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New Radio Show in Italy Plays International Jewish Melodies

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Francesco Spagnolo was selecting music for his prime-time program on Radio Popolare, one of Italy’s foremost independent radio stations.

“I want the show this week to be about ghettos,” the bearded 28-year-old said.

He considered the possibilities.

Classical music that was composed in the World War II ghetto of Theresienstadt. Baroque music by the 17th-century Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, who lived and worked in Mantua at a time when Jews there were confined to a ghetto.

A track by the Jewish rappers The Beastie Boys. A song about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by the South African rock group Johnny Clegg and Savuka.

Maybe a piece by the Yiddish bard Mordechai Gebirtig, who was killed by the Nazis in Poland.

Spagnolo’s weekly, hourlong show, “Yuval: Jewish Music and Cultures,” which was launched in March, is the only regular Jewish music program on Italian radio.

Broadcast Sunday evenings on a station that reaches most of northern Italy as well as other parts of the country, the program showcases a wide variety of Jewish music, from classical to klezmer, and includes interviews with Jewish cultural figures and discussions of Jewish traditions.

Jews have lived in Italy for more than 2,000 years, making the community one of the oldest in the Diaspora. Only 30,000 to 35,000 Jews live here today.

Spagnolo sees his radio show as a unique way of teaching about Jews and Judaism to listeners who know little about Jewish traditions.

“The radio show is very important,” Spagnolo said. “You start with the music and then go on to cultural matters dealing with a whole range of issues.”

One week, for example, he played songs about food. These included a Sephardi song whose lyrics described ways to cook eggplant with a variety of exotic spices and a Yiddish song about a monotonous diet of potatoes.

The songs led to a discussion of Jewish dietary laws and culinary traditions, as well as the contrasts between Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions and experiences.

“I think we should add a new mitzvah here in Europe,” he said. “We should tell about ourselves to others so that they know that we don’t have tails, but are a people with our own culture, food, songs.”

Helping the show’s success is a wave of interest in Jewish culture among many Italians.

“Part of it has to do with a general search for identity,” said Marcello Lorrai, the musical director of Radio Popolare, who commissioned Spagnolo to do the radio show.

“People are trying to find their identities, and they see Jews as a model of how you can retain an identity and remain yourself throughout different circumstances.”

The radio program, in fact, is an outgrowth of a new center Spagnolo set up earlier this year devoted to the study of Jewish music in Italy.

Spagnolo hopes Yuval Italia will become an international center for research and information on Jewish music in Italy. He hopes it will help broaden knowledge about Italian Jewish culture and traditions, which remain largely unknown.

“It’s very important to let people know how rich Italian Jewish culture is,” he said.

“Music is a good channel for this,” he said. “I’m trying to create a center that is the main place for Jewish music in Italy.”

Spagnolo, who studied with the Jewish ethnomusicologist Israel Adler, established Yuval in February in the building housing Milan’s main synagogue complex.

The first facility of its kind in Italy, the center operates in collaboration with the Jewish Music Research Center of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which Adler founded and currently directs.

Spagnolo is assembling an archive of Jewish music. He set up a Yuval Web site and has been corresponding with musicians and others interested in Jewish culture around the world.

“We’re already exchanging Internet links with various other sites,” he said. “I’ve had many contributions to my music archive. Groups from all over the world have been sending me their CDs.”

He is also drawing up plans for specific projects.

These include activities aimed specifically at recording and documenting both religious and secular music that is particular to a Jewish community in just one Italian city, or to communities of different origins.

One project, for example, will record Jewish melodies from the Tuscan town of Pitigliano — once an important Jewish center — sung by a 93-year-old man who is one of the few Jews who knows the tunes.

Another venture, to be carried out in cooperation with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, will collect and catalog the extensive field recordings of Italian Jewish music made by Leo Levi in the 1950s and 1960s.

Three main Jewish rites coexist in the country — Ashkenazi, Sephardi and the local Italian rite, whose origins date back 2,000 years. In addition, some individual Italian Jewish communities were influenced centuries ago by Jewish settlers who came from France, and these communities developed their own prayer melodies.

“Italy has been a cultural crossroads,” Spagnolo said. “To this spectrum we must add the influence of the waves of Jewish immigration to Italy in the past 50 years.”

This, he noted, was particularly visible in Milan, where, in a community of about 10,000 Jews, a score of synagogues and prayer rooms serve congregations of Jews from more than two dozen geographic origins, including Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the Balkans, Turkey and Eastern Europe.

“Some people who listen to the radio show just want to hear klezmer music,” he said. “But I won’t do that. I make sure to play the wide variety of Jewish music, to give the full scope.”

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