From sacred to secular music, aka thoughts on “Ashkenaz Music” (Israel, 1992, 30 min)

Screenshot from Ashkenaz Music

Ashkenaz Music is a 30 minute Israeli film from 1992, made available online by The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive on the YouTube channel of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is in English although most of the songs are in Yiddish with English subtitles. It is part of the “A people and its music” made for TV documentary series.  Here is my page about the film with synopsis. You may want to watch the film first, at the end of this post, as my post below contains spoilers. 

If you are like me and somewhat familiar with the history, culture and religion of Ashkenazim, i.e. Eastern European, Jews this documentary will not surprise you much. However it will give you an overview and possible new insights of its major themes. For this purpose I recommend the documentary, although  by now the visual culture it represents feels dated. I am not talking about the clip from old Yiddish movies, such as The Jazz Singer. 

However the clips for included beautiful Yiddish songs, all of which I utterly enjoyed,  looked like excerpts from movies from the 1980’s. I thought I was familiar with the genre hence I was surprised that didn’t recognize any of the movies I thought the segments were taken from. So I checked very carefully the credits at the end. Turns out these were all arrangements made for this documentary. That explains their coherent look and feel. 

At the core of the identity of Ashkenazim Jews is religion therefore the first half of documentary places heavy emphasis on how religion and music intertwines. Later it expands to secular life as Jews themselves interacted more with their wider environment. Here are my notes of what themes I found most interesting

  • Pain and suffering is the major inspiration for a lot of the songs
  • The Talmud states that Torah needs to be read with cantillation and the Mishnah with chanting. This is the origin of Ashkenaz music.
  • Life happened and revolved around and in the synagogue hence sacred music is at its center.
  • A lot of the songs reflected resignation to and acceptance of one’s destiny.
  • One’s difficult life is sweetened by music and wry humor.
  • Once pray for rain even when it is raining, because the focus is on Israel, where it may not.
  • Girls were initiated to the women’s world through songs, which included more secular subjects and love too.
  • Wedding were major events for which klezmerim, klezmer musicians provided entertainment along with others. Later these artists joined together d and provided entertainment on the streets. Yididsh theater grew out of this.
  • Father of Yiddish theater was Abraham Goldfaden, whose major works included Shulamith and Di kishefmakhern (The Witch).
  • Yiddish theater added songs to the pay to soften the plots. These were rather melodramatic as the often persecuted audience needed catharsis and could go home relived 
  • Z’mirot are hymns for the Shabbath, sang at home in the family circle. They transfer Jewish values to youth.
  • The Jazz Singer–the 1927 movie, which was introduced sound to the media– showed a conflict between secular and religious side of Jewish life. That year millions of non-Jewish people listened to Kol Nidre and cried.
  • The Holocaust almost entirely destroyed Yiddish culture, although in recent decades there was some limited revival. 

Now enjoy and the movie:

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