Minute dance

The clock is ticking for Jewish music archivist Yuval Shaked.

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
September 17, 2007 07:19
kamti disk 88 224

kamti disk 88 224. (photo credit: )

 
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Here's a bit of unsolicited career advice for Yuval Shaked, director since 1999 of Tel Aviv's Feher Jewish Music Center: If you ever want to work at a commercial record label, stop saying things like, "Will it sell? No. But does that mean we shouldn't make such a CD? Also no." Shaked is speaking about a compilation of recordings of the Bene Israel, the community of Jews in western India whose ancient arrival on the subcontinent remains a historical mystery. Released by Beth Hatefutsoth - which houses the Feher Center and is also known as the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora - the CD is a part of steadily growing collection of discs put together since the center's founding in 1982, a list recently expanded to include Kamti Lehallel, a double disc featuring the music of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled in Amsterdam, London and New York. (Like many of the CDs, Kamti Lehallel is a co-production, and was jointly released with the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam.) Shaked is right - this is not, for better or worse, the type of music that sells lots of CDs. But that is precisely the point of the Feher Center and Beth Hatefutsoth: calling attention to Jewish life as it was lived in the past, and doing what's possible to preserve its memory as the world moves into the future. "In this room, there are real, real treasures," Shaked says, gesturing at two walls of shelving in a windowless Beth Hatefutsoth office. The items range from a 19th-century Austrian prayer book to a Yiddish satirical recording called "Lenin and Trotsky," and indeed confirm the old maxim about one man's trash being another man's treasure. One set of sheet music, Shaked recalls, was literally saved from the dump. "People just throw [material] away," he says. "They just consider it of no interest to future generations." Giving those generations a chance to decide for themselves is in many ways the focus of Beth Hatefutsoth, which preserves for interested members of posterity a wide range of educational resources, including the original packaging and promotional materials for old music. The music itself, which is restored, digitized and then added to Beth Hatefutsoth's musical archives, can be heard at listening stations in the Feher Center, and will soon be available for listening throughout the museum. "We collect material much faster than we can archive it," says Shaked, who estimates that perhaps 20 percent of Beth Hatefutsoth's musical holdings are represented by its 10,000 currently available recordings. The recordings prove surprising, and in some ways even moving, in their richness and diversity, providing for the listener the sounds of communities little known even by other Jews, as well as of communities long ago vanished or wiped out. The archive includes songs and prayers in predictable languages like Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic, but also in Ge'ez, a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Juhuri, a "mountain language" brought to Israel by Jews from Azerbaijan and parts of Russia. Almost regardless of listeners' musical background, parts of the collection will sound foreign and novel - and will certainly expand conceptions of what Jewish music is and how it's traditionally sounded. (Asked about the Feher Center's operating definition of the genre, Shaked says, "I'm far from being a purist. There is no definition of Jewish music. There are academic definitions.") With an estimated 40,000 recordings still waiting to be archived, the collection already offers 43 versions of "Lecha Dodi," as well as a similar number of "Adon Olam," with performances of the latter ranging in style from the operatic and choral to something that might not sound out of place on MTV Unplugged. Another version brings to mind the soundtrack of Zorba the Greek, while "Ala Ya Shijare," an Arabic song translated as "Pistachio Tree," instantly catches the ear with a sound reminiscent of Arabic pop. Diaspora Jews, in other words, consistently picked up the musical styles of the majorities surrounding them, creating a diverse auditory universe further enlivened by a vast array of accents and pronunciations. The different styles can be discerned in the collection's liturgical recordings, and even more strongly in its "everyday songs" and "paraliturgical" offerings - songs performed outside the synagogue on occasions like Shabbat and to mark life-cycle events like circumcisions and weddings. In addition to information about the music itself, the museum's computer database includes nearly 3,000 listings in Hebrew and English about Jewish musicians and poets. Visitors can search for specific pieces of music by terms including composer, lyrics, region of origin and language. Shaked expresses frustration that greater resources aren't available to track down and more quickly digitize additional "treasures," commenting matter-of-factly at one point that "I'm sure there is a lot of Jewish music around the world that is about to get lost." Preserving all of that music may not be realistic, so Shaked looks for more than just recordings and other physical items for the collection. (Though "it's very important for me that people know we're interested," he adds.) A part-time music lecturer at the University of Haifa, Shaked spends part of his time traveling around the country recording professional and non-professional musicians, hoping to preserve the sound of their traditions and places of origin. Egyptian Jewry, for example, has virtually ceased to exist within Egypt, but its members are still present here - leading Shaked to record a group of older immigrants from Alexandria 18 months ago to capture the sound of that community's music. The irony of Israel's reemergence as a Jewish population center, he says, is the diminishing effects it's had on aspects of Jews' cultural diversity. "Jewish music is ultimately world music," he says at one point, commenting on the influences from which Jewish musicians have drawn. But, he says, that may be getting less true in a world in which the vast majority of Jews live in either Israel or the United States. "Look at the Ethiopians in Pardess Hanna, where I live," he says. "They wear jeans and listen to pop music." He estimates that Beth Hatefutsoth has five to 10 more years to record traditional music remembered by older members of that community. "This mistake was made in Israel time and again for decades," he says. "We 'absorbed' people. [Now] we all sing the same songs."

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