Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Prayer is a Prayer is Prayer (A New Gallery Show in Chelsea)

Andrea Popowich Meislin is an art historian, writer, and independent curator. She was formerly the associate curator of photography at the Israel Museum (Jerusalem), and an independent research associate at the Phoenix Art Museum. Meislin has organized museum and gallery exhibitions, and cataloged numerous significant private collections.

Andrea Meislin’s new gallery space is about to open with a group show featuring nineteen artists whose photographs capture Christian, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists practicing rituals of prayer across the world — including in China, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Ukraine, and the US.

Read the full press release below, and do take a look at the exhibition website. It may be an additional resource for us to focus on the relationship, and the distinctions, between liturgy and ritual (which, incidentally, is our goal for next week).

History, Ethnography and Synagogue Life

Our readings this week are split on two separate (but hopefully converging) “fronts.”

Lee I. Levine is a historian and archeologist. His book on The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years constitues a phenomenal attempt to bridge several fields, from archeology to philology to anthropology, in order to reconstruct the genesis of the establishment of the synagogue as a foundational institution in Jewish life. In the Introduction (p. 2), we read about how the synagogue, since its inception in the early centuries of the common era, was a revolutionary institution when compared to the Jerusalem Temple, in at least four ways:

1. Location. The synagogue was universal in nature. Not confined to any one site, as was the ‘‘official’’ sacrificial ritual of the post-Josianic era, the synagogue enabled Jews to organize their communal life and worship anywhere.
2. Leadership. The functionaries of the synagogue were not restricted to a single caste or socio-religious group. In principle, anyone could head the institution. Priests may have played a central role in its religious affairs as well, owing to their knowledge and experience in liturgical matters and not necessarily because of their priestly lineage per se. Synagogue leadership was— in theory, at least— open and democratic (in certain functions and places, regarding women as well).
3. Participation. In addition to the communal dimension, the congregation was directly involved in all aspects of synagogue ritual, be it scriptural readings or prayer service. This stands in sharp contrast to the Jerusalem Temple setting, where people entering the sacred precincts remained passive and might never have even witnessed the sacrificial proceedings personally unless they themselves were offering a sacrifice. In many cases, visitors to the Temple remained in the Women’s Court without being able to view what was transpiring in the inner Israelite or Priestly Courts. Moreover, non-Jews were explicitly banned from the Temple precincts under penalty of death (warning inscriptions were set up around the sacred precincts), whereas the synagogue was open to all; in many places, particularly in the Diaspora, non-Jews attended the synagogue regularly and in significant numbers.
4. Worship. Perhaps the most distinct aspect of the synagogue was that it provided a context in which a different form of worship other than that of the Jerusalem Temple developed. Over the course of Late Antiquity, the synagogue came to embrace a wide range of religious activities, including scriptural readings, communal prayers, hymns, targum, sermons, and piyyut. Instead of the silence that characterized the Temple’s sacrificial cult, the synagogue placed a premium on public recitation— communal prayer, as well as the reading, translation, and exposition of sacred texts.

Levine’s study moves on to examine archeological evidence and literary sources about the historical development of the synagogue in ancient Palestine (emerged primarily through excavations in the State of Israel) and the Diaspora. It then focuses on the ancient synagogue as an institution, isolating the following aspects (all reflected in dedicated chapters):

  1. Architectural buildings
  2. Communal dynamics
  3. Leadership
  4. Rabbinic involvement
  5. Women
  6. Priests
  7. Liturgy

Samuel Heilman based his study on Synagogue Life on a participant-observer approach that combines “the ethnographic approach, which in its description embodies explanation, with the sociological one, which tends toward analytic generalization.” His research was based on a year-long fieldwork process, during which he assiduously frequented a “modern-Orthodox” synagogue in Queens, NY (which in the book he calls “Kehillat Kodesh,” or Holy Community, an alias designed to preserve the anonymity of the congregation and its members), describing what he experienced there according to a specific point of view.

Heilman considers synagogue life as “the interaction generated within and by the members of [a] synagogue.” (Incidentally, in the book he refers to the synagogue with a Yiddish term, shul, that is popular among Ashkenazi Jews in the United States). Synagogues offer a specific “setting” for the interaction among individuals who, in the context of daily worship, study and assembly, fulfill definite symbolic roles, acting within a space of “institutional sanctity.”

The symbolic roles are outlined by Heilman as those of a predefined “cast of characters.” The theatrical and performative connotations of this approach are obvious, and inspiring in many a way. The characters that act on the stage of synagogue life include:

  1. males and females
  2. the gabbai (a dispenser of “kibbudim,” or ritual honors)
  3. the synagogue’s lay leadership (the “President”)
  4. the chazan (cantor)
  5. the “quasi-chazan” (a figure that stands in a dynamic relationship
  6. with the cantor)
  7. chiyuv and yartsayt (those whose presence at services is mandatory)
  8. rabbinic authority
  9. strangers and guests
  10. mendicants, beggars, shnorrers and meshulachim
  11. children

Both scholars adopted an inter-disciplinary approach to study synagogues and synagogue life. History and archeology, sociology and ethnography are all at play in describing this extremely dense aspect of culture. Comparing Levine’s study with Heilman’s is also useful in identifying some elements of continuity in the development of synagogue life after its “first 1,000 years.” We are thus keeping their respective efforts, and the lists of categories we can derive from them, in mind while continuing our study.

In the exhibition, Case Study No. 2: The Inventory Project, which opened yesterday at The Magnes, there are several items that illustrate some of the dynamics of synagogue life highlighted by both Levine and Heilman. You may want to single them out on your own. (I Spy-style hints: a textile with the names of a man and a woman; a synagogue seating chart; a list of the value of ritual honors; a schedule of liturgical services; a reminder of yartsayt dates; and more…).

Between History and Ethnography (And More Breaking News from 18th-century Amsterdam)

This week, we begin positioning ourselves between history and ethnography. A somewhat awkward, albeit rewarding, spot, that requires both attention and a host of methodological considerations. We also go back to Amsterdam, which we briefly visited last week thanks to The Magnes Collection.

The inauguration of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam (aka, esnoga), an 8-day affair, culminated on Friday, August 2, 1675 (corresponding to 10 Av 5435 in the Jewish calendar; date conversion tool available here). As we saw last week, the event is described in the first volume of Bernard & Picart’s Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World (1723-1743) with an engraving comprehensive of the architectural setting, the reading from the Torah/Hebrew Bible, the attire and demeanor of those in attendance, etc. This work is available online via the UCLA Library. The first volume can also be downloaded in its entirety via the Heidelberg University Library. The engraving is accompanied by instructive captions (in French), which you can view by enlarging the images online, including the following:

La dedicace de la Synagogue et l’éntré des livres de la Loy se celebra pendant 8 jours, le 10e du mois de Menahem 5435, qui se raporte au mois d’Aut, 1675; on en fait la commemoration tous les Ans.

But Picart’s image—a photograph of sorts, before photography was invented—is far from being the only resource we possess about this event. It is worth citing a few sources, ancient and modern, to understand how all of them concur to expand our understanding of this historical event.

The Spanish-Portuguese synagogue is still standing, and it is now a still-functioning religious institution, a well-known cultural heritage site at the heart of Amsterdam, and a venue for cultural and political events. Of course, the congregation has its own website. where it has the chance to tell its own history.

Google Maps grants a street view of the synagogue

The website synagogues360, which provides 360-degree photographic documentation of synagogues worldwide, presents us with the opportunity of “touring” this synagogue. We can “take in” both the similarities with Picart’s description, and the architectural changes that accommodate its more recent role as a tourist attraction, souvenir shop and security exits included.

We can also rely on YouTube to see this synagogue set to the original candle-lighting features:

See it being used for a paraliturgical event (the “installation” of a new Rabbi), with Hebrew prayers sung by a full male choir:

Or even used as the venue for political speeches (no links provided, but if you search online you’ll see what I am referring to).

There are many other sources, of course. Many of them are historical.

The Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana at the University of Amsterdam has posted online other visual sources about the synagogue and its inauguration (available here) as part of its Treasures of Jewish Booklore online series.

The Amsterdam City Archives hold the Records of the Portuguese Jewish Community (inventory available here), which also relate to the inauguration ceremony of 1675.

But the ceremony also had a specific musical component. The music manuscripts of the Portuguese community have been the object of extensive study, especially by Israel Adler (1925-2009). Adler devoted a section of his study of “art music” in the European Jewish communities during the 17th-18th centuries to Amsterdam (initially in his PhD Dissertation, published in French as La pratique musicale savante, The Hague, Mouton, 1966; later in an English version of the Dutch section,  Musical Life and Traditions of the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam in the XVIIIth Century, Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1974). Adler’s study put the ceremony in the context of the musical activities of the community, and of the literary production of its cultural elite.

A Hebrew poem, Chisqi chizqi (“Strengthen my desire…), by Amsterdam Rabbi, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693), was set to music for this occasion by Abraham Caceres (18th cent.), a composer of music for various communal occasions revolving around the life of the Portuguese synagogue and its members. The music manuscript of this composition, which was set for a three-part choir and instrumental accompaniment, is included in a manuscript (Ms. 49 B 22 fol. 15b-16a) found in the Etz Chayim Library (part of the synagogue compound). The manuscript was originally part of the private collection of Amsterdam Rabbi, J. d’Ancona (1911-1945), murdered in Bergen Belsen, and donated to the community library by his widow.

In class, we listened to a contemporary recording of the composition, from the CD, Synagogal Music in the Baroque (which is also listed in our Syllabus). Aside from considering the main features of poetic text (a fine example of Hebrew poetry in the age of the Baroque, full of alliterations, scriptural quotations, and Kabbalistic allusions), as well as the (equally Baroque) style of the musical composition, we can revisit this example of synagogue music in light of the context, and of the other sources at hand.

In Picart’s visual account of the 1675 ceremony, we see  men and women mingling in the main floor of the synagogue building, a space that was (and still is) occupied only by male congregants during the liturgy. At those times, women would sit in the gallery, which is located above the main floor. Following the historical sources that described the ceremony (quoted by Adler), we learn that the event was attended by a wide-ranging public (the “audience” of the musical composition, of the reading of the Torah, and of course of the other parts of the ceremony), which included the city’s Burgomaster and other official and notables. The ceremony was a paraliturgical event that preceded the Sabbath, and that was also a public event, with clear political connotations. It included elements of the liturgy, but was also open to a different kind of participatory use of the architectural space of the synagogue than then one required at liturgical times. Of course, liturgical occasions can also be public events. But their “rules of engagement” are somewhat different.

The liturgical repertoires of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam have also been the object of study. The list of sound recordings included in the Syllabus features The Western Sephardi Liturgical Tradition, a CD that presents a selection of 39 melodies sung by Abraham Lopes Cardozo (Amsterdam, 1914-New York, 2006). Rev. Lopes Cardozo came from a long line of Portuguese Jews who settled in Amsterdam in the 17th century (his great-grandfather was a chief Rabbi of the community), and served three Spanish-Portuguese communities in his capacity as hazzan (synagogue cantor)—Amsterdam, Paramaribo (Suriname), and New York City. A liturgical repertoire, like the one recorded in the CD, is the result of ethnographic fieldwork and of studio “reconstructions,” according to a methodology we will be discussing in the coming weeks.

As we see through a host of concurring visual, archival, literary and musical sources, the space of the synagogue provides a space for both the normative/liturgical and the non-normative/paraliturgical. In exploring synagogue life, we will be focusing precisely on that intersection.

Picart’s Scenes of Synagogue Life

In a way not dissimilar from today’s YouTube dissemination of moving images, the printing press allowed for a far-reaching distribution of information over several centuries.

A book that changed the perception of synagogue life was Bernard & Picart’s Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World (1723-1743), which included a host of engravings by Bernard Picart.

Engraving [75.22]: Bernard Picart, La Dédicace de la synagogue des Juifs Portugais à Amsterdam,  (Holland, ca. 1730)

We looked at some of Picart’s engravings in class today, comparing them with contemporary depictions of synagogue life provided by digitally distributed videos.

This very important book (and many of its editions in various languages) has been made digitally available by the UCLA Library in a joint project with the Getty Research InstituteUtrecht University, and the Huntington Library.

You can read about it here, and view Picart’s illustrations here. The introduction to the project states:

Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde(1723-1743) is a nine-volume folio work published by Jean Frederic Bernard, a French language bookseller in Amsterdam, and lavishly illustrated by Bernard Picart, one of the most famous engravers of the time. As their title suggests, they sought to capture the ritual and ceremonial life of all the known religions of the world. Because Bernard chose to remain anonymous as author, the work has long been catalogued under the name of its engraver, Picart. “Picart,” as many readers called it, helped create the study of comparative religion and had a long-lasting influence on the representations of the world’s religions in the West.

You can also check out Samantha Baskind’s excellent article on “Bernard Picart’s Etchings of Amsterdam’s Jews” (in Jewish Social Studies 13/2, 2007).

The mandatory YouTube links

Since every university course must begin with a YouTube video, I decided to post two of them. Here you have two fine examples of how synagogue life has been portrayed in recent American/Global popular culture.

First, the amazing Bar Mizvah scene from A Serious Man (2009) by Joen and Ethan Cohen.

Then the much less irreverent Drake (in spite of the gross language).

In both cases, you are invited to listen to the sounds, the music, and look out for the architectural features of the synagogal space, the ritual objects involved, and, especially, for body language.

Even more importantly, it is worthwhile noting that even though these are just “reconstructions” of Jewish liturgical (and para-liturgical) settings, they are not much more distant from the “real thing” than many of the archival sources we have in our hands when we study music in the context of synagogue life. Given the traditional Jewish prohibition against writing and using electrically-operated equipment on the Sabbath and other major liturgical occasions, much of the documentation in our possession is derivative (recorded in a studio, or in a recreated setting, albeit from traditional culture bearers). Unless, of course, instead of relying on YouTube videos, or on materials traditionally kept in libraries and archives (sound recordings, musical transcriptions, and books), we go and see things first hand.

In the course of this seminar, we will not only talk about, but actually get a taste of fieldwork. I promise.