The day the music died

By dismissing the director of the Fehrer Jewish Music Center at Beth Hatefutsoth, is the museum tossing its musical endeavors to the wayside or simply 'reorganizing'?

orchestra 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
orchestra 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
For 12 years, Dr. Yuval Shaked went to work every morning preserving history. As director of the Feher Jewish Music center at Beth Hatefutsoth, The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, Shaked single-handedly oversaw the center's collection of some 7,500 recordings of Jewish music, which includes a computerized database cross-referenced by poet, composer, performer and musical tradition. But since the beginning of the month, Shaked sits at home, dismissed by the museum due to budget constraints, and tormented by the likelihood that the center will now fall into a state of disarray. "By dismissing me, they're effectively closing the center," Shaked told The Jerusalem Post. "Everyone who's familiar with the collection knows it's unique in the world." Founded in 1982 and directed until 1999 by musicologist Dr. Avner Bahat, the center has collected a vast range of recorded Jewish music and has released 20 CDs and cassette recordings: traditional singing of the Jews of Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Bombay and Spain; the music of communities that vanished in the Holocaust - Kongsberg, Danzig and Berlin; compositions in Hasidic style by Joachim Stutschewsky and others; he Kibbutz Yagur version of the Pessah seder; choral music based on Jewish traditional themes by Yehezkel Braun and others; as well as works by Jewish composers, among them Bloch, Copland, Glanzberg and Partos. But just as importantly, visitors to Beth Hatefusoth can request recordings at individual listening booths, and can browse through the database of biographies; find any single piece of music by various keywords, and listen to music pieces or view films featuring musical performances, traditions and musicians. "We've serviced people from all over," said Shaked. "We've gotten emails with queries of people who want information on their distant relative who was a ba'al tefila in a small village in Eastern Europe, things like that." "We have numerous recordings that don't appear anywhere else, like 78 rpm recordings that were privately produced and ended up with us. We digitize them and archive them, write bios of forgotten cantors and singers, and find and attach photos if we can find them. Many times visitors have come, and have located a relative of theirs, whom they didn't believe that a recording of still existed," he added, with a clear passion in his voice for the subject matter. According to Shaked, aside from a three-year period from 1996-99, when he was trained by Bahat, the center has been a totally one-man operation. And in dismissing him, the museum is giving up on the center. MUSEUM DIRECTOR Hasia Israeli told The Jerusalem Post that the center is not being closed, but part of a "reorganization process." "There are budget cuts we needed to face, and this was part of that decision," she said, adding that the center is going to continue digitalizing its data banks of music archives. According to Shaked, however, unless there's someone in his position, that effort will never materialize. "Someone can still come and use the music data bank that's there. But I made a calculation before I left - only about eight percent of what's in our collection is currently accessible on the data bank. The rest is in my memory," he said. Israeli said she efforts were being made to find funding which would enable to restore Shaked to his position, but according to Shaked, the only efforts are coming from him. "When I was terminated, there was no effort made to approach the Feher Foundation first to seek some solution, and the museum's fundraiser was not approached to intensify efforts to find funds. In fact, all the funds raised over the years for the center has come from my initiatives," he said. "Even now, the efforts to find funds are not being undertaken by the management, but by the chief curator of the museum and by myself at home." In addition, Shaked claimed that the center could be financially self-sufficient if the museum put its weight behind promoting the CDs and concerts the center produces. "The center could cover all its expenses if the management would support these projects and transfer the funds. The center sells CDs, not only at the museum and on our site, but through Amazon. However, the money from Amazon, for instance, is transferred to the American Friends of Beth Hatefusoth, and the management in Israel has always refused to ask them to transfer the funds here. It's used to pay the salary of a secretary in their office instead," he said. According to Cantor Daniel Halfon, whose double CD Kamti Lehallel, featuring the music of the Spanish & Portuguese communities of Amsterdam, London and New York, was released by Beth Hatefusoth, there was virtually no effort on behalf of the museum to promote the CD. "My project was definitely damaged by the regime there. They didn't give it any attention. At a board meeting two weeks after it was released, it wasn't even mentioned," he said. Shaked said that the museum's management's attitude towards the center has been ambivalent for years. "In my first meeting with the director in February 2006, she told me that she wasn't sure the museum should even have a music center - she preferred a data bank on Jewish kitchens. What does one have to do with the other, I asked." He admitted however, that the current battle did not start with the current museum director. "In the 12 years I was there, this is the third existential fight I've had to take on. Any time they need to cut, someone thinks, 'why not the music center?' My dismissal is the culmination of a process that has existed for years, well before the current management." Shaked said that would return to the center if he was allowed the freedom to develop the center and that funding for its operation was secured for a long range period. But, he hopes it's not too late. Two petitions calling for his return - one in Hebrew and one in English - have attracted over 2,000 signatories from all over the world. But Shaked is concerned that damage has already been done to the center's reputation. "Over the last few weeks, I saw the future of the center's collection being jeopardized. People who read about the problems decided to take back items they had donated. The husband of a museum volunteer had donated eight scores written by his uncle who had perished in Auschwitz. When he heard that the center was in trouble, he took them back, and said I'm not going to leave them there. Those last few weeks I was at the center was the worst period I've ever had there."