5. A Judeo-Spanish model for the Israeli folksong

Another type of Mediterraneanism in Israeli music, that had fewer repercussions in the literature than the former one, is an instance of the model that we named "Orientalist". According to this model, the new Israeli folksong, a crucial component in the Zionist cultural enterprise (see Eliram 1995 and 2000), has to lean on an authentic form of Jewish music, e.g. on the music of the Jews who dwelled in the Middle East since times immemorial. The best exponent of such a type of authentic Judaism was, as already recalled, the Yemenite Jewry whose impact on Israeli crafts, design, food and music is remarkable (on the early 20th-century Yemenite Jewish settlement in Palestine and its relation to the Zionist establishment see Druyan). Indeed many composers of Israeli songs such as Menashe Ravina (Ravinovitch), Moshe Vilensky, Sara Levy-Tanay and others found inspiration in the Yemenite Jewish musical heritage. Moreover, Eastern European Jewish composers from the 1930s to the1950s were particularly attracted to the unique "color" of the vocal style of Yemenite women singers, such as Bracha Zefira, Shoshana Damai, Esther Gamlielit and Hana Aharoni, and wrote special works for them.

Yet, for the past five centuries there were other Jews who merged in their cultural heritage Western and Eastern features and were therefore a convenient model for Israeliness. These Jews were the Sephardim, i.e. the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century who settled in the rims of the Mediterranean Sea.

The chief exponent of this second style of musical Mediterraneanism was the Sephardi singer and folksong collector Isaac Levy. Born in Turkey in 1919, Levy immigrated as a child to Palestine. He attended the Academy of Music in Jerusalem. In the early 1950s, Levy became interested in his own cultural roots and became a systematic collector of Judeo-Spanish folksongs. In the mid-1950s he started to broadcast the Judeo-Spanish program at the Israeli state radio. In these programs he broadcasted Judeo-Spanish folksongs from his original field recordings as well as arrangements of the same songs that he commissioned and sometimes performed.

In 1959, Levy published the first of his influential four-volume anthology of Judeo-Spanish folksongs (see Seroussi 1995). In the introduction to this first volume Levy exposed his vision of Mediterraneanism in Israeli culture. He predicted that Israeli culture would transform itself from a European-oriented culture into a Mediterranean one. He vaguely explained this adjective as the juncture of the "ancient Eastern civilization of Israel and early Christianity" with contemporary Western culture. The Sephardi Jews were, according to Levy, the natural carriers of this legacy because they

always dwelled around the rims of the Mediterranean and were never separated from the air and the atmosphere of this marvelous sea, cradle of the so-called 'Western' culture and civilization (Levy 1959:VI).

Therefore the future of Israel should be linked to this synthesis:

The melos in the new Israel has changed... and I am convinced that in time due our national music with be entirely Mediterranean. As the Sephardi pronunciation of Hebrew was adopted [in Israel], so will the Judeo-Spanish melodies serve as the basis for its music (ibid).

Levy’s concept of an Israeli "national music" should be understood in the historical context of the 1950s. This was a period when the Eastern European Jews dominated, through the Israeli Labor movement, the cultural institutions of the new country in accordance to secular Zionist ideology. During the same decade, masses of Jews from Islamic countries arrived to Israel. The governmental policy of absorption set the basis for an ongoing process of political, social and cultural confrontation between the leadership of the state and the new immigrants. At this juncture, Levy was ambivalent. As a musician trained in the Western tradition and a state radio employee, he was a member of the establishment. At the same time as a proud Sephardi Jews from Turkey he became, from within the system, an advocate of Mediterraneanism.

Excerpt from La serena,
Judeo-Spanish song performed by Yehoram Gaon, arranged by Dov Seltzer. From the long-play Romantic Ballads from the Great Judeo-Espagnol Heritage, NMC 63379-2, band 9. (mp3 file, 731 kb, 1.31 min)

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