Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Posts tagged ‘Jewish music’

Jewish Songs: the New, the Old and the Hidden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are so many things happening in the field of Jewish music that sometimes it is hard to keep track, since –even in the age of the internet– excellent new books and recordings do not get the exposure and diffusion they deserve. If it is hard enough for us in the US to know what is being done opposite coast, what to tell about new publications in Israel or Europe. Today I would like to take some time to present four new books on Jewish music, the new, the old and even the hidden.

 

First for the new songs: some months ago Shalshelet published its 4th International Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music 2010 Festival Songbook and accompanying CD’s. Like the preceding volumes, this is a must-have for cantors, lay shatz and shul musicians. You will find numerous musical settings that fit the needs of religious services, educational venues and formal music interpretations by choirs and soloists, from quite elaborated contemporary music to congregational, simple tunes that work very well in most synagogues. The book is organized by subjects: psalms, songs of love, songs of memory and healing, etc. Among my favorite melodies I will mention Aaron Blumenfeld’s Song of Songs, Jessi Roemer’s Ahavat Olam, and Marcia Dubrow’s Va-tikach Miryam. There is a wide array of styles, from folk to jazz, pop to Hasidic and mizrachi. Musical creativity in the Jewish world is alive and well! A number of the musical pieces are recorded in a double CD, that is sold separately, but unfortunately the recordings do not cover the whole collection, so it is well worth getting both items, and thereby supporting Shalshelet‘s great task. By the way, the songbook includes a piece of yours truly, Shachar Avakeshka, in a jazz style for choir and piano.

 

The other three books I want to introduce to you are written by the same author and, in my opinion, form an impressive collection that any person seriously interested in Jewish folk music will enjoy. The author is Liliana Treves Alcalay, and the titles are Canti di corte e di juderia, Melodie di un Esilio, Canti della diaspora, all published by Giuntina in Italy. Do not let the Italian text scare you out: they all come with abundant music transcriptions, original lyrics, a CD that contains a selection of the analyzed melodies, etc. Canti della Diaspora [Songs of the Diaspora] is a short, well-written book that serves as a good introduction to the variety and richness of Jewish folk song. After a brief exposition of the major trends of Sephardic and Ashkenazi musical traditions, Liliana Alcalay offers a very nice selection of songs in Ladino and Yiddish, accompanied with Italian translations (although without any music transcriptions).

 

In Canti di corte e di juderia [Songs of Court and Jewry], Alcalay focuses on the origins of Sephardic music and tries to establish the features that make it different from non-Jewish Iberian folk-song. The author compares a number of Sephardic songs to their “original” (for lack of a better term) Iberian versions. It is very interesting to see how both cultures elaborated the same melodies and lyrics according to their own idiosyncrasy. After some chapters of delimitation and contextualization, Alcalay exposes the different treatments of seven musical and literary themes, such as tragical deaths, forbidden loves, lullabies, etc. One of the assets of Alcalay is that –unlike other musicologists that assume a nonexistent medieval “Spanish” cultural unity– her research includes the exploration of the Aragonese-Catalan tradition. For instance, the book contains a comparative analysis of the Catalan song La dama d’Arago and La bella in missa, a romanza from Salonica.

 

In Melodie di un esilio: percorso storico-musicale degli ebrei e marrani spagnoli [Melodies of an exile: a historic and musical survey of the Spanish Jews and the Marranos], Alcalay offers part of her field work among Cryto-Jews, while intending to establish if there is an actual marrano musical tradition, a subject that is highly controversial. In my opinion, this is the most interesting book of the series, although due to the nature of the subject it is prone to be contested, and even more when the author does not go into the academic minutiae but rather tries to expose broad concepts. To begin with, how would a hidden minority make public display of a distinctive musical tradition? How could we “sound different” in a society that punishes the difference? Furthermore, most Crypto-Jewish communities have received the modern influx of music from mainstream Jews, thus making very complicated to establish what is Crypto tradition and what is something brought in only recently. The book opens with some chapters on the history of the Iberian expulsion, immigration of marranos to the New World, and an analysis of the Crypto-Jewish religious practices. If in Canti di corte Alcalay presents a detailed analysis of how Sepharadim have “de-christianized” the traditional Iberian romanzas, most of the affirmations of Melodie di un esilio regarding Crypto-Jewish music are somehow conjectural, although that does not hinder from the high value of the book and CD.

 

Don’t curb your enthusiasm.

It is not a secret that the Jewish population is getting smaller and older. Much has been written on this subject and we all agree that we need to grow and we need it now. Some have even suggested we should lift the traditional ban of actively seeking converts. By this thesis, one should not only not make things impossibly difficult for candidates to conversion (we all know some contexts where this attitude is overdone ad absurdum) but rather go as far as to encourage people to explore our faith. But let’s leave this controversial subject for a future post.

Going back to the growth of Judaism, we can pinpoint many different causes of the demographic decline. For some rabbis, intermarriage is the big monster that is eating us alive. In my opinion, the trees maybe hiding the forest in this case. See, I grew up in a country whose language and culture are clearly receding. Many thinkers blame immigration and cultural intermarriage, as if the Catalan “purity” were watering down. Catalan speakers marry Spaniards and the whole family chooses Spanish as their home language, since it is always easier to favor the culture of a majority. However, it is evident that in some areas of Catalonia “culturally-mixed” families fare better than in others. A mixed family in Palma or Alacant is more prone to abandon the Catalan language in favor of Spanish than, let’s say, a family in the Garrotxa, just because in that area Catalan is more alive and enjoys better social prestige. Now back to Judaism: in a social context where Judaism is less alive, an intermarried family will be more prone to “go with the majority” and educate the kids as Christians. The culprit here is not intermarriage, but the weakening of Jewish identification. All in all, I think that it’s about lack of enthusiasm for Judaism.

As many of you know, I’m a hazzan with a bunch of part-time jobs. One of them is as a church organist. Two weeks ago I was sitting at my organ and listening to a visiting pastor. His sermon was about the church’s need to proselytize –what they call “the Great Commission”– and make disciples. His argument was simple: imagine your life without a personal relationship with Jay-Cee. How voided of meaning, joyless, purpose-deprived would it be? Now think of your relatives, friends, and coworkers who do not have that. Doesn’t it move you to action?

Allow me the somewhat-risky exercise of bringing the pastor’s argument to Judaism. Imagine your routine, your whole world without Judaism, without its ethics, life-cycle rituals, yummy food, music, and crazy idiosyncrasy. Imagine going through the week without the anticipation of Shabbat and without its rest, or going through the year without the excitement of the holidays. No shivah to comfort you, no seder to prepare for, no Purim frolic, no apples and honey for a sweet New Year. Chances are a considerable number of your Jewish relatives, friends and acquaintances have a life like that. You can’t miss what you don’t know.

Some rabbis and cantors get rather angry with the so-called Kol Nidre Jews. I just find them difficult to understand. Why on earth would you choose to come to shul only once a year, and pick the day that has more fasting, impossibly-long services, and weirder rituals? (Admit it: legally declaring vows invalid and the whole avodah service have some rather peculiar tinges). It is as if they wanted a confirmation that religion is this strange, foreign, depressive thing they witness once a year. To me, the worse part is that people choose to look at their entire Jewish heritage through the prism of a “sad” penitential commemoration. Ask some non-practicing Jews: they may have no idea what Shavuot is about, but they know most details of death and mourning rituals. Why live in “Kol Nidre mode” all your life?

Sukkot is a time of rejoicing, probably the most beautiful holiday of our calendar. Talking about the exuberance of these celebration, the sages said “he who has not seen the rejoicing at the Simchat Bet Ha-Shoeva, has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukkah 1:5). It is also the ultimate time to engage in an important mitzvah, hakhnasat orkhim, inviting people to share a meal with you. This Sukkot, make your love and enthusiasm for Judaism something contagious. Show the beauty and richness of Jewish life to those who still don’t know it, Jewish or not. Show your disaffected Jewish friends that there is so much more than fasting and long piyyutim. Show your non-Jewish friends that the external aspects of Judaism they know (all those prohibitions and picturesque attire) are nothing but a small detail in the whole dazzling picture. Let us all spend our whole year in Sukkot mode.

Future of Judaism, again.

These days I have been thinking a lot about the future of Judaism, particularly in the US. It is obvious that we are in transition; we just don’t know to what new models! What is sure is that synagogues, Jewish institutions and even Jewish culture itself will be something radically different in twenty years. We can live in denial or begin to work to adapt ourselves. The blogosphere and other media offer so many interesting opinions on that subject that it is hard to keep track. Just yesterday, I was reading two extremely different online articles.

The first one was Daniel Pipes More about the future of Judaism.”After analyzing recent studies and statistics about the evolution of American Jewish population, Pipes reaches to the conclusion that the future is in the hands of Orthodoxy. Two major factors point out to this trend: they have a higher birth rate –and thus a younger population– and a supposedly stronger vitality that helps combat the general trend towards assimilation. Quoting Norman Lamm, Daniel Pipes thinks that in the future the Reform and Conservative movements will be history, an interesting but failed experiment. We will be back to that mythical time when –as Orthodoxy chooses to believe– there was only “one Judaism.”

The second article is Patrick Aleph’s “How do you approach a future of Judaism.” Aleph’s overview of the current state of the Jewish community is, in my opinion, quite accurate: we are keeping a huge number of anchylosed institutions that are essentially duplicate offers targeting an already over-marketed collective. JCC’s gyms and day-cares try to compete against their non-Jewish counterparts; in any given city you have a Hillel, a Birthright Next, plus the youth programs of the JCC and of each one of synagogues competing for a pool of increasingly disengaged young Jews. For Patrick Aleph the trend towards dual-identities (BuJews, HindJews, etc.), interfaith households, and non-theism is rapidly transforming Jewish life, from our prayer to our pastoral care. Patrick Aleph’s opinion is that the future of Judaism is in humanistic, secular, non-theism.

I am not sure if denominations are soon going to be history, but definitely they have a somber future, Orthodoxy included. Otherwise, we would not have so many Conservadox, Reformative, Reconstructionewal or “just Traditional” Jews (not to mention the closing of seminaries, increasing number of non-affiliated shuls, etc). Diversity is a sign of our times: if historically there never was a “one Judaism,” today each of us chooses its unique identity that is in constant osmosis and evolution, a well balanced cocktail of Jewish-Catalan-American-Progressive-Queer-Recon-yoga-traditionalism. David Pipes is right to declare that Orthodoxy is growing, but I don’t think this goes beyond mere statistics; I am not sure how much retention there is in this growth, nor do I see any particular signs of vitality. If this was true, Israel –and not America– would be the motor of Jewish culture and renewal, the think-tank of Jewish future. Quite the opposite, wherever Orthodoxy is the majority –like in Israel and in my own country of origin– it is exerting an asphyxiating power and influence in the rest of the Jewish community. There is no innovation, no flexibility, no realistic outreach, little adaptation or concern for contemporary issues, and very little intellectual honesty. Everywhere I look, I see insularity, blatant hostility to potential converts, hijacking of Zionism, and less than ethical political lobbying. We will be a handful but boy, will we be kosherer-than-thou! Religious fundamentalism may be a popular global trend in this day and age, but does it inspire any constructive changes for the future? (Disclaimer: I am talking of cases and places where Orthodox are majority, not of individual Orthodox persons).

We have to think outside the box, reinvent Jewish infrastructures. Carthago delenda est. However, unlike Patrick Aleph, I don’t think theism is our contemporary Carthago. The interest for spirituality is not decreasing at all, although the approach to this spirituality is more individual, less group-oriented

and definitely less institutional and standardized. Our concept of the divine may need updating, and we need to be attuned to all forms of spirituality, theistic or not. However, there is still plenty of space for a theistic spiritual community; we will have to figure out what will this community look like.

I agree that Jewish federations and JCC’s are less and less relevant for most people, and that there is a trend to connect with horizontal groups and minyanim rather than with vertical, institutionalized synagogues. Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, more concerns than excitement about this trend. To begin with, there is a danger of atomization: we can create a number of new collectives whose new tradition is so different that it is just not recognizable to the rest of the Jews. At a certain point in history, the Latin spoken in Italy and the one spoken in France became so different that, in fact, they spoke two languages, French and Italian. I am not advocating for a chief rabbinate to decide who is in and who is out –a solution that never made much sense and that now is just anachronic–, but I’m not sure how are we going to hold this together.

My second concern is how much effort and money do we really want to invest in these well-needed new Jewish venues and structures. While I am a strong believer in horizontal communities and equality, I am also concerned that a trend towards independent minyanim may hide an unwillingness to pay for a synagogue membership or for a rabbi/cantor salary. It is great that people take responsibilities, learn to lead services, teach what they know to others; but sometimes we need a better-educated person to help us go the extra mile. A professional clergy can expose the minyan to things they never heard about. An unfortunate example of the opposite is the present state of hazzanut: it is nice that so many people are knowledgeable and feel empowered to present themselves as cantorial soloists. What would a synagogue hire a more-expensive ordained cantor if this volunteer can do it? As a result, so much of our musical tradition is just lost. You may not even know there is a nusach for the holidays, since we all sing Shabbat modes for Shavuot. Those of you who know me, know that I am the last person to advocate for an five-minute operatic cantorial recitative. I am more for spirited singing and clapping, but I also deplore the fact that people think there is only one melody for Salm 92.

So here it is: wish I had innovative ideas to expose. I think that the motor for change is our willingness to not take anything for granted. We have been changing and evolving for centuries and this is just another step. Let’s all get involved and excited about it, keeping an open mind and a passionate heart.

Gone with the ruach: dancing with Pentecostal Jews.

Summer is always too short and leaves me yearning for more. Undoubtedly, the spiritual highlight of my summer has been co-leading services at the Nehirim camp with my friend R. David Bauer. There were around 70 adult men of all ages lightning the candles, joyfully singing the kabbalat Shabbat psalms to the sound of drums and other instruments, and welcoming the Bride with dances. Next morning, the genuine fervor and love of the many active participants sitting on the floor of an improvised temple literally moved me to tears. Ruach –the Hebrew word for “spirit,” “wind,” and even “divine breath”– was something very palpable and touching.

 

The following Shabbat I lead services at my home shul. The songs were almost the same and I played pretty much the same music notes. The spirit, however, was different. Feeling the Divine, touching heaven with your two hands was certainly still possible, but it didn’t come as easy. It required an extra kavanah effort to be there, present, receiving the Shabbat. Nobody danced down the aisles or peacefully swayed, their eyes closed. Who knows, maybe it was the pews, the more formal setting. Maybe we all instinctively conformed to what it is expected of a suburban synagogue-goer. In the morning I visited a nearby shul for the first time. The service was more traditional than ours, with no instrumental music. The melodies were familiar but their tempo was a lot slower, in a way that made the song linger forever. Right after the song, the service leader chanted the openings and closings of prayers in a succession that not even me, a quite fast and proficient Hebrew reader, could follow. We “did it all” and it all was smooth and flawless, but I didn’t feel anything spiritually uplifting.

 

That’s why, in my end-of-summer melancholic mood, I ask myself where’s the ruach? We have built magnificent synagogues and created impressive Jewish institutions. We may have learned how to be as reverent as our neighbors, how to mourn and say kaddish, and how to beat our chests on Yom Kippur. However, we have almost forgotten how to dance with the scroll on Simchat Torah; how to sing hallel joyfully; how to act silly on Purim; how to rejoice genuinely on sukkot under the stars; how to welcome the Queen dancing in the woods, like the Kabbalists of Sfad when Lekhah dodi was composed. It is shocking and quite sad to see that we have relegated Purim parties and Shimchat Torah celebrations to our Hebrew schools, with almost no participation of the adults, as if the joy of Judaism was only to be experienced by children.

 

In a way, I would like to daven at some sort of a “Pentecostal shul” with all its joy, ecstasy, clapping, dance and joyful noise. A kind of service that has deep Torah study, but also moments of pure enthusiasm and freilikh. Admittedly, some Jewish denominations are more or less spirit-aware, but I think nobody is yet experiencing truly Pentecostal Judaism or, if you want, Shavuot Judaism, since ultimately the Christian fest of Pentecost is not but a transvaluation of our Shavuot. On Pentecost, Christians celebrate the moment when the spirit miraculously descended on the believers and –so to speak– “energized” them for their mission. On Shavuot we celebrate our joy for the reception of the Torah on Sinai, the precise instant of our covenant with the divine. Among other things, we mark our joy with a strange meeting: the tikkun. We gather for an all-night long session of singing, study, meditation and fellowship.

 

Somehow, my crazy idea of a Pentecostal Judaism is not that far from a Hasidic tish (without idealizing a movement that has its clear downsides). It combines moments of ecstatic singing and dancing with Torah discussion, with calm contemplative nigunim, and with joyful fellowship. I just wonder how can we pack all that and bring it to our shul and to our Shabbat table, how to become uninhibited and genuine as children once more.

 

Now, not everybody relates to spirituality in the same way. In her book Discover your spiritual type, Corine Ware presents four types of persons, four different spiritual identities: mystic, feeling, thinking and visionary. Silent prayer may touch the mystic or contemplative people, while boring other worshipers to tears. Lively music, clapping and dancing connects with the feeling individual, but may bother those who are more cerebral. A deep Torah study moves the thinking type, but may seem spiritually dead to the feeling person. Individuals with a visionary spiritual type will find themselves at home in a service that calls to action or in tikkun olam programs; and, again, some people will think that these events are nice and necessary but not spiritually fulfilling. The last of the services I described at the beginning was probably meaningful for somebody. Probably, in every group there is a predominant spiritual type but, essentially, they all contain people of all types.

 

I think that the point is to ask ourselves: for my own spiritual type, in my own understanding of spirituality, is this service or meeting fulfilling and edifying? What would have to happen for it to be? What’s my next step towards a more fervent, joyful, and meaningful Judaism? How can I get closer to the Divine –she, he, it– and be more fully human, more fully Jewish?

How Jewish are Jewish chanting and meditation?

Today I had the privilege of teaching a workshop at a Nehirim camp at Easton Mountain. It consisted mostly on meditation and chanting exercises from the perspective of Jewish mysticism. We were talking about how Kabbalists envision the use of music as a tool to help them connect with the spiritual world and with the Divine.

At the end of the workshop, we were checking in and evaluating what role do music and chanting play in our spirituality and specifically in our meditation practice (although not all the participants had a regular practice or were particularly adept to meditation). I felt very enriched by the insides of the workshop attendance. We listed the many ways music and chanting play a role in meditation. Firstly, somebody pointed out that music helps him “fill space” when he meditates. This may seem controversial for some meditation schools and practices but I have the biggest respect for every person’s “tricks:” if something works for you, why should I question it? More often than not I find myself meditating with background music. To me, it can’t be music with words or with very clear, symmetric, predictable structures. I often choose Indian ragas or Native American solo flutes, that is, “songs” whose next pattern I can’t predict so easily.

Secondly, chanting helps quiet the chattering in our minds, which is one of the main objectives of every meditation practice. All of us struggle with the same problem: how to turn off the continuous noise in our head so we can pay attention to important things like enjoying our present and seizing the moment. Otherwise, we go around like zombies on automatic pilot. We become slaves to our memories and to our worries for the future, continuously playing in our head the movie of what wee have just done or what we’re about to do. Instead, just sit back and smell the roses.

Thirdly, music and chanting have clear benefits for our well-being. Our whole body vibrates to particular frequencies. Our heart beats to the rhythm. Music therapists have been writing about these properties for a long time. Additionally, I believe that music has another dimension, one of the spiritual kind. It is deeply connected to our feelings and helps create memories that eventually reinforce our identity, in particular our Jewish identity. Depending on your beliefs, music can connect you to spiritual realms and even to the mind of the Divine (metaphorically or not).

It is not coincidental that mysticism of all religious traditions has placed chanting (drumming, music) in a central role of its practice. Some chant mantras, others repeat rosaries, others practice whirling dances accompanied by music. Not surprisingly, often mainstream religion has frowned at these practices. Now, in what ways meditation and chanting can be claimed as genuinely Jewish? Hasidic and Kabbalistic literature are full of nigunim, different kinds of tikkun practices, alphabet permutations, and fahrbrengen full of ecstatic chanting. They are powerful tools to help Even our text study has its musical mode, the Lehrner steiger. And yet, for many Jews meditation and chanting seem to be a “New Age thing,” identified with very particular groups. Some frown at them as being merely a strategy to attract BuJews, or an unwanted osmosis from Eastern religions.

I think it is time that we acknowledge and embrace this part of our tradition, just like Rosh Chodesh or the mikvah enjoyed their well-deserved revival in our days. Meditation and chanting are also for us, the more traditionally-observant Jews. (Yes, you wouldn’t say I am that traditional; I do believe in acting kosher and thinking treif, but that’s material for another post). Although modern Hebrew prefers the word meditatsiya, our liturgy often talks about hegion ha-lev, meaning the contemplation, the reason, or even the logic of the heart. Many siddurim translate this expression as “the meditation of the heart,” like at the end of the amidah, when we pray that the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart (הגיון לבי) be acceptable before Hashem. Next time you read these words, pause, breath and check your kavanah. That’s Jewish meditation too.

Untimely death of the Hebrew language: in saecula saeculorum le-olam va-ed.

When I was a kid, I thought that my Catholic auntie was a genius: she knew the whole Latin mass by heart. She could pray the rosary without the booklet, all in Latin. Later, when I went to high school and learned some Latin, I realized that, after decades of rote repetition of a text in a language she didn’t understand, my auntie had transformed the prayers in a gibberish in which one could barely recognize some original Latin phrases. Latin is a dead language. You can mistreat it to your heart’s contempt because no native speakers are around to defend it or to laugh at you.

Now, Hebrew is miraculously alive and well. People in Israel speak it everyday, and here in America many non-natives love it and know it pretty well. It is the language most of us use in shul for our prayers and study. Unfortunately, for many it has become a death language, after decades of rote learning of bar mitzah’s haftarot (aka “half-Torahs”), of simplifying our prayer books to their bare bones, of people graduating from (aka checking out of) Jewish education after their benei mitzvah, of cantors and rabbis assuming that Hebrew alienates people from communal Jewish life.

Far from me to try and solve all that at once, but I would like to comment on my particular area of interest: that of Jewish music. Simplification is everywhere, and reaches almost absurd extremes. While on a trip, I was at a shul on Shabbes. At the end of pesukei de-zimra, the congregation sung the so-called “Sufi melody” of Ps. 150 (big, cautious quotation marks there). I often use the same melody when I lead services too, because one can fit all the words of the psalm and yet it is not overly long. However, this shul’s version was quite simplified. They had substituted all the words by two simple phrases, halelu halelu halelu (repeat at will) and the known kol ha-neshamah ending. With all due respect, maybe we are treating people like little kids. In our effort for not alienating people due to Hebrew, we are educating generations that not only don’t know the language, but are not even familiar with how it sounds. Learning all the words of a psalm you sing weekly does not hurt. Congregants will appreciate knowing prayers in Hebrew; it is their heritage, their treasure and birthright. Even if they barely understand them, the sound is there, building identity, creating memories, and awakening people’s curiosity to learn the language eventually.

I have the biggest respect and admiration for my fellow Jewish composers but here’s my friendly advise: please, if you don’t know Hebrew well, other people will be happy to help. There’s no shame on checking with your cantor, rabbi, Hebrew teacher, or Israeli speaker. Admittedly, one in a hundred congregants will realize of your mistakes, but why should you take that risk? Checking your Hebrew text before recording is particularly important. The famous Halelu halelu halelu melody can be found in several CDs. At least in one of them, it breaks my heart to hear so clearly after a long list of mere halelus– “kol han Shema” instead of kol ha-neshamah, again repeated a number of times.

If you are “atem,” then we’re nitzavim; we stand here today and remember the dream; kehilah kedoshah: a nice song of a talented composer that I admire. However, as a linguist, I can’t but label its use of Hebrew as mere diglossia, folklorization, or heraldic use of language: words lose their primary function and are used as mere ornaments. Language is no longer alive, but fossilized and packed for casual consumption. Any person who speaks both English and Hebrew –and probably you have a handful of them sitting in the pews– understands the strange phrase as meaning if you are you then we are standing. Another example: May Shekhinah bless you… ha-Shem panav eleikha is also a beautiful and inspiring song, but it would be so much better if its composer didn’t suppress the verb of the Hebrew phrase, thus rendering it unintelligible.

We should honestly evaluate if writing English lyrics sprinkling Hebrew words instead of salt-and-pepper is doing any good to the musical education of our congregations. Hebrew should impregnate all our congregational life, particularly our music, because it is one of the keys of our survival as a cultural minority.