Cantor Sharon Bernstein together with her husband, professor and curator Francesco Spagnolo, pose for a photo in Beth El Congregation. They were both presenters at ASU Jewish Studies’ conference, “‘Let the Lord Inspire a Concert’: Jews in Italian Musical Life, 1450 to the present.”

Assaf Shelleg of Hebrew University 

Cantor Sharon Bernstein together with her husband, professor and curator Francesco Spagnolo, pose for a photo in Beth El Congregation. They were both presenters at ASU Jewish Studies’ conference, “‘Let the Lord Inspire a Concert’: Jews in Italian Musical Life, 1450 to the present.”

Salamone Rossi composed modern dances, sonatas and Italian love songs for the entertainment of Francesco IV Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, Italy, in the early 17th century. Rossi’s music was well-known and well-loved. Several of his 313 compositions were so popular they had to be reprinted.
The Jewish composer spent his days working in opulence, immersed in the dominant Italian Catholic culture, but at night he went home to Mantua’s Jewish ghetto, where every Jew, no matter how admired for their craft, was forced to live behind gates that closed shut after dark. Rossi was one of 2,325 Jews living in Mantua in 1612, representing approximately 4% of the city’s total population — roughly the same percentage of Jews who live in Greater Phoenix.
Joshua R. Jacobson, Northeastern University professor of music and director of choral activities, painted the picture of Rossi’s world. He called him a “bi-cultural Jew,” a participant in Catholic culture who was able to maintain his Jewish identity and literacy, during a talk at Arizona State University Jewish Studies’ international conference on Sunday, Nov. 6.
“‘Let the Lord Inspire a Concert’: Jews in Italian Musical Life, 1450 to the present,” brought “top-notch scholars who specialize in Italian-Jewish music, introduced the audience (in person and online) to the rich musical traditions of Italian Jewry and invited all of us to learn more about Italian-Jewish music and to ponder how Jewish culture has evolved over time through interaction with surrounding cultures and how music has functioned in Jewish life,” said Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of ASU Jewish Studies.
Conference participants also “engaged complex existential questions related to Jewish identity, cultural inclusion/exclusion, adaptation and interpretation,” she told Jewish News, via email.
Jacobson explored some of Rossi’s more innovative compositions by delving into the issues of identity and adaptation. The composer only publicly performed for the Catholic world but he wrote for a Jewish audience, too. Rossi was the first to bring Catholic sacred music into the ghetto by writing Jewish liturgical music with Hebrew words composed in the musical style of the Catholic church. It’s something that wasn’t repeated for more than 200 years, Jacobson said.
Rossi was aided in his efforts by other bi-cultural Jews, who were both capable of singing Italian music and reading Hebrew, Jacobson said. They had to read musical notes that went from left to right and lyrics that went right to left. They had to be familiar with Hebrew liturgy to read words written without vowels and in reverse order. They, too, were adapting to dual identities.
But Jacobson argued that Rossi went further still. Rossi’s friend and promoter, Rabbi Leon Modena, a teacher, cantor, conductor, proofreader, professional poet and alchemist, claimed credit for persuading Rossi to compose and publish his synagogue music and ardently defended the controversial practice, saying that Rossi was borrowing from the secular Italian music to create Jewish sacred music. He also stressed there was a solid Jewish basis for Rossi’s music because it was essentially a reclamation of a Jewish practice that had existed many years ago in ancient Israel.
“Offering his powers to his God, he took from the secular that he might add to the holy, honoring his divine benefactor with the talent that God had bestowed on him,” Modena wrote.
Thus, Rossi didn’t merely navigate two cultures; he fused them together.
Jacobson wasn’t alone in highlighting the importance of identity in understanding Italian Jewish musical figures, but not everyone agreed that it should be singled out as a factor.
Assaf Shelleg, senior lecturer of musicology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Jewish News that celebrating identity risks “ghettoizing Jewish composers again” and creates a sense of homogeneity that doesn’t reflect reality.
“We should understand that what defines Judaism throughout 18 centuries of life as a minority among non-Jewish majorities is this very symbiosis that prevents us from isolating or ghettoizing them. That’s the tragedy of all the good intentions that try to define Jewishness,” Shelleg said.
Assaf Shelleg of Hebrew University 
His opinion on this issue was in the minority, which he accepts.
“That’s why we have conferences — to talk about these issues,” he said.
The conference’s afternoon panel jumped from the Italian Renaissance to Italian fascism and how Italian Jews fared under Benito Mussolini and his government’s anti-Jewish racial laws.
Annalisa Capristo, a historian from Rome’s Centro Studi Americani, discussed in detail the case of Erich Kleiber, his withdrawal from La Scala and the international fallout from his decision.
While the majority of Italy’s musical world witnessed the persecution of its Jewish colleagues and audiences without raising an objection, Kleiber, a German, refused to honor his contract to conduct the orchestra of La Scala, Milan’s prestigious opera house in 1939.
His position resonated with the international press and the Vatican in such a way that the value of his protest was clear. News of his refusal spread quickly, reaching the most important foreign newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, which forced La Scala to issue a press release. Even the Vatican condemned the opera house’s conduct.
Kleiber cited Italy’s anti-Jewish laws as his motive for withdrawing, saying he couldn’t cooperate with such injustice “as a Christian and as an artist,” La Scala reduced it to a contract issue. The opera house defended itself by saying that Jews could still attend the opera; they simply couldn’t purchase season tickets anymore.
Capristo shared the all-too-rare case study as an example of one artist using his fame to bring attention to anti-Jewish persecution. She said that while Kleiber lost many contracts after his protest, his gesture was profound and all the more distinct because he was not a Jew but a practicing Catholic.
By late afternoon, Andrew Barrett of Northwestern University brought the conference into the 21st century by discussing Francesco Lotoro’s opera “Misha e i lupi,” adapted from Misha Defonseca’s fraudulent 1997 Holocaust memoir.
Defonseca invented a history for herself that included surviving the Holocaust as a little girl by being adopted into a family of wolves. In 2008, it came to light that she was not Jewish and had never left her home in Belgium during the Second World War.
Lotoro, whose opera was inspired by the memoir, was aggrieved by the discovery of fraud but felt that Defonseca’s lies should not taint his work because he had written it as a mitzvah to honor the victims of the Holocaust.
Barrett described the incongruities between the literary and musical texts, the presentation of the material and the actions of the two creators as “a quagmire with no easy answers.” His talk explored the role of veracity generally in opera versus the nature of musical memorialization.
Ultimately, he contended that the process of musical adaptation disconnects Lotoro’s opera from the expectation of truth that shaped Deconsaco’s text and concluded that Lotoro’s memorialization of the Holocaust counteracts her hoax.
Tirosh-Samuelson said the conference was “uniquely interdisciplinary, integrating history, musicology, ethnomusicology, cultural studies and Jewish studies,” which meant there was something for everyone. While some presenters went deep into the weeds describing the distinct sounds of Italian Jewish music, others focused more on painting a picture of the historical context of certain Jewish musicians.
Enrico Fink of the Centro Internazionale Leo Levi in Florence, Italy, brought the final panel to a close by presenting his years-long work to create a database for Italian Jewish music to ensure melodies and songs are collected in one place and are not lost to the ages.
Beth El Congregation, one of the conference’s sponsors, hosted Cantor Sharon Bernstein Friday, Nov. 4, for a special Kabbalat Shabbat all’Italiana. Daniel Stein Kokin, an ASU visiting scholar who assisted in putting the conference together, told Jewish News that Bernstein “did a wonderful job of not only exposing the congregation to Italian-Jewish melodies but also teaching us some of them!”
Stein Kokin is married to Beth El’s Rabbi Nitzan Stein Kokin and serves as “a middle man,” connecting Beth El to what’s going on academically. He said that the special Kabbalat Shabbat service drew far more attendees than an ordinary Kabbalat Shabbat. The conference was another highlight, drawing 200 online and in-person participants.
“We created a wonderful opportunity for people in the Valley to encounter personally, academically and artistically the rich and often poorly understood culture of the Jews of Italy,” he said. JN
The weekend was capped off by the “Illumination: Italian-Jewish Music Rediscovered” concert that followed Sunday’s conference. To watch the concert on YouTube, visit youtube.com/watch?v=vwSSJ8-uSz4.
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