Safed just finished its annual Klezmer Festival and we're now enjoying a week of Master Classes. The students go out every night to give free, informal concerts and it's an enjoyable break. Our weather has heated up a bit in August so it's nice to go out in the evenings and hear some truly great music. Made me think about my exposure to Jewish music when I was growing up in Detroit.
Music has always played an important part in the evolution of Jewish culture and traditions worldwide. This is especially evident in America where, over the last almost-500 years, Jews from all over the world immigrated and established a vibrant and dynamic Jewish community. Jewish American music includes the compositions and interpretations of Jews from almost every other country in the world. These pieces can be heard in Jewish liturgy as well as in popular Jewish and American music. The Lowell Milken Archive for example, has developed an extensive archive that documents, records and collects selections of the music as it follows the progression of
American Jewry through its development from the early Sephardic immigrants of the 17th century to the present.
Jewish American music dates back to the time when the first Dutch Jews reached the shores of colonial America. A small group of Jewish refugees had fled the Portuguese Inquisition to Holland and then to Brazil. They were forced to flee again when the Inquisition took hold in South America. These travelers made their way to the American coast and settled in New Amsterdam (later New York). They were soon followed by a second group of Dutch Jews who settled in New York and in Newport Rhode Island. These people established two synagogues, the Sherith Israel in New York and the Touro synagogue of Rhode Island which was dedicated to serving the needs of the expanding American Jewish population. Other synagogues followed as the Jews established new Jewish communities in towns and cities throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The early American Jewish immigrants followed Sephardic traditions. Their ancestors had lived in Spain for centuries and, although forced to leave after the 1492 Expulsion, maintained the traditions of the Golden Age of Spain. Tens of thousands of expelled Jews took up residence in Holland and Jews from this community, by and large, comprised the majority of the settlers which made up the early American Jewish community. These Jewish immigrants brought their Sephardic culture and traditions with them, including their music and the traditional tunes of their liturgy. Many of these tunes are in Ladino, a specific Mediterranean Jewish language which has heavy influences of Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Spanish, Turkish, Greek and other regional languages.
The Milken Archives was created by philanthropist Lowell Milken and maintains a large collection which depicts 17th and 18th century Jewish American music. The recordings of these prayers and songs are presented at the Archive along with original melodies, compositions and liturgical expressions, many of which continue to be sung and chanted in Sephardic congregations throughout America today. The Archives also include other types of early American music such as chants and lighthearted music which join together to illustrate the American Jewish experience. Through the music researchers and lay people can see the progression of the early Sephardic Jewish community as it evolved and began to incorporate additional American and Jewish influences in its worship and general culture. These recording include Ladino folk songs, some of which were composed in Europe and others which originated in America.
In the Song of Prayer in Colonial and 19th-Century America volume the Milken Archive presents a wide range of selections of this music. Some of the recordings, such as the chants of Tisha B'Av, Shira Hadasha (sung in the daily morning prayers), Baruch HaBa, Shabbat songs and psalms and Torah readings are of unknown origins.
The composers and singers are known for other pieces which include Gustov Cohen's Adon Olam, Our Guardian Slumbers Not by C. Weber and Mizmor Shir L'Yom Shabbat by Frederick Kitziger.