Jewish Liturgical Music: Intersections and Subversions

Finding our topic, Jewish nightlife, involves researching the intersections of many networks.

Let’s quickly review:

  1. Maps and Timelines: Jewish liturgical music is determined by the historical distribution of Jews in diaspora
  2. Textual networks: Jewish liturgical music is mostly built on Jewish literary texts, which are themselves the result of a network (or web) of textual sources and languages
  3. Ritual identity: Jewish liturgical music is also determined by how the texts of the rituals evolve across time and space
  4. Modes of musical production: the different musical worlds, aesthetics, performance styles, repertoires, found across the Jewish diaspora, and produced both within, outside, and in collaboration with surrounding non-Jewish cultures
  5. In this context, Jewish liturgical music interacts with location, historical memory, literary text, language, aesthetics, and constitutes a negotiation, carried out in real time, among each of these dimensions. Some examples of this negotiation can be isolated, and perhaps understood, by looking at the following
    • Liturgical and Para-liturgical practices: how the intersection between music and the other dimensions listed above highlights the inner conflicts between normative (i.e., the behaviors dictated by religious authorities) and non-normative (i.e., how people behave subversively in relationship to the normative) dimensions of Judaism by modifying, at times just slightly, ritual behavior, and adapting ritual to various occurrences (such as lifecycle events)
    • Musical performance practices: for example, the seamless alternation of “chant” and “tunes” within the musical rendition of liturgical texts

Think about how Jewish liturgical music reached mainstream audiences in the opening scene of Schindler’s List (1993), a context that is quite far removed from the archival recordings we have been listening to thus far:

This scene presents viewers with an essential moment in Jewish para-liturgical practice, the qidush (Heb. קידוש, commonly spelled Kiddush), or the blessings recited at the eve of the Sabbath (and of other Holidays, albeit with slightly different texts) around the family table. (Note that the Kiddush is also recited in the synagogue, but that’s another story…).

There are two lines of questioning that may arise from (re)watching this scene.

On the one hand, the musical aspect: does this pertain to the musical area we generally defined as “chant,” or to the one we generally defined as “tune” (and what kind of chant/tune it may be, based on our knowledge of musical culture in the Jewish diaspora)?

On the other hand, the layers of meaning (and especially the related musical representations of identity) that this scene may contain: here, ritual is both presented as a symbol (of what?) and as a staged performance. Why was this scene chosen to open Schindler’s List?

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More on the Dangerous Nights of Passover: In New Home, Sarajevo Haggadah To Shine As Symbol Of Tolerance

The origins of the Sarajevo Haggadah are shrouded in mystery. It is an exquisitely illuminated 14th-century codex, most probably smuggled out of Spain by Sephardic Jews following their expulsion in 1492.

Like other books of its kind, it is a collection of religious rules and traditions used during the seder at Passover, the holiday celebrating the Israelites’ deliverance from Egyptian slavery. It is known to have spent time in northern Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, where it apparently escaped the attention of the Inquisition. It did not resurface again until 1894, when it was sold to the National Museum in Sarajevo by Joseph Koen, a member of a local Sephardic Jewish family.

It is not clear how or when the book made it to Bosnia.

Read more…