Keepin’ It Real

Steve Reich was in Rome for a series of tribute concerts. The first took place at the Tempio Maggiore (the first time in the synagogue’s history it has opened its doors for a public concert) and involved a “cantor-off” between the Roman-Jewish and the Moroccan-Sephardic traditions. Representing Rome was the synagogue’s male choir, organ, and cantor soloist. Representing North Africa was Emil Zrihan, the so-called “Moroccan Nightingale”.

I had been looking forward to it for weeks. This would finally be a live rendition of what I have been spending my time in Rome studying—the music of the Jewish community of Rome, the oldest Jewish community in Europe, considered by many to be the place to find a link back to the music of the second temple (destroyed in 70 A.D.) in Jerusalem.

I was sorely disappointed.

The Roman contingency performed a series of insipid, badly crafted 19th century arrangements that sounded—as Steve Reich later told me—like a lot of goyishe music. In short, nothing like the recordings I have been studying—those collected by Leo Levi (the Alan Lomax of Italy) in the same synagogue in the 1950s.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against progress or harmony or counterpoint. But why is a synagogue’s choir, in a city where keeping a certain tradition alive is unusually important, seemingly going out of its way to assimilate its music?

2 thoughts on “Keepin’ It Real

  1. Colin Holter

    That sucks. It reminds me of the disappointment of hearing new-age pop in the Duomo several years ago–where’s the Josquin, guys? Come the eff on.

    Reply
  2. david toub

    I was at TM last November during a tour of Rome while on business. Even bought a yad from their gift shop made of Italian marble for my kids to use for their respective b’nai mitzvah. What struck me about TM in general was how much it actually tried to emulate, if not even outdo, St. Peter’s Basilica across the Tivere.

    One should keep the history in perspective, however. The Roman ghetto was really poor, and the temple was built just a bit after the ghetto walls came down (only one building from the ghetto remains, if I’m not mistaken). So after centuries of abuse by the Church and others, when the community got together to build a synagogue to replace the 5 that had been torn down (and I should mention that all five resided in the same building due to the restrictions imposed on the ghetto), they wanted something that would blow away the folks in the Vatican.

    Hence the “gentilization” you describe.

    Now, in all honesty, the Tempio Maggiore is teeny compared with St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. But the inspiration was there nonetheless.

    In terms of music, I’ve wondered much the same for years, since most “synagogue music” in the US at least is largely based on Western (Christian) music. Same sorts of chords, for example, although of course the melismas may remind people of the Middle East.

    What Reich did years ago with Tehillim was to purposely ignore the Western settings and tradition and seek his own voice rooted in the more unspoiled Jewish music of Yemen and other non-Western areas. That was a pretty unique move on his part. The problem is that most folks think of Judaism based on what they see in White suburbia, especially in the Northeast. That’s not at all the majority of what is actually out there. There is a very different musical tradition that one can find in the synagogues of Northern Africa, the Middle East, South America and even India. But given the history of the Roman ghetto, it’s amazing that they have a synagogue at all, so I’d cut them some slack for showing some influences from the Church. I would advise, however, avoiding the term ”goyishe.“ While used as the opposite of ”yiddishe,“ it is not a term of endearment in common us, nor would it likely be found in Rome, as Yiddish is not as common there as best I can tell.

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