Hassidic Music from the Spielberg Film Archive


The Biography of Piyyut | PopUp Test #3

As we have discussed in class, both during lectures and during the music section, piyyutim (Hebrew liturgical poems) have many dimensions.

Moreover, each piyyut has a distinctive biography, which at the very list includes:

  • a literary history and a publication history
  • an intellectual agenda (involving the interpretation of the Bible, theology, and more)
  • a political dimension (how its performance may bring certain segments of a community together, or not)
  • a spiritual dimension (how its text and performance concur to create a defined link among those who perform it)
  • a musical dimension (how the many musical settings of each piyyut may reflect all of the above)

For today’s assignment, select one piyyut from the ones we have explored in class (also listed below), and write three short paragraphs (max 1 page) describing the following:

  1. Biography and character of the piyyut in as many dimensions possible
  2. How you believe these dimensions come together to create a spiritual impact on those who perform it and on those who participate in its ritual performance
  3. How you would describe the “essence” of the piyyut you choose? (I.e., what is the specific piyyut, text, music, and all, really about?)

As usual, create a document on bDrive and share it with your instructors (spagnoloacht[at]berkeley and yairharel[at]berkeley). Please, include your name in the title of the document. If you do not have a way to post this during class time, do so by midnight tonight.

For your convenience, here is a list of the incipits of the piyyutim that have been performed by the class during the music sections thus far:

  • Kol beruei
  • Shema’ qoli
  • Adon ‘olam
  • Ben adam
  • Rachamana de’anei
  • El eliyahu
  • Amar adonai leya’aqov
  • Qarev yom
  • Simu lev ‘al haneshamah

Modern Hebrew Night Poems | A Lecture by Professor Robert Alter

Next week, we will have a chance to further explore the theme of Jewish Nightlife with Professor Robert Alter.

Robert Alter is Professor of the Graduate School and Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967, and where he is the Founding Director of the Center for Jewish Studies. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress, and past president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has twice been a Guggenheim Fellow and has been a Senior Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem, and Old Dominion Fellow at Princeton University. Professor Alter has written widely on the European novel from the 18th century to the present, on contemporary American fiction, on modern Hebrew literature, and on literary aspects of the Bible. His 25 published books include two prize-winning volumes on biblical narrative and poetry, and award-winning translations of Genesis and the Five Books of Moses. In 2009, he was given the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Contribution to American Letters by the Los Angeles Times. In 2013, he received the Conference on Christianity and Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Charles Homer Haskins Prize given by the American Council of Learned Societies.

In preparation for his lecture, professor Alter shared with us his translations of Hebrew poetry.

​​Midnight Vigil

Gloomy night, a strong wind sends a strong raincloud
rolling over the town,
and all the little town sinks
in deep mire and in sleep.

The dark entrances are silent.
The rustle of rain alone stirs in them,
and collapsing houses, bleak and desolate,
show black faces here and there.

And like a wretched orphan to whom
the charity people have forgotten to give a blanket for warmth,
roofs laid bare, they bend low,
huddle, and silently groan,

as if they reflected and pondered
voiceless evil thoughts:
Are they cracked to their foundations
and show defiance to all?

And driving rain rolls down
like streams of tears on the walls;
the roofs shrink more and more
and the town weeps bitterly.

Those who sleep in the dark curse
in their dreams the morrow and yesterday—
oh, rest complacent, eternal beggars, schnorrers!
and dream a good dream, you heavy-yoked people.

From between the cracks
the wind’s howl bursts forth, blood-freezing.
Ah! who knows if the curse
of an innocent perishing brother is bound up there?

Not a single star remains on high,
not a spark of light, not a beam—
just a solitary window still shows some light:
a Jew getting up for the midnight vigil.

​​​​​H.N. Bialik


​​​In Praise of the Night​​​

Very ancient the night in our blood,
dense, dark as old wine.
Like wine it’s sweet and bitter too.
It sings, it sings in the depth of our dream.

It is in us of old, buried, hidden,
it walks by day at our heels,
lies in wait till our love is ripe
to burst forth in the gladdened body.

But if we betray it and do not love
and its ferment and its singing are in vain,
in hateful darkness it will flood us.

In it our soul and body sink
and in our eyes a sun bereaved
will find its dark reflection.


Its glory fearsome
its hand is heavy,
the brilliance of its stars
for its lovers.

Its secret deep
for it alone,
its autumn scents
its springs’ as well.

It hides in the garden
the bridegroom’s lips,
in the darkness—
the arms of the bride.

Its shadow conceals
the knife,
and blood is swallowed up
in the darkness.

Praise, oh praise
the black of night,
its eyes are fair,
its eyes ablaze.

Praise, oh praise
we sing to the night,
by desire scorched,
our bodies ablaze.

​​​Leah Goldberg


Bats, fugitives of light who wait in the crevice,
their feet against the ceiling
upside down angels of rubber, who follow
with big ears, with precision,
the dull ticking within them
to the final count,
the signal to burst out
of the quivering tangle—dark upon dark—outside​​​​​​​​​

​​​Dan Pagis


​​​​But We Must Praise

​​​​ We must praise the Lord of all.
–Hebrew liturgy

But we must praise
a familiar night. Gold borrowed from the abyss.
Cypresses rose forever. Far away,
long hair still flows, Lord of the loss of all.

What are you doing to me, far-away woman?
As on branches you hung me with weeping thoughts.
From far away your hand touches me as if testing
my bridges. They bear the weight and tremble. Yours is the kingdom.

Behind my words dark as a moon
come to me, make me tired.
But we must praise the loins of all: your lap.
Shout of the shoulder

that bore you to me on the night of reversal,
stars of forgetful man above us.
Your body’s style, sky’s manner here in the hollow
of this narrow world. But we must.

​​​Yehuda Amichai

Planning Research: A Summer of Student Paper Proposals

Almost all abstracts/proposals for this semester’s research papers are in (as planned according to the course syllabus). As it is often the case when empowering students to select research topics according to their interests and strengths, the variety of the subjects that will be researched by the class is stunning.

From the aesthetics of 18th-century Kabbalistic musical rituals to the development of synagogue music in South India, from the cultural origins of Israeli secular shirah be-tzibur (communal singing) in nocturnal liturgies to the roles of women in the synagogue, from comparative fieldwork in UC Berkeley Jewish and Catholic student religious gatherings to the study of (religious) nightlife in Israel, Korea, and Las Vegas, our semester seems to be producing a lot of original thinking.

In the midst of this diversity, however, are some core and consistent disciplinary approaches. As outlined since the beginning of the semester, the study of (Jewish) nightlife is necessarily a multi-disciplinary endeavor, and the approaches adopted by the students in the class seems to confirm just that. (Phew!).

Below is a graph the summarizes the disciplinary trends expressed in the abstracts submitted this week:

Jewish Nightlife 2014 Research Paper Topics

There are seven groups of papers, listed in order of magnitude:

  1. Religious studies and ethnomusicology (liturgy and piyyut)
  2. Area studies (Jewish communities in the global diaspora)
  3. Musicology (Jews and popular music in America and beyond)
  4. Musicology (Jews and art music in the synagogue, 18th-20th centuries)
  5. Comparative studies (ritual and nightlife in Jewish and non-Jewish communities)
  6. Gender studies (women in Jewish ritual)
  7. Intellectual history

Now, I guess we will have to wait for the papers to flow in to see the results of this semester’s work. Looking forward…

A Simchat Torah Synagogue Field Trip (London, 1663)

During the semester, we conducted two field trips to Berkeley synagogues, and we continued to discuss the role of visitors to synagogues, and their possible impact on synagogue sounds.

This week, we are specifically working on the idea that what has long been presented as “Jewish art music”–a corpus of music composed in Italy, as well as in Southern France and Amsterdam, during the 17th and 18th centuries–may instead be understood as a specific type of musical production directed (at least in part) at non-Jewish synagogue goers.

A recent article in Tablet Magazine brought forth the 17th-century diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), an English Member of Parliament, diarist, and book collector. The October 14, 1663 entry in Pepys’ diary centers upon the account of a visit to Congregation Shaar Hashamayim in London on the night of Simchat Torah.

After all, Pepys’ account is not too different from what was reported in class after our own visits. But his reactions clearly are:

Wednesday 14 October 1663

Up and to my office, where all the morning, and part of it Sir J. Minnes spent, as he do every thing else, like a fool, reading the Anatomy of the body to me, but so sillily as to the making of me understand any thing that I was weary of him, and so I toward the ‘Change and met with Mr. Grant, and he and I to theCoffee-house, where I understand by him that Sir W. Petty and his vessel are coming, and the Kingintends to go to Portsmouth to meet it. Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall, and there the Tangier Committee met, but the Duke and the Africa Committee meeting in our room, Sir G. Carteret; Sir W. Compton, Mr. Coventry, Sir W. Rider, Cuttance and myself met in another room, with chairs set in form but no table, and there we had very fine discourses of the business of the fitness to keep Sally, and also of the terms of our King’s paying the Portugees that deserted their house at Tangier, which did much please me, and so to fetch my wife, and so to the New Exchange about her things, and called at Thomas Pepys the turner’s and bought something there, an so home to supper and to bed, after I had been a good while with Sir W. Pen, railing and speaking freely our minds against Sir W. Batten and Sir J. Minnes, but no more than the folly of one and the knavery of the other do deserve.

In class, we discussed the perceived need to appear (and sound) more orderly in the case of official visits to synagogues, or visits by notable guests, and how this need may indeed be manifested in the production of musical compositions. Composed music is, almost by definition, much more orderly than orally transmitted music. It is more predictable, can be controlled more, and yields to a certain effect.