Zeitlin’s masterpiece “Eli Zion” for cello and piano, Eisenstein Baker, a cellist with a keen interest in musicology, started to investigate the life and works of this remarkable, but almost unknown, composer. Her research has resulted in this publication of Zeitlin’s chamber music compositions, which is accompanied by a carefully reconstructed biography of the composer, a critical study of his works, and a comprehensive presentation of text settings from the vocal works in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian.