Searching For (and Finding) Jewish Nightlife

A set of suggested discussion topics for a class debriefing session, following two field trips in Berkeley during the Sukkot Festival.

  1. Setting
  • Where (location, real estate, interiors)
  • How (to get there, to get inside)
  • Who (genders, ages, attires)
  • Languages (of prayer books, spoken, sung)
  • Atmosphere & relationship with locals (welcoming, unwelcoming, indifferent…)
  1. Music & Sound
  • Voices: gender, style
  • Instrumentation (yes, not, if yes: what kind/s?)
  • Melodies
  • Chants (and Modes)
  • Rhythm (clear beat; flowing rhythm)
  • Texts
  1. Body language(s)
  • Individual and group behavior
  • Dress codes and body language
  • Ritual body language (prayer leader/s vs. congregations)
  1. Food(and Drinking)
  1. Broader topics/questions
  • The “I” in the fieldwork (individual perspectives, emotions, etc.)
  • The “We” in the fieldwork (group visits)
  • Comparative approaches to fieldwork (visiting more than one site)
  • A sense of otherness
  • How it felt to be there with other students
  • The original assignment: nightlife
  • Holiday (festival of Sukkot/Simchat Torah vs. a “ regular” Shabbat evening)
  • Any other topics/questions/issues?

Poetic Subversions: Piyyut (Hebrew poetry), Love, and Liturgy

Enter LOVE (as in, songs about).

At last!  (Follow the link for W’s entry on Etta James’ 1960 hit…)

This week, as we continue to visit Berkeley synagogues, we also focus on piyyut, aka, “Hebrew liturgical poetry.” This is the last, and crucial, “building block” in our construction of Jewish Nightlife as a research topic.

In class, we discussed the subversive nature of the addition of new poetry to the liturgy of the synagogue: a subversion carried out through language, interpretive takes on biblical narratives, a predominant focus on the ambiguous theme of divine/human love, and, of course, music.

We also focus on the history of one piyyut, with incipit (beginning words):

kol berue ma’ala umatah (“All creatures above and below” [in Heaven and on Earth])
Bakkashah with acrostic “shelomoh” (Solomon)
Attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol (Malaga-Valencia, 11th ccenturyCE)

On bakkashot, see Idelsohn p. 157:

Among the Oriental and Levantine communities, there is an old custom to rise before sunset on Saturdays, to assemble in synagogues, and to sing religious songs. These songs are called BakkashothShevahoth, and Pizmonim. The authors of these songs are Jehuda Halevi, Abraham ibn Ezra, Israel Najara, and many other Oriental poets who lived between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Find several musical versions of this poem (discussed by Idelsohn, p. 217), which celebrates the unity of all “creatures” in acknowledging the unity of the divine, at this link.

I published an Italian musical version of the poem in 2001. In recent years, a Jerusalem-based singer, Hadass Pal-Yarden, has popularized (in the best sense of the word) this poem according to a musical version she collected in Turkey:

But the poem has a long history, going back at least to the 17th century

Publication history (selection) of kol berue ma’ala unmatah, based on Davidson’s Thesaurus of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry

Kol Berue publication history (Davidson no. 282)

Pay attention to the intersection between chronology and geographical span. For your convenience, I have arranged select entries (listed above and decrypted through the Thesaurus’ key) in chronological order.

1. Not dated
Bakkashot rash”ad, Ms. Bodleian Library (Oxford) n.d.

2. 17th century
Sidur tefilah, Mantua 1676

3. 18th century
Zavche shlemim, Constantinople 1728
Sidur ya’avatz (Italy), Altona (Germany) 1731
Z”Y Izmir, Smirne [Izmir] 1766
Arba’h ta’aniyot, Constantinople 1780
kapa, Mezhirov (Ukraine) 1793

4. 19th century
Yiztchaq yeranen, Jerusalem 1855
Ms. Tunis 1, Livorno 1861
Bet av, Livorno 1877
M. Argil 1, Livorno 1878
Liqute zvi hachadash, Warsaw 1879
Bet habechirah, Livorno 1880
Yigal, Jerusalem 1885
Bet ya’aqov, Tunis 1898

5. 20th century
Mishmeret hachadash, Baghdad 1908
Machzor Elohei Ya’aqov, Jerusalem 1908
Meshat Binyamin, Jerusalem 1909 (Persian)
Bakkashot yerushalayim, Jerusalem 1913
Otzar hatefilot, Vilnius 1914

In Search of Jewish Night Rituals

…and thus we begin tracing the long journey (ca. 1570 to the present) of night-time Jewish communal singing.

Question: When does nightlife happen (so that it counts as nightlife)?

Ours is a history of the movement of ideas/practices from the Mediterranean into a global network. It involves:

  • A social history of religion
  • A religious history of society
  • A musical history of religion and society

Here’s a preliminary list of where (textually/liturgically) we may want to look for Jewish nightlife:

  • The Creation (and the Kiddush)
  • Blessing of the New Moon
  • Kabbalat shabbat
  • Sabbath & festival table
  • Havdalah
  • Tiqun chatzot (9 of Av, reading Ekhah at night))
  • Passover Seder
  • Tiqun leyl shavuot
  • Simchat bet ha-shoevah (Sukkot, refers to Temple of Jerusalem)
  • Hosha’na rabah
  • Simchat Torah
  • Passover Seder
  • Purim (reading the Megillah at night)
  • Hanukkah
  • Lag ba-‘omer (the 33rd day of the counting of Omer, after Passover)
  • Bakkashot (between ST and Passover: winter time, longer nights)
  • Brith milah (night watches for the ritual circumcision)

Here’s an example of a visual text created for night rituals celebrated ahead of a ritual circumcision:

Manuscript [68.83]: Amulet for the protection of pregnant women and newborn children ([India, Kochi, Kerala (collected in)], 18th-19th cent.)

Time, or Rhythm? Some (Visual) Thoughs on Jewish Liturgy

Over time, I have found that a useful way to discuss Jewish liturgy (or the complex array of liturgical and paraliturgical rituals found in Jewish communities across the global diaspora) is through visual means.

Here are some iPad-generated infographics. I created them long ago, and every time I review them, I end up questioning them in new ways. Consider them as “conversation starters,” rather than fully formed ideas…

1. Jewish liturgy: an ecosystem?

The Jewish Liturgical Ecosystem

As I review the idea that Jewish liturgy is like an ecosystem (aka, a complex network), I feel strongly that it is entirely based on time, and that text and music (or sound, or interpretation) come after. But, recently, I have started to wonder whether the foundation is better defined by rhythm than by time: the rhythm provided by the interpretation of nature, to begin with (sunset/sundown; the lunar cycle; the yearly cycle). [Note: not by nature, but by its (human) interpretation].

The Time/Text relationship in Jewish liturgy

2. A complex network of liturgical texts

The corpus of Jewish literature (mostly in Hebrew and Aramaic, but at times in other Jewish languages) is activated in the context of the liturgy. Here’s a quick (but really, really quick) summary/list.

The Texts of Jewish Liturgy

Please note that just as “Bible” is a network of texts, “Talmud” is a placeholder for a broader network of texts, and that texts like the Midrash are also part of the network. These networks are thus part of an ecosystem. See for example the visualization of the intertextual connections between the Bible and the Talmud provided by the awesome Sefaria:

Connections between Talmud and Tanakh | Sefaria Visualization

Then think that the interconnections between these texts and poetry are constantly activated in the context of the liturgy.

In analyzing the first stanza of the liturgical poem, Lekhah dodi:

שָׁמוֹר וְזָכוֹר בְּדִבּוּר אֶחָד
הִשְׁמִיעָנוּ אֵל הַמְּיֻחָד

Hebrew transliteration
shemor ve-zakhor be-dibur echad
hishmi’anu el ha-meyuchad

English translation
‘protect’ and ‘rember’– in one utterance
the unique god let us hear

Abraham Z. Idelsohn (Jewish Liturgy X:128-129; please note that this is our textbook) highlights the intertextual connections of the text, thus uncovering the textual network it activates, and at the same time points to the wide variety of its musical renditions across the diaspora:

“Come, my friend, to meet the bride…” — Lecha dodi — is a poem by Solomon Alkabetz (1505-diest after 1572); he was the brother-in-law of Moses Cordovero, lived in Safed, and was encouraged by Isaac Luria to compose this poem about 1571 (Hemdath Yamim, Leghorn, 1763, I, 41; Seder Hayyom, l.c.).

This poem spread to all Jewish communities and became a favorite text for Synagogal composers, so that over two thousand settings were composed to it.

The name of the author is to be found as an acrostic at the beginnings of the stanzas: Shelomo hallewi. The poem starts out with a refrain based on b. Sabbath 119a. In the first stanza: “Observe and Remember,” the author refers to the Midrashic explanation (b. Shevuoth 20b) of the discrepancy between the two versions of the fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:8 and Deuteronomy 5:12, according to which God uttered both words simultaneously.

By using the Piyyut website, you can listen to many of the thousands of musical settings of this fundamental poem.

3. Music (or sound): Different modes to interpret text 

Music in Jewish Liturgy: "chants" and "tunes"

4. The relationship between text, music, and (cultural) identity

Musical Expressions of Jewish Identity

“Jewish Music”: 10 Competing Notions

Let’s scan through ten (at times competing) notions of “Jewish Music” that have emerged during the last, well, 500 years.

Background information for this discussion can be found in this (and last) week’s reading, but especially the “Jewish Music” entry in Oxford Music Online, which opens with the following statements.

‘Jewish music’ as a concept emerged among Jewish scholars and musicians only in the mid-19th century with the rise of modern national consciousness among European Jews, and since then all attempts to define it have faced many difficulties. The term ‘Jewish music’ in its nation-oriented sense was first coined by German or German-trained Jewish scholars, among whom the most influential in this respect was A.Z. Idelsohn (1882–1938), whose book Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929) was a landmark in its field that is still widely consulted today . Idelsohn was the first scholar to incorporate the Jewish ‘Orient’ into his research, and thus his work presents the first ecumenical, though still fragmentary, description of the variety of surviving Jewish musical cultures set within a single historical narrative. In his work Idelsohn pursued a particular ideological agenda: he adopted the idea of the underlying cultural unity of the Jewish people despite their millenary dispersion among the nations, and promoted the view that the music of the various Jewish communities in the present expresses aspects of that unity. Moreover, Idelsohn’s work implied a unilinear history of Jewish music dating back to the Temple in biblical Jerusalem. […] Despite its problematic nature, the concept of ‘Jewish music’ in its Idelsohnian sense is a figure of speech widely employed today, being used in many different contexts of musical activity: recorded popular music, art music composition, printed anthologies, scholarly research and so on. The use of this term to refer both to the traditional music of all Jewish communities, past and present, and to new contemporary music created by Jews with ethnic or national agendas is thus convenient, as long as its historical background and ideological connotations are borne in mind.

Below, I attempt to highlight some of the connections that “Jewish music” elicits.

I’m not pretending to be exhaustive, and I’m also having some fun in choosing related visual and musical examples to make my points.

1. The Invention of Jewish music as Musica Haebreorum

The notion of a “music of the Hebrews [aka, the Jews]” really begins with Christian Humanists (who wrote most of their works in Latin, hence, musica haebreorum)  and their heirs. These scholars studied how Jews made music inside synagogues and described (at times including musical examples) what they heard with their own ears. In doing so, they were often confronted with the inherent diasporic variety of Jewish synagogue music.

An example I particularly like (because it has been eminently understudied, so far, and also because it refers to the wide variety of Jewish musical traditions at one time found in the Italian peninsula) is drawn from Ercole Bottrigari, Il trimerone de’ fondamenti armonici, ouero lo essercitio musicale, giornata terza, 1599 (“The Three-Day-Long-Dialogue of the Fundaments of Harmony, or The Musical Practice;” source: Bologna, Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, MS B44, 1-23, see also a description here).

Bottrigari specifically addressed the specificities of il Canto degli Hebrej (“the Song of the Jews”) and the musical rendition of the “Masoretic accents” that govern the singing of the Hebrew Bible in synagogue liturgy. After discussing details pertaining to Hebrew letters, and the rules for chanting Biblical texts, Bottrigari states the following:

After discussing details pertaining to Hebrew letters, and the rules for chanting Biblical texts, Bottrigari states the following:

Il Canto degli Hebrej nelle Sinagoghe loro esser come ‘l Canto fermo, ò piano nelle nostre Chiese


The Song of the Jews in their Synagogues is like the cantus firmus [a monophonic melody], or plain, of our Churches

And, furthermore:

Soggiungerouj anco poi, che mouimenti tai nel Canto sono molto differenti [24. in marg.] nelle Sinagoghe de’ Giudei secondo le Nationj loro ò Francesi, ò Spagnuole, ò Tedesche, od Italiane, ò Leuantine, od altre. E questo non ui dico io solamente per quello; che ne scriuono essi Reuchino e Vallense: Ma per quello che io stesso ne intesi già da qualcuno hebreo in Ferrara; Doue, sicome in Mantoa sono hebrej di tutte queste Nationj dimandatine da me: et anco ne pigliaj in iscritto da un principal Rabì della Sinagoga Spagnuola tutta l’ aere del Salmo 51.


I would add that the melodic character is extremely diverse in the synagogues of the Jews according to their origins, either French, or Spanish, or German, or Italian, or Levantine, or others. And I am not only arguing this in accordance with [what others have published] but on the basis of I have myself heard from a Jew in Ferrara, where, since in Mantua there are Jews belonging to each of these denominations, I asked myself, and transcribed the complete melody of Psalm 51 from a Rabbi in the Spanish synagogue.

Il Canto degli Hebrej in E. Bottrigari, Trimerone (1599)

(Image source)

2. The Ongoing Quest for Jewish (musical) Antiquity

“Jewish music” is by default associated with antiquity. But whose antiquity really is it? Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello, and many more in his footsteps, searched for “Jewish musical antiquity.” (You can read more about this topic here).

This quest has often lead to essentializing Jewish musical practice in the name of a higher call (the expectation that Jewish cultural manifestations are by default vestiges of an ancient past). It continues into the present.

See a contemporary incarnation of the belief in Jewish musical antiquity as presented by Jordi Savall-Hespèrion XXI, Lavava y suspirava (romance) (Anónimo Sefardí), in which the rather modern Sephardic Jewish past is presented as Medieval:

3. The Re-invention of “Jewish Music” by Jewish Scholars

An interesting byproduct of 19th-century Jewish scholarship (also known, in German, as Wissenschaft des Judentums, or the Science of Judaism) was the construction of the “Italian Jewish Renaissance” as a golden age of musical production, and of Jewish music as “art music.”

Listen below to Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570-1630), ‘al naharot bavel (Psalm 137), by The Prophets of the Perfect Fifth (I profeti della quinta). While Salamone Rossi, who was active in Mantua and published the first collection of Hebrew polyphonic music in Venice in 1622-23, did indeed write “art music,” it is hard to prove that his Hebrew compositions were performed inside a synagogue (if they were ever performed at all), or directed to a Jewish audience. And yet, such music has been presented in the guise of “Jewish Art Music.”

4. The “Music of the Jewish People”

The idea that Jewish music can be defined as the music of the Jewish people (with the related notions of Nationalism & Identity) as a cohesive cultural corpus is deeply connected with the activities of the “St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music” and in related Zionist musical agendas.

Lazare Saminsky (Odessa 1882- NY 1959), composed Conte Hebräique (Hebrew Fairy Tale) in Palestine in 1919, en route from Russia to America (via the UK). Many other composers wrote music in the same vein.

5. “Judaism in Music” (an expression made quite popular by the composer Richard Wagner, 1813-1883) brings with it a certain passion for singling out “the Jewish elements” in the music of eminent composers of Jewish descent. This is a trademark of many 20th-century scholarly contributions to the field.

An excellent (albeit not scholarly) summary on the relationship between Wagner and modern Jewish sensibilities can be found in the form of a satire in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 2, Episode 3: Trick or Treat (October 7, 2001). (Please note the moment when Larry David whistles the melody of Springtime for Hitler, from The Producers, a feature film written and directed by Mel Brooks in 1967).

6. Jewish music as “Degenerate Music” (Entartete Musik, in German) and the passion of making lists of “Jewish” composers, compositions, etc., so that music can be “purified” from their influence, were a staple of the Third Reich.

Note that not only Jews, but also people of color (and especially African Americans), were considered agents of degenerate musical activity.

Entartete musik poster.jpg


Well, these were/are the Nazis…

See them enjoying their right to free speech in John Landis, The Blues Brothers (USA 1980):

A book published in Nazi Germany, listing Jewish music professionals, is included in the music holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, and can be made accessible to interested students.

Interestingly enough, this passion for defining music according to the biological specification of the musicians who make it (regardles of cultural context), is still quite present in contemporary sensibilities…

7. Jewish music as lost (or suppressed) music: in the view of post-Holocaust cultural agendas, any sample of Jewish culture is worthy of attention, and the enormity of the historical legacy of the Holocaust trumps any aesthetic consideration.

Watch, for example, this news report on Francesco Lotoro’s KZ Musik project, conducted with the support of the European Union:

8. Jewish music as revival. I

n her essay, Sounds of Sensibility (1998), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett outlines several implications related to the (American) revival of “Klezmer” music.

In his fascinating eulogy of Adrienne Cooper (1946-2011), one of the protagonists of the American revival of Ashkenazi culture, Canadian writer, Michael Wex, thus articulated the special relationship that late 20th-century Jewish revivalists had with tradition:

[Adrienne Cooper] had a talent for subversion along with an innate sense of decorum that let her reverse a tradition, turn it inside out, before any of its guardians had actually noticed.

The New-York band, Klezmatics, turned the socialist song, Ale brider into an anthem for Queer rights. Here, they sing it together with Israeli folk music (and protest song) icon, Chava Alberstein, in Berlin, Germany:

9. Jewish music as “soul” and “fusion” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “masses”).

Here’s an example by Argentinian-Israeli musician, Giora Feidman, presenting a fusion of Klezmer (aka, Jewish instrumental music originating in Eastern Europe) and Nuevo Tango Argentino (based on the compositions of Astor Piazzolla, 1921-1992):

10. Jewish music as “world music” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “elites”).

An example by Moroccan-Israeli cantor and singer, Emil Zrihan, blending Moroccan Jewish repertoires with Flamenco:

Disclaimer: A previous version of this entry is cross-posted here.

Jewish Nightlife | (Un)Announced Response Exercise #3 | 12.1.2014

On the occasion of the final response exercise for Jewish Nightlife this Fall Semester, all students are asked to reflect on and practice FIELD WORK, by completing the following:

  1. Work in chavruta (pairs) by re-composing the same pairs of students already created on the occasion of our Mid-term exam
  2. Access this document via bDrive (you already know the drill…) at this shortened URL:
  3. Formulate the three extremely focused questions:
    1. Jewish music and art: one question for Yair Harel (investigate his personal/artistic background, his knowledge and skills)
    2. Jewish music and research: one question for Francesco Spagnolo (investigate his personal/academic background, his knowledge and skills)
    3. Fieldwork of the Self: one question addressing your personal relationship with the specific piyyut that is assigned to your chavruta on the basis of the following parameters
      • text of piyyut
      • music of piyyut
      • culture of origin of piyyut
      • own culture(s) of chavruta partners
  4. Post your three questions (preceded by the names of each chavruta partners) on this document no later than Tuesday, December 2nd, at Noon

Select questions will be discussed and answered by the instructors on the last day of class, on Wednesday, December 3rd.

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