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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Our Early Jewish American Music Heritage - Everything Old is New Again

Lorelai is thinking about her upcoming trip to the USA, and her thoughts are turning towards ... Early Jewish American Music.

That's logical, right Mr. Spock?

There's no doubt that music has played an important part in the evolution of worldwide Jewish culture and traditions. The Milken Archive has developed extensive documentation, records and collections of music that follows liturgical and other music genres as they accompanied the developing American Jewish community from its early days to the present. 

Sephardic Jews in America

The archive actually dates back to the time when the first Jews reached the shores of what would become the United States. A small group of Dutch Jews who had been living in Brazil were forced to leave when the Portuguese Inquisition took hold in Brazil. They made their way to the American colonies, settling initially in New Amsterdam (later New York). They were soon followed by a second group which laid down roots in Newport Rhode Island. These early Jewish Americans established synagogues, the Sherith Israel in New York and the Touro synagogue in Rhode Island which were quickly followed by other synagogues in new Jewish communities including in towns and cities throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut.

These first Jewish immigrants to America's shores followed Sephardic traditions. Their ancestors had originated in Spain and were forced to leave after the 1492 Expulsion. Thousands of expelled Jews took up residents in Holland and Jews from this community were, by and large, the settlers that made up the early American Jewish community. Early Jewish immigrants brought their Sephardic culture with them, including their music and the traditional tunes of their prayers. Many of these tunes are in Ladino, a Jewish language which has heavy influences of Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Spanish, Greek, Turkish and other Mediterranean languages.

This 17th and 18th century music comprises one of the Milken Archives' largest collections. The recordings of these songs and prayers are presented at the Archive along with the original compositions and melodies, many of which continue to be sung and chanted in American Sephardic congregations today. The Archives include extensive chants, prayers, liturgy and other types of early American music which illustrate the American Jewish experience. The music demonstrates the progression of the early Sephardic Jewish community as it expanded and incorporated other American and Jewish influences in their worship and general culture. These recording include Ladino folk songs, some of which originated in Europe and others which were composed in America.

Lowell Milken who created the Archive hopes that recording, preserving and disseminating the music will strengthen the spirit of American Jews.The Milken Archive, in its volume The Song of Prayer in Colonial and 19th-Century America, features a wide range of selections of these musical presentations. Some of the recordings, such as Shira Hadasha (morning prayers), chants of Tisha B'Av, Baruch HaBa, Shabbat songs and psalms and Torah readings are of unknown origins.

For others, the composers and singers are known. The Archive presents Gustov Cohen's "Adon Olam," "Mizmor Shir L'Yom Shabbat" by Frederick Kitziger and "Our Guardian Slumbers Not" by C. Weber.