When it was home to the greatest empire the world had yet known, it was said that all roads led to Rome. To build that empire meant sending the city’s sons across much of the known world, yet at least one group remained there unmoved, despite a history of (not always voluntary) wandering.
As Claudio Procaccia, the head of that community’s historical archive points out in a recent e-mail, “Roman Jews are the only Jews today who have lived in the same place uninterruptedly for over 22 centuries.”
In that hefty span of time, the Jews of Rome have erected a cultural edifice that includes many elements, not the least of them its music, and it is the music that messengers of the community bring to New York in the person of the Choir of the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue of Rome), which will make its U.S. debut Sunday.
Of course, Jewish roads also led to Rome, albeit a long time before the diaspora reached other places like the United States, but with not dissimilar results.
“Jewish professionals started traveling across Italy relatively early, and they would bring their traditions with them and adapt them to the local environment,” says Francesco Spagnuolo, curator of the collections at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, Calif.
Spagnuolo, a distinguished ethnomusicologist who has been responsible for much of the preservation and publication of Italian Jewish music in Milan, at the Ethnomusicology Archives of the National Music Academy in Rome and the National Sound Archives in Jerusalem, explains: “Jews came to the Italian peninsula directly from Palestine, which means that they brought some elements of pre-Babylonian ritual, so this is over two millennia old. Then, a thousand years later, Italy becomes a very important land for immigration throughout the Jewish world. You have Ashkenazi Jews running from the Plague, French Jews who are expelled from France at the end of the 14th century, North African and Middle Eastern Jews who are traders and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, who will be expelled in the late 1400. Plus southern Italy is under Spanish rule, so there is also a movement of Jews northwards.”
The result, he notes, is that Rome became a true melting pot of Jewish traditions, a phenomenon that, ironically, became even more pronounced with the establishment of the Roman ghetto early in the 16th century.
“Rome was a place where Jews arrived from various other parts of Italy,” he continues. “You had a dense population in the confined space of the ghetto. One building hosted five different synagogues — Italian, Sicilian and several Spanish congregations. So you had a Jewish multiculturalism, a community that thought of itself as very ancient. Those would seem to be ideas at odds with one another; antiquity equals authenticity, but here you have several traditions coexisting amicably.”
That seeming contradiction helps define the repertoire that the Choir of Tempio Maggiore will bring to the city. In addition to the variegated Jewish traditions it will offer, the choir will also include Verdi’s Hebrew Chorus from “Nabucco” — based on the story of the Hebrew slave revolt against the Assyrian tyrant-king, Nebuchadnezzar — late 19th-century compositions from the Jewish communities of Florence, Livorno and Rome, and a 1920 version of “Hatikvah” set by Armando Sorani and sung in Italian.
Like their Reform counterparts in 19th-century Germany, the Italian Jewish composers and choral directors were aiming for a sound that would be familiar to their non-Jewish neighbors as well as their congregants. When the walls of the Italian ghettos came down, the Italian Jews, like the emancipated Jews of Germany, had to learn to coexist with their neighbors, and that affected the music.
“The addition of choral music is an attempt to offer a modernized image, to the community itself, but also to the outside world,” Spagnuolo says. “Italy emancipated its Jews in 1848, but the process continued up to the unification of Italy in 1861 and even after that, because the Vatican remains in control of Rome until 1870, and the Jews of Rome remain in the ghetto until then. So you get these very Italian-sounding choral compositions, because what’s really going on is this encounter and clash between synagogue and church, Rome and Jerusalem, so to speak. It may sound to us like the 19th-century opera choral style, but the tensions beneath the surface are extraordinary.”
Of course, it would be pretty difficult to grow up as a music lover in Italy without having the famous operatic tunes and sounds in one’s head.
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“My grandmother’s generation knew the operas by heart and sang along,” Spagnuolo says. “In Italy, opera is both art music and popular music. That world impacted the sound [of the Jewish choirs].”
He recommends that concertgoers listen not just for the music “but for the sound, the sound of the Italian pronunciation of the Hebrew.”
In the aftermath of the Shoah and the founding of the State of Israel, Israeli Hebrew pronunciation became more the norm but, Spagnuolo says, “It still sounds peculiar, like listening to these texts in Italian, like commedia dell’arte. The old traditional Italian pronunciation is unusual, we say ‘Shabad’ for Shabbat. The sound will be compelling in its own way.”
Maestro Claudio Di Segni, the director of the choir, offers a rich metaphor for the experience of hearing his aggregation’s multicultural mix of Jewish and Italian traditions. In an e-mail last week, he wrote, “The act of listening to ancient melodies suggests the image of an old photo which, freed of its patina, enables us to travel elsewhere and into the regions of our past, in this case a past we would like to share with our friends in the ‘New World.’”
The Choir of the Tempio Maggiore of Rome will make its American debut on Sunday, May 22 at 2:30 p.m. at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place). The event is presented by the museum and the Centro Primo Levi for Italian Studies at the Center for Jewish History, as part of the “Divinamente NYC Festival,” sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Culture “to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy and to facilitate understanding among peoples.” For information, call (646) 437-4200 or go to www.mjhnyc.org or www.primolevicenter.org.