Monday, September 24, 2012

Jewish Music in Early America

(This is a guest post on a subject dear to my heart: Jewish music. Courtesy of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music. Enjoy!)

The study of Jewish America can take many directions. Some of America's earliest immigrants were Jewish refugees who, fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, made their way to the New World. Throughout the succeeding decades and centuries new waves of Jewish immigrants continued to arrive. Each new wave of American Jews influenced the country's history while, at the same time, America impacted on the Jewish American Experience.

One way that historians learn more about the way that Jewish life has evolved in America is through studying the community's music. Music offers a model that allows researchers to study the development and changes that have occurred in the American Jewish community, ever since the first Jews arrived in the American colonies in 1654.

Historians trace Jewish life in America to early refugees who had been living in Recife, Brazil but were forced to flee when the Inquisition accompanied the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors to South America. Early Jewish communities were established in places as far-flung as Charleston, South Carolina; New York City; Newport, Rhode Island; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Savannah, Georgia and Richmond, Virginia.

These settlers were termed "Western Sepharadim." For many years their own Jewish liturgies had been banned by the Inquisition and their worship had been devoid of innate community music. Once they were in America they were allowed to practice their religion freely and they began to incorporate North African and Mediterranean practices and musical traditions into their prayers. These new tunes included various western innovations including modal approaches and adapted nasal vocal timbres. Today synagogues such as the Shearith Israel Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, which was established by early Jewish settlers. includes these Western Sephardic musical models in their services.

The American Jewish community, along with the musical traditions that were featured in their services, took a new turn when German Jewish immigrants began to arrive in American in the 19th century. The earliest German Jews integrated into the established Sepharadic synagogues and adapted to the musical traditions of the American Sepharadim. When large waves of Eastern European immigrants began to arrive in America in the 1880s they established their own synagogues where they incorporated their Ashkanazi traditions and music. Over time, the Ashkanazi population grew to become larger than the old Western Sephardic community and Ashkanazi liturgy became better known and accepted in American Jewish life.

Many aspects of today's American Jewish life can be understood by delving into the history of Jewish music in America. Recently the album Jewish Voices in the New World was released by Jewish philanthropist Lowell Milken and his Archive, containing recordings of these early Jewish American melodies.

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