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8.559411 - JEWISH VOICES IN THE NEW WORLD
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Jewish Voices in the New World
Chants and Prayers from the American Colonial Era

 

Old Voices in the New World

The time frame embraced by this sampling of synagogue melodies and biblical chants is the American Colonial period and the early years of the new republic — up to circa 1830. These musical versions represent the overall liturgical melos of early American Jewry as a whole until approximately that date.

The liturgical rite of American Jewry during this period was basically that of the western Sephardi practice. Even though Ashkenazi Jews came to the American Colonies as early as the 17th century and throughout the Colonial era, they were neither sufficient in number nor so inclined to create a separate community. Rather, they accepted or adopted the Sephardi rite as it was imported from Western Europe. The first Ashkenazi synagogue was established in New York in 1825 (B'nai Jeshurun), but only after the third and fourth decades of the 19th century did the arrival of German-speaking Jews from Bavaria and other parts of Central Europe constitute a distinct wave of immigration that led to the establishment of "German" Ashkenazi synagogues and communal structures and institutions of their own.

The musical repertoire of early American Jewry is essentially the western Sephardi tradition as developed chiefly in Amsterdam during the late 16th and 17th centuries — and, albeit to a lesser extent, in London. This transplanted tradition was, of course, perpetuated with a degree of variation and adaptation, which accompanies all oral transmissions — but perhaps minimally in this case, by comparison with secular genres, owing to the care taken by learned Sephardi hazzanim (cantors) from Europe in teaching this repertoire and keeping it intact as much as possible. Whatever unavoidable variation has become embedded has lent a measure of distinction to the American brand of western Sephardi tradition.

The Western Sephardi Musical Tradition

Iberian Jewry (the so-called Golden Age of Spanish Jewry), which flourished for significant periods since the 8th century in Moslem-controlled areas of the peninsula, came to a gradual end by the 14th century with the ultimate establishment of Christian hegemony over what are today Spain and Portugal. Although the expansion of Christian rule was punctuated by periods of tolerance and even Jewish prosperity, the overall position of Jews there deteriorated throughout the era in which Moslem rule simultaneously shrank. Fierce persecutions culminated in the massacres of 1391, in which an estimated 70,000 Jews were murdered and entire communities extinguished. As a result, significant numbers of Jews surrendered to baptism and conversion, a situation that was repeated in the early 15th century. Some, though not all, of these "new Christians," or conversos, continued to practice Jewish customs and ceremonies in secret — as "crypto-Jews," or marranos ("swine," the epithet originally attached to them). But the synagogue, where liturgical music traditions had been maintained, could no longer play any role in their lives. As Christians, they were subject to the authority of the Inquisition — the Congregation of the Holy Office.

During the 15th century, the road led rapidly to outright expulsion for all who had declined conversion — from Spain in 1492; and from Portugal, where an estimated 100,000 Jews found a brief period of refuge before equally brutal forced conversions and expulsion, by 1497. The largest number of Jewish exiles, now called Sephardim (from Sepharad—"Spain" in Hebrew), resettled in Moslem-ruled lands of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, including various parts of the Ottomon Turkish Empire. There, Sephardi culture and learning flourished.

Toward the middle of the 16th century, conversos began leaving the Iberian Peninsula. Henceforth, they became known in their new émigré communities as "Spanish and Portuguese" or, more common in Europe, simply as "Portuguese" Jews. They settled in Amsterdam, Venice, and southern France, and later in other parts of Europe (London, Hamburg, Paris, Livorno, and Vienna); northeast Brazil and the Caribbean (Recife, Curaçao, Surinam, etc.); and eventually North America. The "western Sephardi" label distinguishes these Jews from their eastern Sephardi counterpart communities in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

The foundations of this western Sephardi liturgical music tradition can be traced to its "mother" community in Amsterdam, where the conversos who arrived possessed little knowledge of Judaism or Judaic ritual after so long a detachment. Since the expulsions, all opportunities for retaining any ties to authentic Jewish musical traditions had become nonexistent. If they were now to experience a full sense of "return," they felt impelled at least partly to "invent," or reinvent, a liturgical music tradition to which they could feel reconnected. In that determination to find authenticity and thereby reestablish links to the imagined continuum of Judaic tradition, they looked eastward to the Moslem-dominated Jewish world for their teachers. They recruited knowledgeable cantors and rabbis from some of the principal North African and eastern Mediterranean Sephardi centers — a practice that had been followed with regard to biblical and Talmudic learning as well. The western Sephardi musical repertoire that emerged was thus based in part on North African and Ottoman Sephardi traditions.

Among the earliest of those imported hazzanim were Joseph Shalom Gallego, from Saloniki, who officiated in Amsterdam ca. 1614–1628; and Rabbi Isaac Uziel, from Fez, Morocco. Both had a permanent impact on the construction of a local liturgical music canon during the formative stages of the Amsterdam community.

The North African/eastern Mediterranean style of vocal rendition was undoubtedly alien to the more western-attuned aesthetic sensibilities of the former conversos in Amsterdam. That style could easily have appeared unrefined, excessively filagreed, modally strange, rhythmically confusing, and foreign in terms of vocal timbre. And to those with cultivated western tastes, what could appear as freedom in the eastern approach might have seemed lacking in the decorum expected for religious contexts. These concerns probably spawned the adaptive process by which these eastern musical versions were frequently streamlined and "westernized" by compression into more metrical contexts and simpler regular meters; and by shearing them of their improvisatory extensions and ornamentation.

The composite Amsterdam "traditional" repertoire, however, also came to include two additional elements: 1) original creations or adaptations by local cantors who were conversant with western European art music, for which the former conversos had developed a decided affinity (especially the Italian Baroque style then prevalent in Spain, and to a lesser extent in the Netherlands, in the 17th century); and 2) traditional but "foreign" accretions, such as Ashkenazi liturgical tunes and non-Jewish secular Dutch and other folksongs.

The engagement of hazzanim from Amsterdam by the city's so-called sister communities — which eventually included New York — contributed to the stability as well as to the relative uniformity of their liturgical repertoires. This perceived tradition then required learned hazzanim to preserve and teach it, but such qualified hazzanim, often the sole repositories of the musical traditions of their communities, were in short supply. Western Sephardi communities therefore paid careful attention to the selection, training, and support of their hazzanim ; and when they found it necessary or advisable, they shared them. Amsterdam was usually the base for such mobile hazzanim.

The willingness to import cantors from Amsterdam and London was especially important for the maintenance of tradition in America throughout the Colonial period and beyond. Our very knowledge of that process gives us relative assurance that the music on this recording — all of which is preserved intact to this day in the present repertoires of two major American western Sephardi synagogues that date to the Colonial period — is essentially the same as was sung in the American Colonies throughout much of the 18th century. This lineage is further substantiated in those cases where we find in the current repertoire of those synagogues a melody that we can trace back therein for several generations, and which also appears documented in 19th century notated sources, where it is identified as long established in western Sephardi tradition. One of the most important among such sources is the collection by Emanuel Aguilar and David Aaron de Sola, The Ancient Melodies of the Liturgy of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (London, 1857). We can legitimately deduce that a tune from this volume (in the "ancient" section) that has been in the repertoire of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York all during the 20th century was also in the very same synagogue's repertoire during the Colonial period — the more so since we know that this congregation had the benefit of Amsterdam hazzanim at its pulpit.

Biblical Cantillation

Our assessment of the continuum with reference to biblical cantillation is even more solidly grounded. We know that the post-expulsion hazzanim who were entrusted with transmitting and teaching the details of biblical cantillation (the ta'amei hamikra ) did so with exacting precision — as traditionally demanded by Sephardi congregations (often to an even greater degree of minutiae than Ashkenazi ones) in deference to the sacred centrality of the Holy Scriptures in the synagogue service. Moreover, it was (and is) almost always those hazzanim themselves who chanted the Torah readings, rather than laymen, who often fulfill that function in Ashkenazi synagogues. For these reasons we can be assured that the biblical cantillations on this recording are relatively faithful replications of such biblical readings in Colonial era services.

The Dawn of American Jewry

It is now generally accepted that prior to the second half of the 17th century, there was a handful of European Jews who came individually, probably for economic prospects, to North America. In most cases they either returned to Europe, tried their luck elsewhere, or assimilated completely among the other settlers. These people did not found a community. The actual birth of the American Jewish community dates to 1654, when a group of twenty-three self-affirming Jews (their number questioned by recent research) arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, then under the control of the Dutch West India Company.

Many, if not most (but not all) of those twenty-three arrivals were Amsterdam Portuguese Sephardim. They had been living in Recife (Pernambuco), Brazil, which the Dutch had wrested from the Portuguese in 1630. A relatively sizable formal Jewish community had been established there (some 1,400 to 1,500 people at its peak) on European models, with a synagogue and Jewish schools, but also with the classic institution of orthodox rabbinic authority, which was not transferred to North America. When the Dutch surrendered Recife back to the Portuguese in 1654 and the specter of the Inquisition hovered, most of the remaining Jews — whose number had dwindled to less than half by the final years of Dutch rule — left. They were generously if ironically assisted in their exodus by the Portuguese commander, who lent them ships and issued protective orders for their physical safety. Some who could afford it returned directly to Amsterdam; others resettled in Caribbean areas such as St. Thomas, Curaçao, Jamaica, and Surinam, where they founded Sephardi congregations. The above-mentioned group of twenty-three refugees to North America also headed, at least initially, for the Caribbean, but their landing was thwarted by the Spanish. Whether or not their original ideal destination had been Holland, they were in effect stranded in New Amsterdam, indigent. Though clearly unwelcome, they elected to remain permanently, which became possible only thanks to the economic influence and pressure on their behalf by fellow Jews in Amsterdam. The governor, Peter Stuyvesant, insisted on their evacuation, but he was overruled from Amsterdam by his employer, the Dutch West India Company. Some of its Jewish stockholders and investors — probably not anxious for a fresh communal burden at home — had appealed to the company directors at the request of the refugees. Within a year, five well-to-do Amsterdam Jewish families were dispatched to the colony, where they would help root the newly planted bulbs of a community and could also assist in absolving the Dutch West India Company from economic responsibility for the earlier immigrants. Continued immigrations followed from Amsterdam and from Dutch possessions in the Western hemisphere and, later, in smaller numbers from London.

The original twenty-three refugees are credited with being the seeds of American Jewry, even though by the time England took control of the colony from the Dutch and it became New York, most had left. There was a hiatus of Jewish settlement and community development for the first several years of British rule, and the community was in a sense "refounded" in 1670. By 1700 the Colonial Jewish population (those who identified openly as Jews) is estimated at 250; by 1776, it numbered around 2,000. By the mid-18th century there were functioning synagogues in five cities.

The first American synagogue, Shearith Israel (Remnant of Israel), has remained in continuous operation in New York to this day and is the prestigious flagship congregation dedicated to western Sephardi tradition in the United States. It dates loosely from those early years of established Jewish presence in New Amsterdam and then New York. The year 1654 has been adopted and is commonly cited as the birth year of this synagogue, but it is impossible to confirm an actual official "founding" in that year — apart from the reasonable assurance that Jews did begin assembling for worship somewhere in New Amsterdam during that time frame. The earliest preserved minutes books of the congregation are dated 1728, although some of its religious records go back a bit further. No one knows the precise date of the first formal service.

Freedom of worship and religious choice were not automatic at first, although some of the attempted restrictions probably applied to any religion outside the Dutch Reformed Church and not only to Jews. An initial prohibition against even private Jewish services was rescinded through the intervention of Jewish leadership in Amsterdam, but acceptance of a publicly recognized synagogue took more time. Meanwhile, even before it was prudent to do so openly, the Jews were holding services inconspicuously in a mill loft used as a makeshift synagogue. But it appears to have been an "open secret." By the end of the 17th century the community gained more or less official recognition, and in 1730 Shearith Israel inaugurated its first proper synagogue building. This remained its home for the rest of the Colonial period and until its move in 1834.

During the British occupation of New York at the time of the Revolutionary War, the hazzan and minister of Shearith Israel, Gershom Mendes Seixas, along with the majority of its congregants — who vigorously supported the patriot cause and independence, as did the majority of Colonial Jewry by then — left the city. A minority of Jewish Loyalists, however, kept the synagogue open during the occupation. Meanwhile, a new but similar congregation, Mikve Israel, was founded in Philadelphia in 1782 in the midst of the war. It too remains active. Until after the middle of the 18th century, all prayer books were brought from Amsterdam. The first one published in America (1761) was a set of English translations only — without Hebrew — for High Holy Day evening services. It was also the first Jewish prayer book in the English language anywhere. Although it was issued anonymously, many scholars now suspect that its author was Isaac Pinto, who published the second volume in 1766 under his own name. These were not intended to replace Hebrew, which remains the language of prayer in all traditional synagogue services and was consistently so in Colonial era synagogues. Rather, these — and the subsequent prayer books with English — were seen as a needed supplement for individual worshipers whose less-than-thorough knowledge of Hebrew might have dissuaded them from synagogue attendance. Shortly afterward, Sephardi daily and Sabbath prayer books from London were used, which contained both Hebrew and English. The first American Hebrew and English prayer book was not published until 1826.

On balance, mid- to late-18th century Colonial Jewry enjoyed freedom of worship and Judaic practice to the extent it wished, especially when this did not intersect with thornier issues of political franchise, rights, or equality. The English establishment notwithstanding, a substantial degree of ethnic and religious plurality already characterized the population by then. There were numerous sects and denominations, and there were immigrants from many parts of Europe outside England. Thus Jews were not the only religious nonconformists in the Colonies, but simply one of the many permitted religions that were unrelated to the Church of England. When Benjamin Franklin contributed money on an equal basis to Philadelphia churches of all denominations, he included the local synagogue naturally, as one of the legitimate American religions.

Yet professing Colonial Jews did not have that same degree of political equality, even though some restrictions were honored more in the quiet breach than in enforcement. But as the accepted norm of the time, such inequalities seem not to have been unbearable or to have created a major or widespread issue yet. Only with the end of Colonial rule and the ratification of the Constitution did Jews attain full political rights and complete religious freedom in relation to political enfranchisement — on the federal level. It took another eighty years for the elimination of anti-Jewish political restrictions from all state constitutions.

At the same time, Jews did have basically full economic rights and equality of business opportunity — for at least a half-century before the same level was achieved even in England. And it was possible to attain social respectability without having to sacrifice Jewish identity. As the new republic was born, Hazzan Mendes Seixas participated in George Washington's inauguration ceremony; and the rabbi of Congregation Mikve Israel in Philadelphia was one of the pallbearers of Benjamin Franklin's coffin.

Colonial synagogues were orthodox. This was not out of a pious commitment to European-style orthodoxy, which would have meant adherence to an entire mode of daily life beyond synagogue services and typical home celebrations — and the acceptance of rabbinically led communal structures. Rather, these synagogues were orthodox because an unmodified and fossilized service format represented for those congregants the continuum of tradition and custom they felt necessary for their identity, without requiring more of them. This applied fully to the musical parameter. Also, there were not yet any alternative models. Reform did not begin until the 19th century, in Germany, and it bypassed the Sephardi world anyway. Western Sephardi congregations in these Colonies thus remained at least nominally orthodox, as they have to this day in the United States.

It does not attach opprobrium to observe that Colonial Jewry did not exhibit the same degree of concern for other, extra-synagogal aspects of Judaic tradition. Their interests outside the synagogue simply resided elsewhere — in the social and intellectual pursuits of emerging American society. Thus they did not establish Jewish schools or Talmudic academies; nor did they produce or nurture higher Judaic learning or scholarship. Most significantly, they did not import any ordained rabbis from Europe to lead their congregations, to teach, to implant scholarship, or to determine matters of halakha (Jewish law) — as did their sister Sephardi communities during this same time frame in the Caribbean. Yet they were obviously deeply concerned about ensuring the authentic maintenance and precision of their Sephardi liturgical music traditions, and for that purpose they did import hazzanim from both Amsterdam and London (sometimes via the Caribbean), not only during the Colonial period but also throughout the formative decades of the new republic and even well into the 20th century. In no other area of Jewish practice were they so meticulous. Thus their liturgical music tradition appears to have been the primary vehicle for defining their internal Jewish identity.

 

The Musical Selections

 

BARUKH HABBA (Psalms 118:26–29) is the last passage of hallel (Psalms of praise), but it is also sung independently as an opening "welcome" for various ceremonies — most commonly, weddings, joyous dedications, and consecrations. The phrase in the Psalm refers to the welcoming blessing by the priests in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which they pronounced to those arriving with their ritual sacrifices.

This melody is ubiquitous in western as well as Moroccan Sephardi repertoires, with numerous variants, and it is sung to various texts. Its most common association, however, is with the biblical shirat hayam (Song of the Sea, Exodus 15:1–19). It is also used for the Spanish-language poetic summary of the birkat hammazon (gratitude to God after meals): Bendigamos. The tune has an intriguing pedigree, with musical notation in an Amsterdam manuscript as far back as the 18th century. In his 1857 London compilation, the Reverend David Aaron de Sola proposed (albeit without substantiation) that it was an "ancient" melody in the Sephardi repertoire, even antedating Jewish settlement on the Iberian Peninsula. We do know that this barukh habba is basically the same, with small variations, as the one sung during the Revolutionary War on the occasion of the consecration of the new synagogue in Philadelphia, Mikve Israel, on September 13, 1782. That rendition occurred during a circular procession around the hazzan's reading desk by the congregational dignitaries ("honored members") as they carried the sacred Torah scrolls.

 

SHIRA HADASHA is part of the liturgy of every morning service. It concludes the benedictions following the recitation of the basic Judaic credo known as k'ri'at sh'ma. It quotes two biblical verses: Exodus 15:18, where the words shira hadasha (a new song [of praise]) refer to the first proclamation of God as King; and Isaiah 47:4. The 18th century (and probably earlier) usage of this tune is confirmed by a version in the 1857 London volume for a different text, y'huda v'yisra'el, which contains similar phrases.

 

TISHA B'AV is the annual fast day and day of national mourning on the ninth of the Hebrew month of av. It commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, traditionally assigned to those same dates in 586 B.C.E. and 72 C.E., respectively. For Sephardim, the day has an additional significance, since it coincides with the accepted date of the 1492 expulsion edict. The special synagogue services include the reading (i.e., chanting) of the Book of Lamentations ( m'gillat eikha ), whose lyric poetry laments the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and describes the national agony; as well as a series of later kinot (elegies) by various medieval Hebrew poets. These refer to both ancient calamities, as well as to subsequent catastrophes and massacres in lands of the Diaspora.

The cantillation pattern heard here (track 3) is reserved exclusively for eikha. Each of the principal Jewish rites (Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Persian, Yemenite, etc.) has a special eikha cantillation of its own. This one is unique to Sephardi custom, and its manner of rendition here is unique to the Portuguese tradition — not only in Amsterdam, but also as it was known in the American Colonies certainly by the mid-18th century. The same applies to the other biblical cantillations (tracks 11, 13, 14, 16, 21, and 22): Torah readings, as well as Haftara readings, which are selections from Prophets for Sabbath and holydays.

Kinot texts vary from one tradition to another — and even among different Sephardi traditions. Most of those on this recording are contained in a manuscript discovered in a Lisbon archive in the first half of the 20th century. A prayer book published in Venice in 1519, Mahzor s'fardi, included in a special Tisha B'av section many of those kinot found in the Lisbon manuscript. Since none of these Sephardi kinot refer to the 1492 expulsion, they are believed to have been written between the 11th and 14th centuries.

These kinot were part of the Amsterdam repertoire by the 17th century. They were probably perpetuated in the American Colonies — especially in New York — by Hazzan Mendes Seixas, whose teacher, Joseph Pinto, had most likely brought them from Amsterdam when he came to serve Shearith Israel. In only a few cases do we know much more about their musical origins. Only some of them appear in other Sephardi tradtions as well. It has been suggested that some were adapted from Italian Baroque dance tunes during the formative years of the Amsterdam repertoire. Given the affinity the newly returned Jews had for that genre, and considering the style and structure of some of these tunes, that is certainly one possibility. Some could be original but anonymous compositions from 17th century Amsterdam. Much further research is required.

The seven kinot here represent only a sampling of the entire literature of these poems. Some are sung at the evening service, and some the following morning.

 

ALEIKHEM EDA K'DOSHA (track 4) was one of the many piyyutim (liturgical poems) — often tunes as well as words — brought to Amsterdam by Hazzan Joseph Gallego. The poetic structure is modeled on the "four questions" of the Passover Seder ("Why is this night different….?"). There are also references to 13th and 14th century massacres. The Amsterdam and New York melodies are nearly the same.

 

BORE AD ANA (track 10) is one of the best-known Sephardi kinot. The poem is based on the well-established image of a dove as a metaphor for the Jewish people. The melody is known in an array of variants in both western and eastern Sephardi traditions. Notwithstanding the words, some of these kinot melodies exhibit less of a dirge-like character and almost an upbeat quality. This is actually consistent with the tendency of western Sephardi Tisha B'av services to emphasize hope for ultimate redemption and national and spiritual restoration, as part of the recalled collective grief.

 

SHIRAT HAYYAM (Song of the Sea) is the hymn of praise for God that is quoted in the Torah as sung by Moses and the Israelites upon their miraculous crossing of the Sea of Reeds and their escape from the pursuing Egyptians. It forms part of the daily morning service, in compliance with the commandment in Deuteronomy (16:3) to "remember all the days of your life the day you left Egypt." On Sabbaths and Festivals in the Portuguese Sephardi tradition, these verses have a special cantillation (track 11).

 

AHOT K'TANNA (track 12) is a piyyut sung in Sephardi custom on the first evening of Rosh Hashana as a prayer for the end of the closing year. Recognizable variants are known throughout the western Sephardi world, but the London and New York variants are very close. This is also one of the tunes brought to Amsterdam by Hazzan Gallego. Four of its eight strophes are sung here.

 

ASERET HADDIBB'ROT (The Ten Articles of the Sinaitic Covenant) is the section of the Torah comprising the verses that have been rendered mistakenly as "the ten commandments" in nearly every English translation of the Bible, from the Authorized Version (King James) on. That erroneous reading has been followed uncritically by most Jewish translations as well. There are 613 divine commandments in the Torah, not ten. These ten pronouncements are a summary encapsulation of those obligations; and as such in Jewish tradition, they constitute the basic articles of the covenant at Sinai between God and the Israelites — a covenant defined by the acceptance of the Torah and all its commandments. Sephardi custom reserves a special cantillation for public readings of these verses (track 13).

 

The piyyut ET SHA'AREI RATZON (track 15) occurs only in the Sephardi liturgy for Rosh Hashana, as a preface to the sounding of the shofar. It concerns the biblical incident known as the akedat yitzhak — the binding of Isaac for sacrifice in a test of Abraham's faith, and God's intervention (Genesis 22). This is also the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana, as well as the reference point for other parts of its liturgy. The poem is based on a Midrashic interpretation of the story, in which Isaac asks Abraham to tell his mother that she need not fear for him — as if to suggest that Isaac already knew the happy outcome. This tune is unique to Portuguese tradition; eastern Sephardim have a different one.

 

The two Psalm recitations here, PSALMS 29 and 92 (tracks 17 and 18), are part of the preliminary kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service. Both are derived from very old, perhaps ancient, psalmodies; and both have musically documented longevity in London and Bayonne, France. Perhaps to underscore its accepted antiquity, the unison and nonmetric features of this Psalm 92 melody are retained to this day in its choral renditions at Shearith Israel, even though nearly all other old tunes there have been sung in metricalized four-part harmonizations (as in London) probably since the early 20th century. The basic form of this version as it appeared in the Aguilar–de Sola compendium was taken by Sir Edward Elgar for a Jewish scene in his oratorio The Apostles.

 

HASHKIVENU is part of every evening service — with some text variations. This Sabbath melody (track 19) has a long lineage in Portuguese custom, with a modal variation in the London tradition and yet another in a Bayonne manuscript dating to the 1820s. The western Sephardi tradition in America has preserved it in the variant heard here.

 

KADDISH SHALEM (track 20) is the same text as the "mourners' kaddish " toward the end of a service. Here it is sung as a prelude to bar'khu — the "call to worship" that normally begins a service proper. In Sephardi custom this bar'khu is repeated at the end of morning and evening services, a practice that originated to accommodate latecomers. When repeated thus in the evening service, it is preceded by this kaddish shalem. A variant of the tune appears in the 1857 London volume for the hymn Yigdal, indicating that it was by then already well known.

 

EIN KELOHEINU (track 23) is a hymn sung toward the end of Sabbath and holyday morning additional ( mussaf ) services. In Sephardi and Yemenite traditions it is included in weekday services as well. Its earliest known appearance is in a 9th century prayer book ( siddur R. Amram Gaon). This is the special tune for High Holy Days ( y'dei rashim ) in the Portuguese tradition, and it is also a pervasive lahan (tune) used for other texts in those services, almost as a leitmotif.

 

On the Choral Parameter

In western Sephardi synagogues, a primary function of the choir with regard to most of the liturgy — and especially strophic and responsorial prayers — is to lead the congregation in singing. As an assembled group, the choir provides a model that the congregants can follow and into which they can be absorbed. Only in the 19th century in London, and later in New York, were most of these tunes harmonized in four parts and sung chorally either SATB with men and boys, or TTBB in adult male-choir renditions. But before that, and certainly throughout the 18th century in Colonial America, these liturgical melodies were rendered with no harmonization — even when a lay "choir" functioned as an adjunct to the hazzan in leading the congregation and also in providing variety in vocal timbre. Additional research might yield further information about the frequency of such occurrences, but it is likely that at least on some special occasions, efforts were made to assemble such unison singing groups (octaves, if boys were included).

Neil W. Levin

 

[Editor's Note: We gratefully acknowledge the kind assistance and advice of Dr. Edwin Seroussi, especially with reference to the foundations and development of the western Sephardi tradition in Europe, as well as for other insightful suggestions concerning aspects of Sephardi liturgy.]

 


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