2. Women: the great absent in Jewish music research


The sexual segregation of women’s voices and the inability of their majority to read written texts excluded them from active participation in the institutionalized rituals of Judaism. These rituals constitute the bulk of social contexts where music was performed in a traditional Jewish community.

Musicology perpetuated this segregation by treating separately women and men’s repertoires on the basis of a series of dichotomies based on the language of the texts of the songs (Hebrew for men/vernacular Jewish languages for women); contexts of performance (year cycle for men/ life cycle for women) and style (recitative, cantillation, "great" music traditions for men / folk songs, "small" music traditions for women). When the oral component of Jewish music was recognized as a vital source and started to be documented since the late nineteenth century, the carriers of this lore, women, were practically absent from the scholarly discourse.

The most influential text on Jewish music to date (Idelsohn 1929) limits its treatment of women to four or so [!] sentences: 1) "participation of women in the [Second] Temple choir is nowhere traceable"; 2) "women are excluded from participation in religious music"; 3) "[Yemenite] Women are excluded from dancing; the festivities take place among groups of men alone"; 4) "[Eastern European Jewish] women were generally kept at home, excluded from instruction in Hebrew lore. They received their religious and ethical education from their mothers and from books in Yiddish, and awaited the ideal marriage to men well versed in the Torah but utterly unprepared and ignorant of worldly matters. The bride knew that in most cases she would be doomed to help her husband earn a living... All these bitter experiences of life struck the Jewish woman primarily, and found utterance in her song... These songs are in a pathetic style and in a desperate sadness" (Idelsohn 1929: 16, 27, 370 and 394-395 respectively). A Jewish woman in Idelsohn’s eyes is a subordinated subject, and her song a passive expression of this subordination. Evidently Idelsohn was projecting in these sentences a perception originating in his own Eastern European society. Moreover, in his brief exposition of Judeo-Spanish songs, Idelsohn (1929:376-8) does not mention that these were actually transmitted by women. Apparently Idelsohn compiled these musical "objects" of the Sephardi tradition from secondary sources and one wonders if he ever interviewed Sephardi women (cf. Katz 1972-5).


Idelsohn’s observations quoted above reappear in a recently published introduction to Jewish music (Shiloah 1992:178-180). Shiloah adds to the discussion the notion of "antiquity" of Jewish women’s songs due to their "archaic nature", a concept which he borrows from Béla Bartók and Edith Gerson-Kiwi. Furthermore, he presents a list of "traits" characteristic of women’s songs in all Jewish societies. For example: women's songs are orally transmitted and thus lack the characteristics of written songs "that conform to metrical and aesthetic rules which the men’s songs possess" (Shiloah 1992:179). Women’s repertoires are, according to this view, more conservative and simpler than those of men.

Such dichotomies on the basis of gender are more a reflection of inherited scholarly traditions, rather than an unbiased observation of the Jewish music traditions. Needless to say, the music of Jewish men’s songs are orally transmitted too and some songs of Sephardi women conforms to the metrical schemes and "aesthetic rules" of artistic poetry.

Women are also absent from the literary research on the Sephardi song around the Mediterranean. For example, a recent scholarly edition of Judeo-Spanish oral literature (Díaz-Mas 1994) discusses this repertoire in all its aspects without mentioning the word "women", not even in the discussion of the context of performance of the songs. One can only argue that a scholarly tradition of deep philological roots which bluntly avoids the "transmitter" agent in favor of the "transmitted" object is speaking here. As Sacks (1989:99) had already argued, scholars address Jewish women’s lore and material culture as if these "do not embody expressions of gendered power, but are simply interesting artifacts in their own right".

Only recently was the issue of gender considered in depth in the scholarship of Jewish music (see Cohen 1987; Koskoff 1987b; Weich Shahak 1997b:15-16). Still, most studies of Jewish music and gender focus, as gender studies of other music cultures do, only "on the description of male and female domains, styles, and performance types" (Herndon 1990:26). A deeper analysis, one which considers biology and culture, is still needed.

In relation to Sephardi female singers, we should notice the recent studies by J. Cohen (1995; 1997) on the development of new strategies and contexts for the performance and transmission by women of the traditional song in Ladino in the twentieth century. Cohen, who also treated the role of women as musicians in medieval Spain (Cohen 1980), examines the transformation of women’s roles by means of a typology which categorizes female singers according to their social position within the contemporary Sephardi community: tradition bearers, inside performers, outside performers. This examination yields new insights on the expanding contexts of performance by Sephardi women in the twentieth century, including field work, live concerts, radio and television broadcasts and commercial recordings. Sephardi female singers also assume new roles as music educators and, sometimes, as counselors to scholars.

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