Jablonski, Marek (Michael)



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IV. Non-liturgical music


1. Introduction.

2. Folksongs in Jewish languages.

3. Instrumental music.

Jewish music, §IV: Non-liturgical music

1. Introduction.

(i) Definitions.


Jewish folk music emerges from the dialectic between two contrasting conditions in Jewish culture and history, and the response of music to these conditions. It functions either to maintain and reproduce what is essentially Jewish or to interact with and transform the non-Jewish. Definitions of Jewish folk music, therefore, stress its ability to express internal traits or to change in accordance with external traits. These definitions, however, are themselves contested, and they produce considerable disagreement in both theory and practice. The concern over the definitions of Jewish folk music reflects constantly changing relations between Jewish culture in the Diaspora and that in Israel, as well as the fragile framework characterizing the debates over what is and is not Jewish.

The dialectic underlying definitions of Jewish folk music extends to a broad range of musical concepts and practices. At one extreme, folk music is local, transitional and specific to a community or place. The languages or dialects in which it may be sung and the customs with which it is associated are similarly local and shared entirely neither by other Jewish communities nor by non-Jewish cultures. In contrast, some definitions argue that folk music must be globally present to be truly Jewish. Repertories should extend across community and linguistic boundaries in order to express a core of customs linking the Jews as a people.

The elements of Jewish folk music bear witness to this conceptual and definitional dialectic: song texts may be in Jewish (e.g. Hebrew or Ladino) or non-Jewish languages (e.g. Russian or Arabic); song contexts may be sacred or secular; performing practices may require an insider's knowledge or an experience outside the community; repertories may be shared by many in a community or highly specialized; song and instrumental music may fall into entirely different cultural domains.

Concepts of Jewish folk music reflect the historical ambivalence or conflict about Jewish music in general. Orthodox religious interpretation may hold that music abstracted from text, notably instrumental music, should not be allowed in the synagogue or elsewhere. Strictly speaking, folk music that reveals influences from non-Jewish contexts becomes inappropriate, if not suspect. Such concepts may exclude instrumental practice, for example, and excoriate specialized musicians. Strict definitions often go one step further, actually redefining acceptable practices by insisting on an unbroken connection to biblical practices or pre-diasporic repertories. Early 20th-century scholars such as A.Z. Idelsohn (1914–32/R) and J. Schönberg (1926) applied traditional concepts of folksong to Jewish repertories to various degrees, arguing that oral transmission had undergirded historical connections to the distant past, further lending folksong great age. As Jewish folk music was redefined for modern purposes it retained also its local qualities and contexts for the family, ritual and community. New definitions, for example those stressing the possibility of Israeli nationalism (Nathan, 1994), stressed and expanded the potential for folk music to be Jewish.

Jewish folk music lends itself to definition only in relation to concepts and practices of folk music in the larger cultures of which a given community is a part. Folksong in eastern Europe, for example, differs conceptually from that in central Europe, as does that in North Africa from practices in the Middle East or Central Asia. Ashkenazi and Sephardi concepts of folk music differ greatly. Within Sephardi folksong, moreover, distinctions may result from connections to Iberian narrative genres or the interaction of Balkan and Turkish practices with the musics of Muslim neighbours (Katz, 1972–5).

There are many ways that the Jewishness of folk music is maintained from within. Text plays a particularly important role in defining the inside of Jewish traditions. Songs with texts in Jewish languages strengthen the inside and hinder oral tradition from extending beyond Jewish practices. History, especially the connectedness of the Jewish present to Israel, is a persistent internal trait for many repertories. Historical connectedness may also assume local forms, as in the pilgrimage songs of Iraqi Jewish women, the Judeo-Arabic texts of which articulate links to the shrines of ancestors (Avishur, 1987). Folk music synchronically serves as a means of using Jewishness to negotiate the connections between private, semi-public and public spheres in Jewish society, thus spinning a musical and cultural web of which family, synagogue and everyday community experiences are equally a part.

Folk music indexes many of the confrontations between Jewish and non-Jewish traditions, and it thereby participates in the negotiations between self and other. Throughout the Diaspora Jewish folk music regularly absorbs non-Jewish components, for example language, melodic structures, or scalar and modal forms, as Moisey Beregovsky (1892–1961) observed in his studies of Ashkenazi folk music in Russia and Ukraine (Slobin, 1982). Looking for music in isolation on the island of Djerba, Tunisia, during the 1920s, Robert Lachmann discovered instead that the folk music of Jewish communities was indistinguishable from that of the surrounding Muslim and Maghribi cultures (1940; repr. 1978). Folk music in Middle Eastern Jewish communities makes full use of the modal systems of the region, for example maqām in Syrian and Egyptian Jewish repertories. The dance forms of the Ashkenazi klezmer ensembles (e.g. the widespread doina from Romanian folk music) similarly locate Jewish practices in the midst of non-Jewish traditions (Salmen, 1991). Border-crossing sometimes proceeds so far that it negates the boundaries between inside and outside, for example in the ballad, Die Jüdin (‘The Jewish Girl’), which appears in the standard German ballad repertory and in Yiddish variants (see Ginsburg and Marek, 1901/R; Bohlman, 1992).

To some extent the definitional dialectic marks the distinction between folksong and folk music. Broadly derived from folksong and folk-music scholarship since Herder, this distinction is particularly important in Jewish practices. Concepts of folksong often reflect the internal markers of identity, especially language and liturgical function; concepts of folk music, especially folk dance, reflect external markers. Folksong results from everyday practice; folk music is possible only because of specialization and professionalism.

Creativity and composition play a particularly powerful role in concepts of Jewish folksong. As it is usually understood, however, composition is a matter of creating the new from the old. Pizmonim (Heb., sing. pizmon) form a genre of songs composed for special occasions, often in the life cycle, by utilizing pre-existing materials, often combining them in especially creative ways (Shelemay, 1988). Collecting and anthologizing folksong, which results from the widespread cultural motivation to remember and conserve the past, usually involves recomposition in one form or another, such as settings for piano and voice or mixed chorus (Nadel, 1937; Rubin, 1950; Nathan, 1994). The historiography of Jewish folksong may be calibrated according to the moments when conscious attempts to compose from folksong were especially evident. Similarly, improvisation has a special significance in concepts of Jewish folk tradition, for it results from recombining the traditional through performance to create the new, for example through processes of contrafaction in the ghettos and concentration camps of the Holocaust (Flam, 1992; see below, §V, 2(iv)) or in the ensemble music of Iraqi Jewish immigrants to Israel (Shiloah, 1983). Composition and improvisation, furthermore, serve as a link between popular Jewish music (e.g. Yiddish theatre) and folk music. Not only does song from the Yiddish theatre adapt folksong for the stage, but Yiddish folksong frequently evolves through oral tradition from the transformation of popular theatre songs into folksongs (Slobin, Tenement Songs, 1982).

The definitional dialectic is strikingly paradoxical: although Jewish folksong and music is overtly tradition- and past-bound, it responds to change and modernity. Song is traditional because of its malleability and adaptability. The newness of folk music, for example in the haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) or on kibbutzim in Israel, reflects folk music's capacity to index the past. Accordingly, the recent history of Jewish folksong and music reveals the emergence and invention of new forms and genres. Very distinctive bodies of folk music, for example, represent Israeli nationalism (Bohlman and Slobin, 1986; Nathan, 1994), albeit at a level of considerable multi-culturalism and ethnic diversity. The revival of Jewish folksong, too, bears witness to this paradox; perhaps the best example is the renewal of interest in Yiddish song and klezmer music in eastern Europe after the fall of communism. The ability to negotiate between past and present, old and new, sacred and secular, and self and other gives folksong and folk music a powerful presence in Jewish society.




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