Jewish Music and the Renewal of Jewish Worship and the Arts
The motivation that unifies and provides a network for Jewish symbols of past and present is the restoration of history. In the modern era, and in the modern Jewish experience, the greatest anxiety arises from the sense that history has been lost. History, of course, is a highly politicized means of ascribing identity in modernity. History justifies laying claim to the present, indeed, in all its temporal and geographical realities. The power of music to narrate history, and thus use it as a bridge between the past and present, makes Jewish music revival so crucial.
Reclaiming the historical longue durée for Jewish modernity pairs revival with another concept tenaciously attributed to Jewish history: survival. It would be even more to the point to claim that the real dualism yielding revival is that of “sacrifice and survival.” The notion of sacrifice examined above generates the need for survival. Survival, thus, results from the pogroms and destruction, from the conditional connection between assimilation and Holocaust that for many define the modern Jewish experience. One does not have to look far to recognize how powerfully the trope of survival underlies the narration of Jewish history. Any Jewish museum—one in an Eastern European synagogue, or the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.—displays its contents as artifacts that have managed to survive. The surviving artifacts, moreover, serve as substitutes for all that has not survived, in other words the loss of human lives.14 Jewish museums are frequently located in cities where survival was not possible. They couple survival with memorial, and in this sense they generate a particularly Jewish possibility for revival. Revival, arguably, does not so much give new life as represent survival at the moment it was threatened. The emphasis shifts from the soteriological to the eschatological, or rather to a sort of liminal state between them.
Survival becomes further complicated as a condition of Jewish revival because of the many ways it creates alternative conditions for performing the past as present. Survival provides a way of accounting for what cannot entirely be revived; in other words, responding to the plaguing questions about “all that we cannot know about early Jewish music.” Instruments have disappeared. Repertories have disappeared because of oral tradition. The musicians have disappeared into pogroms and the Holocaust. Contexts for performance—ghettos, synagogues, and dance halls—no longer exist. Music acquires symbolic importance because, if the culture did not survive completely, there is a belief, or claim, that “at least the music survives.” In this way music gives life to the past when musicians perform its fragments and imagine its wholeness in the present.
Abraham Zvi Idelsohn and the Great Revival of Jewish Music
As with religious revival, the revival of music is recurrent, unfolding through the many historical moments to which music and musicians respond. I turn now to the first of several seminal moments of Jewish music revival in the twentieth century, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn’s fieldwork in Jerusalem from 1911 to 1913, which produced the Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz. These ten volumes of Jewish music from the diaspora, published from 1914 to 1932, are known in English as the Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies.15 No single publication has so profoundly shaped the sound of Jewish music in its many genres and practices as has the Thesaurus. It musically mapped two and a half millennia of diaspora, and it musically charted the course of Jewish music history in the twentieth century. It was a font of melodies for Israeli composers and klezmer musicians alike. It bore witness to musical contact between Jewish communities across centuries and continents. The Thesaurus produced nothing short of a Great Revival.
When Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882–1938) employed a wax-disc recorder from the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Phonogramm-Archiv as a means for recording Jewish music in and around Jerusalem in 1911, he believed that he would encounter Jewish music in its most authentic, canonic forms.16 Idelsohn left his cantorial post in Johannesburg in search of an absent center, the Jewish music that had not survived centuries of diaspora in the Ashkenazic world in which European Jews lived. His motivation to encounter the authentic was personal and professional—Idelsohn grew up in an observant Latvian family and studied the cantorate, in which profession he had secured a position in Regensburg before accepting a call to Johannesburg—but his journey in search of the real Jewish music was also a product of his time. Idelsohn was an intellectual and a cosmopolitan, whose grasp of Jewish music crossed denominational and regional boundaries, and whose understanding of European music history and theory was expansive. He had studied hazzanut with Boruch Schor in Berlin and Emanuel Kirschner in Munich, and he counted Heinrich Zöllner and Hermann Kretschmar among his professors in music at Leipzig. Ironically, it was his broad understanding of both European and Jewish music on the common ground of German liberalism that led him to rebel. Idelsohn knew exactly what he did not want Jewish music to become and to be.
Idelsohn imagined that he would have to make an historicist and revivalist move, searching for Jewish music prior to what he called its “Germanization.” The conditions of authentic Jewish music that he imagined at the beginning of his three years in Jerusalem comprised the following:
1. Jerusalem was the historical and geographical center of Jewish music.
2. The synagogue was the institution in which Jewish music was practiced.
3. Jewish music was fundamentally vocal, and the texts that generated it were connected to liturgy, ritual, and prayer.
4. In this pure form, Jewish music remained intact through oral transmission.
5. Jewish music was old.
6. The Jewish communities of Palestine had survived several millennia of Diaspora because they were tenaciously isolated.
7. The shape of melody and the form of individual songs were uniquely Jewish, thus permitted no exchange with non-Jewish traditions.
8. Jewish music encoded and expressed aspects of ethnic/national identity.
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