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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Attack of the bug

As I was heading home from work last Tuesday evening, a wave of dizziness hit me so hard that I clutched the wall of a building for support.

When I recovered, I looked around surreptitiously, terribly embarrassed. Had anybody seen me do that? I sincerely hoped not. I didn’t want anyone to think I was drunk.

And then I felt it. I can’t really describe it, but it’s the feeling I’ve come to recognize as my temperature going up... and up... and up.

I wonder what the thermometer’s going to tell me when I get home, I thought to myself.

What it told me was 102.1 degrees Fahrenheit.


I emailed in sick to work and went straight to bed, hoping that a night and a day of solid rest would do the trick.

No such luck.

My doctor doesn’t have office hours on Wednesdays. So by late Wednesday afternoon, when I realized I needed medical attention, my dear friend and neighbor, N., went with me to the local branch of Terem, the emergency clinic.

The waiting room was empty when we arrived. I barely had time to get settled in my seat when I was called for the intake process.

After various tests, including a whole blood count, and an examination by one of the physicians on duty, I was given my diagnosis: viral infection. The treatment: painkillers to keep the fever down.

N. and I went to the nearby pharmacy, where I bought the meds. Then we went home, and I went to bed... but not to sleep.

Weird images kept popping through my head. A recent project kept popping up on a screen in my mind. Words and headings and HTML code jumbled in front of my eyes as I tried to sort them out, then watched helplessly as the job grew exponentially. Under other circumstances, it might have been amusing, even entertaining. Here, it was just more stress... and true sleep never came that night.

I got some sleep the next day and tried to eat. I say “tried” because I realized that my body just didn’t want food. In fact, the thought of food made my gorge rise just a little. But I forced myself to eat and drink, knowing that if I didn’t, I would just get worse.

And get worse I did. By the next evening – Thursday – N. and I were back at Terem, where I got an infusion of fluids.

Back home a few hours later, I had another sleepless night.

In the morning, I finally read the information sheet that came with the pain meds I had been given... and the list of possible side effects was ghastly. And guess what – they included “vision or hearing disturbances; seeing/hearing strange things.”


Friday was a little better. N. picked up some oranges and lemons for me so that I could make homemade drinks to keep up my electrolytes. (Recipes on request.) I made a few, got them down and felt much better.

On Shabbat, I drank much more than I ate. And I rested. Boy, did I rest. My friend L. came to visit me, and N. and I spent time together, too. At one point, I asked N. if I could sample some of her cola (in a separate glass, of course!). I hardly ever drink cola – but this time, when I did, my foggy brain seemed to clear. Coincidence or caffeine?

Then she offered me a small ice-cream pop. I hardly ever eat ice-cream pops, even though I am fond of them, but this time I decided to say yes. It was delicious.

So my body was starting to accept food without a struggle, and my brain was clearing – both good signs.

So what’s going on now? I still have a fever, but it’s much lower than it was, and I feel better than I’ve felt in days.

Here’s hoping for continued improvement.

But I’m still curious: what on earth is this bug?

And when is it finally going to go away?

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Pardoner's phone call

One of the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the Pardoner, a corrupt, low-level cleric who goes around selling pardons, indulgences and fake relics to credulous believers. He begins his tale by exposing the tricks of his trade – how he gets his customers, anxious to buy their way out of perdition, to cough up their cash for his bogus wares. After he finishes his tale, he launches into his spiel, either out of hutzpah or total stupidity, since he’s just admitted to his hearers that he’s a fraud. The Host retorts: That’s enough! Do you think we were born yesterday? If you thought you could get away with it, you’d have us kissing your dirty underwear as a saint’s relic, too!

I thought of the Pardoner late last week when I got a phone call from an unidentified number. Usually, I don’t answer phone calls from unidentified numbers, but this time I did.

When I heard a pause on the line and a bit of static, I thought that this might be an overseas call with a bit of delay. So I waited, and after a second or so, I heard a click, and then a recorded message began.

A male voice – the voice of an actor, of course – told a story of how his life had been going well, and then his luck had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. His business began to suffer, his finances dwindled, his home lost its peace and tranquility and his health declined. Then he found out about a marvelous remedy and decided to try it: prayers offered by a tzaddik (Hebrew: “righteous person”) on his behalf at a particular holy site. Once the tzaddik prayed for him, his good fortune was restored just like the old joke about the country song played backwards: his business recovered, his prosperity returned, his family relationships improved and his health problems vanished.

Although I didn’t buy the spiel for a moment, I wanted to see where it would lead. So I stayed on the line and obeyed the actor’s exhortation to “Press 1” if I wanted to see similar salvation in my life.

I was connected to an operator at a call center, a young woman who read me an additional little spiel telling me how much it would cost to buy this salvation: more than three hundred shekels. I had no intention of buying in. I simply wanted to say my piece. I told her my concerns and asked to speak to the manager. She gave me a number to call.

I called the number and soon was on the line with the manager, an older-sounding woman with a friendly, professional phone manner.

“I’m a religious woman,” I told her, “and I felt I had to tell you how disturbed I was by this phone call. It’s such an obvious fake. Anyone could tell that the speaker in the recorded message is an actor reading from a script.

“As a religious person, I find this whole thing disgusting. It’s nothing but a cheap scare tactic – a marketing gimmick of the worst kind. Luckily, I have some background in Judaism, and I know that isn’t what Judaism is about. I was always taught that one of Judaism’s basic teachings, and one of the things that makes it different from other faiths, is the belief that every person can approach God on his or her own, without an intermediary. On top of that, the message is a prepared script being read by someone who is obviously a hired actor, but you’re trying to pass it off as real. This insults people’s intelligence. If I were a secular Israeli with little background in Judaism, it would turn me right off. I would say to myself: ‘If this is what Judaism is, I want no part of it.’ Is this the image we want to present? Is this what we want people to think Judaism is?”

The manager answered: “Our target audience is secular and traditional people, not necessarily religious people. We really do send tzaddikim to the holy site to pray for the people who donate, and the money goes to needy families. We can prove it. And Judaism does teach that the prayers of tzaddikim are more effective than those of an ordinary person.”

“I don’t agree,” I said. “That’s not a basic teaching of Judaism, and anyway the idea of the tzaddik came much later. There are plenty of scholars and teachers who disagree with it.”

“We just had two women call us up to tell us that the prayers really helped them,” the woman said. “You’re the only one who thinks there’s anything wrong with what we’re doing. We’re helping the needy. Don’t you think that’s a worthy goal?”

“I’m glad if the women were helped,” I said, “and helping the needy is always a worthy goal. As for being the only one who thinks you’re going about it the wrong way, I’m not sure about that. It’s entirely possible that other people think so, too. I’m just the only one so far who’s taken the time to call you and tell you about it.”

I could have asked more questions then, such as who decides how the funds are distributed and what percentage of the collected funds actually reaches the needy families. But I didn’t have the time to pursue it. Instead, I asked: “How did you get my number?”

She named my long-distance provider. “They sell us their subscriber list, and we go on from there,” she said.

I thanked her, and the conversation ended on a good note.

Once I hung up, I got the urge to call my long-distance provider, tell them to stop selling my phone number to spammers and threaten to cancel my subscription if I ever got another spam call. But then I found myself wondering something else. Maybe this whole thing had nothing to do with offering prayers on behalf of people looking for relief from life’s vicissitudes or helping the needy. Could it be that all this was nothing but a devilishly clever ploy to lure customers away from that particular long-distance company?