From the Venetian Ghetto to Washington, DC: Celebrating the Music of Italian Jews

For most American Jews, the notion of Jewish music brings to mind Hava Nagila, klezmer, and the Avinu Malkeinu modes of the well-known High Holy Days prayer. Throw in some familiar synagogue tunes, and we believe that we know all there is to know about Jewish music.

This is a perception that Hazzan Dr. Ramón Tasat, who leads the Chevy Chase, MD-based Kolot HaLev Jewish community choir has been fighting all his life.

“Jewish music is very diverse,” he told me in a recent interview. “With music, there is certain fluidity. We have a desire to fit it into neat boxes. And for the most part you’ll see that you can’t do it. Music freely moves between environments.”

In Tasat’s view, many do not realize that there is “an incredibly varied component of Jewish music that includes Middle Eastern, Indian, Italian, South American influences, et cetera. That music is often not taken into account,” he says. Indeed, having lived all over the world, Jews have often picked up the musical influences of the surrounding cultures and made them their own.

Tasat plans to challenge the prevailing assumptions about Jewish music in Kolot HaLev’s upcoming annual concert titled Cantata Ebraica: The Music of the Italian Jews through the Centuries. In this soul-elevating, multifaceted journey through the musical heritage of Italian Jews, audiences will be able to enjoy a wide variety of pieces, from operatic areas to songs with a distinct folk flavor – Venetian, Florentine, and Roman, among others.

“The history of Jewish music in Italy is long, fascinating, and filled with contradictions,” says Tasat. In fact, the first delegation of Jews – the envoys of Judah Maccabee – is believed to have arrived in Italy in 160 BCE. But the period of Italian Jewry’s true blossoming occurred with the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, which set off waves of Jewish refugees across Europe and the Mediterranean and into Italian city states.

It was here that the music of the diaspora Jews, already a deeply-textured blend of Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions, began to interact with the rich musical traditions of Italy with its distinct regional, cultural, and linguistic differences.

The concert commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto. In a recent piece for the New York Times, David Laskin wrote that the ghetto is the world’s oldest. It is believed to be one of the first places where forced segregation by religion was applied. In fact, it is here in Venice that the word “ghetto” itself originated, derived from the Venetian “geto” for foundry.

At its height, some 5,000 Jews from France, Spain, Central Europe, and the Ottoman Empire lived here in cramped quarters. And while the living conditions left much to be desired, the ghetto “also provided an opportunity for cultural exchange unparalleled in the diaspora,” writes Laskin.

This intense cultural interaction led to a deep interweaving of various musical and liturgical influences. And so in the Kolot HaLev concert, the familiar words of “Etz Hayyim Hi” blend effortlessly with a Gioachino Rossini-style melody by the French Jewish composer Samuel Naumbourg, resulting in a new and fresh experience of this well-known Shabbat morning prayer.

Rossini’s aria “Dal tuo stellato soglio” from the opera Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt) and the rousing “Va Pensiero,” also known as the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, from Verdi’s Nabucco bring operatic tones to familiar biblical themes: the exodus from Egypt and the Jewish Babylonian exiles’ longing for their lost land.

Psalm 114 “BeTzet Israel” sweeps the listener up into the circling motions of Florentine dance, while the lively Purim song “Alabemos,” written in Ladino in the tarantella musical style of southern Italy, creates a delicious blend of praise for God and good wine, as Jews celebrate their delivery from oppression.

For Tasat, no matter what music he chooses for his concerts, it is critical to perform it with integrity. By that he means “trying to perform it the way it might have been intended by the composer for the space where it was meant to be performed.”

He acknowledges that this is a tall order: “We are not them,” he says, referring to the composers of old, “and we don’t live in their time. We are not associated with the people they were associated with. So if I sing Russian music, I sing Russian music like an Argentinian,” he says, referring to his Argentine origins and upbringing.

So how does one honor the original intention of the music? The goal, says Tasat, is for the performer “to absorb it as fully as possible, to convey it in some way that feels honest and real. And that’s a search that is personal, and sometimes you achieve better results than other times.”

Integrity in performance is Kolot HaLev’s intention with every concert. When two years ago the choir performed a concert of Russian-Jewish music, the group spent extra time working with a native Russian speaker and a Yiddish expert to perfect its pronunciation. It discussed the history of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, and members shared family stories to create personal connections to the songs.

In a similar effort, this year Tasat has taken extra steps to help both the choir and the audiences gain an in-depth perspective on the setting where the music of Italian Jews originates. The concert is part of a broader Festival Ebraico taking place in the greater Washington through the end of May. Five organizations combined their efforts to bring it to the public: The Foundation for Jewish Studies, Kolot HaLev, Shirat HaNefesh, the Ohr Kodesh Congregation, and Temple Beth Ami.

Beside the Kolot HaLev concert, the remaining events include a storytelling evening, in which Loretta Vitale Saks, daughter of Italian Jewish immigrants and member of Kolot HaLev, will share family stories encapsulating the history of Italian Jews. (Wednesday, May 4, 7 pm at the Shirat HaNefesh congregation.)

Another event is a lecture by Dr. Bernard Cooperman, the Louis L. Kaplan Professor of Jewish History from the University of Maryland, on the Ghettos of Italy. (Sunday, May 22, 3:30 pm at the Shirat HaNefesh congregation, followed by a reception.)

Immediately preceding the Kolot HaLev concert on April 3, at  2:45 pm at the Ohr Kodesh Congregation, Prof. Holly Hurlburt from Southern Illinois University will offer a lecture on the history of the Venetian Ghetto.

This local effort is a rich contribution to the year-long international effort commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto.

The Kolot HaLev concert will take place at 4 pm on Sunday, April 3, 2016 at the Ohr Kodesh Congregation, 8300 Meadowbrook Lane, Chevy Chase, MD 20815. Introductory lecture, a History of the Venetian Ghetto, at 2:45-3:30 pm. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students and children. Tickets can be purchased at www.KolotHaLev.org.

About the Author
Izabella Tabarovsky is passionate about Jewish life and Israel. She grew up in Russia, has lived in the U.S. for over 25 years, and travels frequently to Israel. She works at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC, where she focuses on the politics of historical memory of the Holocaust and Stalin's repressions in the former Soviet Union. Her writings have appeared in Newsweek, The Tablet Magazine, Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post Ivrit, The Wilson Quarterly, Kennan Cable, Russia File, and Science and Diplomacy, among others. The views expressed here are her own.
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