Category Archives: resources

The Unfinal

Dear Class,

Next Tuesday, December 11, our Final Examination will be held at The Magnes from 3 to 6 pm.

Attendance is mandatory. No exceptions.

You can bring ANYTHING you wish to the Final. Laptops, smartphones, tablets, books, notes, post-it’s, puppets, musical instruments, other instruments… Really, anything that you think will help you.

We are hopefully going to make good use of the time that UC Berkeley has given us for this occasion. As we already discussed in class, the examination will take place in the form of a user-generated, multi-tasking workshop. Thus, the definition of “unfinal” for our collaborative work. (More on this here).

A draft of the schedule is available HERE for your review and INPUT (see below). The unfinal will only be as good as the content we inject into it.

The “unfinal” will be comprised of three parts:

1. 10 Questions: A short test.
During the last week, each student “nominated” 3 sources listed in the Syllabus through a shared Google document. This resulted in a selection of 5 sources upon which the 10 questions in the test will be based.
(Disclaimer: I also cast my vote, but by the point I did, the selection was already pretty much a done deal…).
It was interesting for me to see how the collective mind of the class selected a group of readings that truly reflect the inter-disciplinary perspective fostered during the semester.
The sources nominated are:

  1. Our textbook–the evergreen study of Jewish Liturgy and Its Development by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (published 80 years ago this year…)–which situates liturgical structures, texts, performance practices and music in the complex context of synagogue life; the chapters selected focus on the Sabbath (Chapters 10-11), which, as we have seen in class, serves as a condensed time of ritual performance, and the Jewish Life Cycle (Chapter 13).
  2. Our “ghost-textbook”: the entry on “Jewish Music” in Grove Music Onlinehttp://www.oxfordmusiconline.com (sections I: Introduction, and III: Liturgical and Paraliturgical).
  3. Our other “ghost-textbook”: the Encyclopaedia Judaica, a solid summary of major scholarship in Jewish Studies, and an excellent go-to source to clarify the contours of virtually all topics in this field; the selection was for the entries on Piyyut and Kaddish. 
  4. Laura S. Lieber’s essay on “The Rhetoric of Participation: Experiential Elements of Early Hebrew Liturgical Poetry” (The Journal of Religion 90/2 (April 2010): 119-147 — JSTOR): a study of piyyut (Hebrew liturgical poetry), its literary origins and practices, and the context of its performance within synagogue liturgy.
  5. Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig’s essay, ‘May He Grow to the Torah…’: The Iconography of Torah  Reading and Bar Mitzvah on Ashkenazi Torah Binders, in Langer and Fine eds. Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue, 2005: 161-176, available on bSpace): a study of ritual objects that reflect the Jewish Life Cycle, and of the interaction between iconography and ritual performance.

As we can all see, history, ethnography, music, literature and material culture all all well-represented in this selection. Architecture is probably the only major topic missing from the “unfinal,” although it received a lot of attention in our class discussions. The unfinal selections thus ended up reflecting the initial assumptions of the seminar, as stated in our Syllabus at the beginning of the Semester:

A core aspect of Jewish life and creativity in the global Diaspora, liturgy involves the interaction of texts, sounds, objects, architectural spaces and body language within the performative space of the synagogue. These elements and their related sources are often studied as separate cultural entities, according to distinct methodologies. A multi-disciplinary perspective on liturgy and ritual must instead integrate the study of language and literary texts with musicology and ethnomusicology, the study of visual and material cultures, anthropology and the investigation of everyday life.

The multi-disciplinary aspect of our research will be the topic of the 10 questions, based on the 5 sources listed above, that students in the Performing Texts seminar will be confronted with in our user-generated “unfinal.”

I expect that we will devote the first our of the Final Examination to this task.

2. Fieldwork: A Conversation
Fieldwork has been a crucial component of our work throughout the Semester. We visited three synagogues in Berkeley (Congregation Beth El on the occasion of Rosh Hashannah; Congregation Netivot Shalom on Sukkot; and Congregation Beth Israel on Simchat Torah) observing individual and group dynamics; architectural spaces; dress codes; prayer books; body language; music sources and performance styles; ritual objects and more… Each visit was followed by class discussions, and all of our experiences were compared and confronted with our sources. We also discussed the issue of field work in the synagogue, and studied its historic roots in the research on Jewish music and Jewish cultural antiquity since the early modern times. Last but not least, we listened to archival field recordings, and investigated a variety of social media platforms (including YouTube, Facebook and more) as ethnographic sources.
We are thus quite well-equipped to welcome to our class Yonatan Cohen, Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

Yonatan Cohen is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox community in Berkeley, California. He joined the shul in 2006 after receiving ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical School in Manhattan, NY. He was born in Israel and grew up in Montreal, Canada. R. Cohen completed a B.A. in Philosophy at McGill University, and studied at Kollel Torah Mitzion, the Metivta and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 2008-2010 Congregation Beth Israel together with R. Cohen were awarded a prestigious grant from the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project for Congregational Education. R. Cohen served on the Board of Directors of Hillel, UC Berkeley. He serves on the founding advisory board of the Merkvah Torah Institute as well as on the founding board of Kevah (http://kevah.org/). R. Cohen is also a fellow at the Rabbinic Leadership Institute of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is on Tumblr at http://rabbiyonatancohen.com

Yonatan Cohen’s visit to our class will be the perfect occasion to continue, and conclude, our conversation about Jewish liturgical performance. The congregation he serves was the last one on our field trip schedule, and the celebration of Simchat Torah we observed there was particularly dense with performative elements. Here are some reminders:

  • Multiple prayer books used by congregants
  • Division of the ritual architectural space between male and female congregants (gender dynamics)
  • Dress codes
  • Musical materials: we all noticed the use of the melody of Somewhere Over the Rainbow in the recitation of the Hallel…
  • Generational dynamics: younger and older congregants; adult and children; and their respective body languages, musical materials, etc.
  • Use of ritual objects: we noticed the “banging” of the hand of the prayer leader on the machzor, to mark the tempo of the musical performance; and of course we all saw the dancing with Torah scrolls during the haqafot
  • Food

We will thus continue our field-work in a student-led interview session with Yonatan Cohen. The conversation, which will be video-recorded, can point to a variety of directions, including both what we observed in our field trip(s) as well as general issues relating to what we discussed in class. The Semester brought us many different questions relating to identity (and its ritual performance), to rabbinic sources governing the ritual, to the relationship between congregations and rabbinic authorities, the role of prayer leaders (the hazzan, the quasi-hazzan, etc., as delineated by Heilman’s study of synagogue life), and more…

I have created an ONLINE CANVAS, where students in the class are invited to contribute. Please visit the canvas, and add your suggested topic for the conversation with Yonatan Cohen.

I expect our field work session to last for approximately one hour (until 5pm).

3. Summary, Final Words, & Farewell

You can post suggestions, single words, one-liners, links, and more, to the shared canvas for the “unfinal.”

There will be food. 🙂

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Sacred Subversion: What Do We Listen To When We Listen to Jewish Music

In the past weeks, we have approached the topic of “Jewish music” according to two parallel paths.

On one hand, we took the very expression, “Jewish music,” as a cultural construct. And we studied who, at different times in history (beginning in the early-modern period, in Europe), has expressed an interest in defining, and therefore “studying,” music in a Jewish context.

We have explored nine or ten competing notions of “Jewish music” that have emerged since the 16th century. These notions include antiquity (the idea that walking into a synagogue is similar to visiting a musical-liturgical “Jurassic Park” of sorts, in which all texts and melodies come by default from the ancient world), nationalism, hybridity, revival, and so on. A hopefully useful summary appeared on our whiteboard, so here it is:

Cultural Agendas and "Jewish Music"

These are notions that compete in defining “Jewish music” in our society. We “hear” them when we hear “Jewish music” and they define the music we listen to for us.

On the other hand, we also analyzed various modes of Jewish musical interaction, focusing on ritual performance in the synagogue. Several concepts have emerged. They are somewhat abstract, since we wanted to look at general forms of interaction, and not at the specificity of each musical “tradition” in the global Diaspora. But they also include some of the most basic form of vocal expression known to humankind:

  1. listen to a solo voice, or sing as a group;
  2. sing, then repeat (responsorial practice) or sing, then sing something different (antiphonal practice);
  3. apply strictly regulated formulas to voicing texts, or leave it up to modal improvisation to do the job, or divide your text sentences in 2-part (or 3-part) units, or associate a text with a “tune” of your choosing…

Here, too, the whiteboard kept a trace of our class conversations:

Music in the Synagogue

Finally, we established the top aspects we are looking for (or listening for) in our study.

Focus on Jewish Music

The last list establishes the “top three” aspects of musical interaction we are focusing on in our study of Jewish liturgy as performance.

  1. We are definitely interested in the materials of music, in what music is made of. We use terms like melody, rhythm, harmony, mode to do this. We also look at “native” (or “pertinent”) terms, used by Jewish musical practitioners, such as nusach (an Ashkenazi notion connected to modality and improvisational formulas, which has been extended beyond the strict realm of Ashkenazi music itself) and maqam (referring to the use of the Arabic and Turkish modal systems within many Jewish communities from the world of Islam).
  2. And we are equally interested in “performative dynamics.” By carefully watching “who” does “what” in the context of Jewish liturgy (who sings what prayers, and who doesn’t; who chooses the music materials; who participates and when, and to what extent, etc.), we connect our close analysis of musical interactions with the symbolic roles of synagogue life as we have examined in previous weeks. What real say does a hazzan (cantor) have over the choice of musical materials? Can a Rabbi stop the singing of a prayer to a popular tune he or she deems inappropriate? Can others also do that?
  3. Finally, we closely watch the multi-faceted relationship that music, as a predominantly oral tradition, entertains with the texts of the liturgy. Are texts and musical materials in perfect alignment with one another? (Some texts are typically associated with multiple melodies: do they all perfectly “fit” with them?). And when they are not, which aspects prevails? Are texts extended or shortened to preserve musical integrity, or, vice-versa, is music adapted to the meter and the length of a particular text? When the melody of a popular song is adapted to a Hebrew prayer text, which of the two will be the object of compromise? Will popular culture prevail over Hebrew liturgy, or not?

In considering these top three aspects of musical interaction within Jewish liturgy, we are thus interested in understanding up close how music acts as a vehicle to express ideas, interpretations, emotions, and more, outside the boundaries of verbal communication. Then, we want to connect music to body language (and ritual objects), and look for how they interact in expressing culture beyond its normative boundaries.

In essence, we are interested in liturgical performance as a platform for the expression of subversive behavior, right at the center of the “sacred.”

Finding the Core: Class Project Deadline Coming Up

Dear Class,

As you all know, the deadline for presenting a proposal for your project for Performing Texts is coming up very soon.

Now

Here’s what the Class Syllabus states:

2. Projects will take the form of a combined research paper and class presentation based on the multi-disciplinary approach that characterizes the seminar. Projects will be created in consultation with the instructor (office hours: Thursday 11-Noon or byappointment) during the first part of the semester, and must be selected by Week 6. Presentations can take place any day of class throughout the Semester, after Week 8. Papers are due on November 20.

As we discussed in class, the idea is that you will need to produce a paper (format and length are entirely up to you) and present it to the class. These projects require a core topic, which can be in any of the areas we are discussing during the first half of the seminar (text, music, ritual objects, architecture, body language), and its inter-relations with the other areas of investigation.

I have encouraged you many times to establish your core interest in an area that reflects your “comfort zone,” (if you wish to work on texts, on a particular language of the liturgy, or on music, on on objects, etc., go there first), and than to branch out seeking multi-disciplinary connections.

Example: if my focus is on a given liturgical text, I will not only analyze the text itself for its many inter-textual dimensions, but I will also relate it to the specificity of the liturgy in which the text appears, to select music used in the synagogue by a variety of Jewish community to sound it, to the use of ritual objects that may be connected with it (the prayer book, biblical scrolls, Torah pointers, wine cups, etc.), and of the architectural spaces in which the text is performed…

In order to do so, you need to decide on the general topic of your project. And you need to do that by next Thursday (it’s already week 6 in the Semester!).

I have been disseminating a few hints to some students. Here are some examples:

  • comparing different versions of the same melody (or of the melodic renditions of the same text) among various Jewish communities.
  • researching the role of Judeo-Spanish texts in the liturgy of Western-Sephardic communities
  • a Graduate Student who is taking Performing Texts is working on the symbolic roles of individual synagogue-goers in the context of a congregation he is working at in San Francisco (and contextually examining his own role as an involved participant/observer in carrying out his fieldwork)
  • some students could research “sound objects” that are currently being selected for an upcoming exhibition at The Magnes (Spring 2013)

You can either find the time to come and talk with me (office hours are in the syllabus, but I am of course happy to meet you at other times), or if you are feeling quite secure on what your project should be about, just shoot me an email.

The best would be for all of you to write up a proposal. This does not have to be long (a paragraph? two?), but it should state what you’d like to work on, and what sources you’d like to use (the Syllabus provides you with a wealth of options). Please have it ready by next Thursday, October 4th.

A High Holy Days Time Turner: Harry Potter and Jewish Liturgical Competence

An image showed up in my Facebook feed this past week, and caught my attention. High Holy Days Time Turner

It was posted by my friend and colleague, Aviad Stollman, Judaica Collection Curator at the National Library of Israel, via a Facebook page, Jewish Harry Potter.

As it is often the case in sub-culturally-specific domains, the image interlaces two very distinct areas of knowledge: the Harry Potter saga by J. K. Rawlings, and  the Hebrew liturgy for the Jewish High Holy Days.

In the image, Hermione Granger shares with Harry Potter a “time turner,” a magical objects that allows to travel back in time, as featured in the third volume of the saga, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjPb3ziyYYo]

But in this context, Hermione says to Harry: “I will bring you back in time by 3 minutes, and this time do not forget [to say] ‘ha-melekh ha-qadosh [the holy King].'” Jewish Hermione’s recommendation requires a more in-depth explanation.

The words, ha-melekh ha-qadosh replace the standard text (ha-el ha-qadosh) of the third benediction of the ‘amidah prayer (the central daily prayer in Jewish liturgy, centered around 18—well, really 19—benedictions, which are reduced to 7 on the Sabbath and on certain holidays) only on the High Holy Days. It is such a slight (yet fundamental) textual variation—the standard text says ha-el ha-qadosh—that is easy to forget it. Hence, the magical “time turner” that allows one to go back in time and fix a liturgical “mistake.”

The change of wording in the High Holy Days ‘amidah prayer is a rather complex feature, which our outdated, yet extremely useful, textbook (Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development, 1932), explains while examining the Services for the High Holy Days (chapter XVI):

The services for the High Holydays [sic] may well be considered the climax of Jewish worship. In them the most important Jewish ideals are expressed: The sovereignty of God over all creatures, the brotherhood of the human family, the revelation of the divine spirit to man, the providence of God, the concept of reward and punishment, the restoration of the Jewish people and the sanctuary in Zion where a center for enlightenment for mankind shall be created. In addition to these ideas, the idea of renouncing one’s own sins, seeking forgiveness, and vowing to lead a clean life is emphasized on the Day of Atonement. […] For these reason, these days are dedicated entirely to worship and meditation. For this purpose, the service was elaborately built up of laudations and prayers, hymns and poems, meditations and petitions. The Talmud already calls attention to the length of the prayers on these days. […]
In accordance with this outline, several prayers are common for both holidays: New Year and the Day of Atonement; while several others are especially for the one or the other day. […] (p. 205)

Idelsohn then describes the “standard prayers” for the High Holy Days:

The standard prayers are elaborated with special insertions in the Amida and with the blowing of the Shofar [ram’s horn]. […]
In its structure, the Amida is similar to that of Sabbath and the Festivals; that is, it has seven beneditions of which the three introductory and the three concluding are the same. It has the following insertions: […]
In the third benediction: The following short paragraphs are inserted:
[…]
Qadosh atah — There is only One God and none other.
The passages are important enough to have their translation reproduced:
[…]
“Holy art thou, and dreaded is thy name, and there is no God beside thee, as it is written, And the Lord of hosts is exalted in judgment, and the holy God is sanctified in righteousness. Blessed are thou, O Lord, the holy King.”
The last paragraph used to be recited daily in the old Palestinian ritual, at least the first sentence; while the Babylonian ritual adopted it for the High Holydays [sic] only.
This benediction concludes with hamelekh haqadosh—“The holy King”—instead of with “The holy God” as in the daily prayers. […]
In the Italian and Yemenite rituals, the first sentence of qadosh atah is missing. This version follows that of Maimonides.

An in-depth analysis of the structure of the prayers that compose the Jewish Prayer Book is by default complex, since the structure itself is extremely complex, containing a number of variants which, as we have just read, depend on specific liturgical occasions as well as on the variety of customs across the Jewish Diaspora. At times, it may feel that liturgy is almost too complex

Had Monty Python devoted some of their talents to Jewish liturgy, I am sure we would have some additional fine examples of comedy. Along the following lines.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd8qzqfPfdM]

What fascinates me about the exchange between the Jewish Hermione Granger and the Jewish Harry Potter above is that it takes the quasi-absurd complexity of Jewish liturgy into account. It states how the inner workings of liturgy are not only difficult to analyze, but also extremely difficult to perform, and to commit to memory, by their practitioners. Forgetting what texts to use at a given liturgical time, and trying to remember how to correctly perform them, is part of the liturgical experience itself. By using a time turner, the two characters grant themselves the ability to travel back in time and correct their inevitable mistakes.

Try it Free: The Talmud iPad App as Modern Palimpsest

Last week, we discussed the inherent intertextuality of the Jewish Prayer Book. And we explored ancient and modern forms of the palimpsest.

We also looked at the online projects created around the Archimedes Palimpsest, a 13th-century (Christian) prayer book containing erased texts that were written several centuries earlier, most notably two treatises by Archimedes that can be found nowhere else. Among these projects, there is an astounding Google Books display of the original codex.

Essentially, we are considering the textual aspects of Jewish liturgy as a “palimpsest” of sorts, generated through multiple layers of texts and meanings, interpretations and uses. In a way, the text of the liturgy is a conscious palimpsest , since the way in which all layers appear to interact are somewhat intentional. Or not?

News circulated recently online about the ArtScroll iPad app. This is a great example of intentional modern palimpsest. In it, multiple layers of textual sources, interpretive paths, and patterns of usability, seem to coexist within an apparently seamless (digital) interface.

And you can “try it free,” too! 😉

Talmud Bavli iPad App (screenshot)

A Galaxy of Meanings. Languages and Texts of the Jewish Prayer Book

This week we begin confronting the idea of Jewish liturgy as an inter-textual continuum. This is an important idea, which will carry over in our upcoming analysis of musical patterns in synagogue music, of ritual body language, and beyond, all the way to the study of the aesthetics of Jewish ritual.

Neither the text, nor the language of Jewish liturgy are one. They are instead the result of a stratification and fusion of languages, sources, meanings and interpretations.

If we examine the competing notions of “Jewish language,” we are confronted with a series of methodological strategies deployed to manage the multi-dimensional nature of language within Jewish life. However defined (we touched upon ideas ranging from “any language spoken by Jews” to notions of linguistic fusion and koiné, to the relationship between language and cultural identity), a Jewish language is the result of several different concurring linguistic agents.

In learning about the emergence of piyyut (liturgical poetry), for example, we explored the origins and the implications of the very word, “piyyut”: a Hebrew adaptation of the word poiesis (the Greek etymological source of “poetry”), related to texts written predominantly in Hebrew, originally in a metric derived from Arabic poetry. The word, “piyyut,” is then at the roots of a confluence of Jewish, Hellenistic, and Islamic cultural traditions.

By observing the diversity of Jewish languages across the global Diaspora (thanks to an excellent website and its map of Jewish linguistic differences around the world, and to musical examples drawn from an audio-anthology prepared by Israel’s National Sound Archives), we encounter structural similarities that can be analyzed through a suggestive metaphor, coming from the realm of astronomy. Echoing Walter Benjamin’s notion of “constellation” (of related ideas), we may describe each “Jewish language” as a galaxy of linguistic interactions. The galaxy of Jewish language involves a core language, its fundamental relations with Hebrew and/or Aramaic, and the com-participation of a host of satellite languages. (The understanding is that Hebrew, and Aramaic, can also act as the core language of individual linguistic systems).

Jewish Linguistic "Galaxy"

Similarly, the textual sources of Jewish liturgy are not homogenous. They encompass the following:
– the entire Tanakh (the canon of the Hebrew Bible, comprising the Pentateuch, the Prophetic books, and the remaining writings)–including both the original Hebrew text and its subsequent translations (beginning with the Aramaic Targum and continuing with translations in other languages);
– the Talmud, which is both quoted textually in some sections of the Prayer Book, and a source of inspiration for the structure of the liturgy and the basic formulas that inform it (the blessings, or berakhot)
– other prayers
– liturgical poetry (piyyut)

Inter-textuality of Jewish Liturgical Texts

In the textual continuum of the Jewish Prayer Book, the Siddur, these textual sources are constantly present. They intersect one another, and complete and comment on one another in a dynamic galaxy of competing layers of meaning.

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.