Archives for posts with tag: gender

I always enjoy reading the proposals submitted by the students of Music in Israel for their class projects (papers, presentations and performances, as outlined in the Class Syllabus). Then, I begin thinking, and learning, from them. I divide them into groups, and created graphs to describe their formats and contents.

It should suggest where things are at, now that we have reached the middle of the Semester.

Format-wise, students were somewhat “conservative.” Most students opted for the traditional “paper” (or essay) format. Some went for collaborative class presentations. And a few (but still a considerable number) chose to produce and present a performance to the class.

Music in Israel | Fall 2013 | Student Project Formats

In terms of the topic that students chose to work on, regardless of the format of their projects, I was able to isolate four major groups: ethnographic and ethnomusicological themes, the study of art music, the study of popular music, and the relationship between music and history.

Music in Israel | Fall 2013 | Student Project Topics

Ethnographic projects cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from the emergence of Judeo-Spanish song and Klezmer music between ethnography and commercial revival, to the sacred/secular divide in Israeli (musical) culture, issues of gender, various types of fieldwork (including the “ethnography of the Self”…), the study of traditional musical instruments, of the relationship between music and food, the role of Arabic maqam in Jewish music, music education, music in the Kibbutz, and the role of music in various Jewish “ethnic communities,” from Russia and Romania to Central Asia.

Students working on popular music will be covering a variety of themes, including Jazz, world Jewish and Israeli “pop,” ethnic rock, punk rock, Hip hop, and religious rock, the impact of American music on Israel’s popular music, the work of specific artists or ensembles (including Naomi Shemer, Shlomo Carlebach, and the Idan Reichel Project), and the impact of conflict and the role of the Israeli Defence Forces in shaping popular musical culture.

Art music is well represented as well, with topics ranging from the Israeli piano and vocal repertoires, to the impact of America’s Jewish composers on Israeli music, to the important issue of “style” (Mediterraneims, Orientalism, etc.) in Israel’s musical aesthetics.

The relationship between music and history will be mainly investigated in two directions: the role of film (and especially film music) in narrating history and representing culture, and the musical representations of the Holocaust.

Perhaps we are half way done, but it looks like a busy end of semester is coming up!


This week, we confront the diversity of music in Israel by learning about the traditional song of the women from the Jewish community of Kerala (South India), and how this unique repertoire (sung in Jewish-Malayalam) has been reconstructed in Israel, on the basis of manuscript sources and ethnographic field work.


Our guest lecturer is Barbara C. Johnson, Emerita Professor of Anthropology at Ithaca College. Upon completing her B.A. in history at Oberlin College, Barbara Johnson lived and taught in South India for four years during the 1960s, before beginning academic research on the Kerala Jews leading to her M.A. in religion (Smith College) and anthropology (University of Massachusetts). Since 1972 she has made six trips back to India and twenty to Israel (including two years of residence) for ethnographic fieldwork with their community in both places. Johnson’s publications include Oh Lovely Parrot!: Jewish Women’s Songs from Kerala (Book & CD: Jewish Music Research Center, Jerusalem, 2004); Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers (co-authored with Ruby Daniel: Jewish Publication Society, 1995); and many scholarly articles. She is currently a Visiting Scholar in the South Asia Program at Cornell University. She recently served as visiting scholar, assisting in the preparation of the exhibition, Global India: Kerala, Israel, Berkeley, which I (Francesco Spagnolo) curated, on view at The Magnes, UC Berkeley, in the Fall of 2013.

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Hold on. This is going to be a bit long. But also, hopefully, quite fun, especially at the end. (Just skip there if you wish).

But first, here are some ideas about taking risks:

In this class we have discussed, over and over, about identity and its musical representations in Israel (and in Jewish culture, inasmuch as the two are related). As we have seen, identity is not a one way street, and is instead a process resulting from the dynamic interaction of diverse factors. How this interaction is represented, and performed, is key in our musical discourse.

Our textbook, Popular Music and National Culture in Israel, as we have seen, frames the conversation in terms of (variants of) “Israeliness,” or “the intricate web of contrasting human factors, backgrounds, memories, ideologies, and wills that shaped Israeli society and its modern culture […].”

One major point in this book is that Israeli national identity is not inherent in the specific sonic structures of the music perceived by Israelis as “Israeli” or as connoting “Israeliness.” There is, rather, an accumulated collection of items in diverse musical styles that over time and at specific historical and social junctures of Israeli existence acquired the signification of one or more variants of Israeliness. Our ethnographically oriented work thus tries to offer a pragmatic theory of how music can represent national identity. […]

Initially, in the formative period— the prestate Yishuv period (Yishuv, or settlement, is the term commonly used to denote the autonomous Jewish community in Palestine before 1948)—and the first ten to fifteen years of statehood, until approximately 1960, this logic resulted in the successful invention and public imposition of a dominant cultural package known as “Hebrew culture” (tarbut `ivrit). In subsequent decades, Hebrewism was challenged by emerging variants of Israeliness. Most prominent of these were what we call “globalized Israeliness,” which embodied a mixture of Hebrewism and the effects of the globalization of culture, and the variant known in Israeli public culture as “oriental Israeliness” (Israeliyut mizrachit or mizrachiyut), in which Israelis of oriental origin— that is, originally from Arab and Muslim countries— insisted on the Israeliness of their specific cultural hybrid. Additional variants such as “Religious Israeliness” and one that can awkwardly be termed “Palestinian Israeliness” (or “Israeli Palestinianness”) also emerged as self-proclaimed contenders for the definition of Israeliness. (pages vii, 7, and 16).

According to the authors (Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi), “Israeliness” is thus manifested in several variants, which may not mutually exclusive but that are in opposition with one another (and especially with the first, Hebrewism):

  1. Hebrewism (‘ivriut): traditional Israeliness
  2. Globalized Israeliness
  3. Mizrachiyut (Orientalism): Ethnic Israeliness
  4. Religious Israeliness
  5. Israeli Palestinianness/Palestinian Israeliness

Two additional models emerged in class, and revealed themselves to be particularly useful.

One model was explored thanks to the visit and lecture by Ben Brinner.

Brinner defined Israeli cultural identity for us in class in the context of his investigation of Israeli-Palestinian musical encounters he researched for his book, Playing Across a Divide, as an identiplex comprising the following dimensions:

  • Citizenship (Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian)
  • Country of origin or descent
  • Ethnicity (Arab, Bedouin, Jewish)
  • Socioeconomic status (age, gender, income)
  • Religious affiliation (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druse, other)
  • Education
  • Musical training & experience

Another model, which I presented in class, envisions (musical) representations of identity not as the dynamic combination of exactly identifiable factors, but as the interpolation of dynamically ever-changing factors.

Essentially, the idea is that identity — especially its musical (or other) representations — is always multi-dimensional in each and everyone of its aspects. It does not fit in the paradigm of lists, charts, and variants, and cannot be categorized by fulfilling predetermined criteria (and filling preassigned check-boxes).

We explored this in terms of both Jewish and Israeli identity, each with its own layers of multi-dimensionality, and referred to an inspiring way of defining identity posited in the genderbread person concept map I found here.

The Genderbread Person

This map expresses the various aspects of (gender) identity through sliders rather than via binary or exclusive opposites. It highlights four identifiers relating to gender:

  • Gender identity (sliding from woman to man)
  • Gender expression (sliding from feminine to masculine)
  • Biological sex (sliding from male to female)
  • Sexual orientation (sliding from heterosexual to homosexual)

Make sure not to mis-read what I am suggesting here. I am not saying that gender identity can be used as a paradigm for the performance of Jewish and Israeli identities. Instead, I am pointing at a very interesting, and useful feature, that the concept map of the “genderbread person” (which emerged from a context that discusses gender identity) seems to put at the forefront. What the map does is suggest that identity identifiers are not mutually exclusive, are not “either-or’s,” and that they can vary from case to case.

If we transpose the map to our examination of how cultural identity is expressed/performed through music in Israel, we can soon see that the identifiers at play within this context are exactly the ones the authors quoted above pointed us to: traditional, globalized, ethnic, religious, and Palestinian Israeli identities (Regev and Seroussi), as well as citizenship, country of origin, socioeconomic status and education (Brinner).

These identifiers are never one-dimensional. They each coexist in a myriad of inner variables. And music, at times more than verbal language, can channel many of such variables.

Therefore, if you simply substitute the classifications in the genderbread person diagram with any of the terms identified by the authors mentioned above, positioning each of them on a slider, then.. tah-dah, you may start approximating what identity and its representations look like, feel like, and how they act out in real life.

Or, ditch all of the above and come to class on Tuesday, April 24, and meet our distinguished lecturer/presenter, playwright, comedian, and juggler extraordinaire, Sara Felder.

Sara began performing in 1984 with San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus. She has also toured with Jugglers for Peace in Cuba, the Women’s Circus in Nicaragua, Joel Grey’s Borscht Capades and at Festivals of Jewish/Yiddish Culture in Berlin, London, Amsterdam, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Through juggling, she has been able to find her theatrical voice, create compelling performance, teach alternative populations and pursue social justice.

Sara’s body of work, including radical solo circus theater and witty multi-actor plays, explores political and social frictions: a lone cellist playing defiantly on the war-ravaged streets of Sarajevo; the scientists who – in a gargantuan effort to save the world from Hitler – ended up making the bombs that annihilated the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a gender-bending cross-dressing 19th-century vaudevillian; two urban neighbors who confront racism; victims of radioactive fallout from U.S. nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands; and women named Joan.

A Bay Area resident, Sara Felder juggles her Jewish and gender identities in text and body language. Her play, Out of Sight, a solo comedy, “brings circus tricks, shadow puppets and a Jewish queer sensibility to questions of family loyalty and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Out of Sight explicitly evokes Israeli music through dance, and prominently features horah mamterah (“horah of the sprinkler,” a song about irrigating the Negev Desert; lyrics by the Polish-born Israeli Hebrew poet, Yechiel Mohar, 1921-1969, found here and here). A classic Song of the Land of Israel (SLI) composed by Moshe Wilenksy (b. Warsaw, 1910 — d. Israel, 1997), horah mamterah was famously performed by the Yemenite-Israeli singer, Shoshana Damari (1923-2006).

Sara Feldman will be presenting excerpts of her work in class, and offer us a chance to see and discuss how identity can be performed in its multi-dimensional nuances.

For general reference, here’s a 1965 version of the song, by Itamar Cohen:

And here is a version based on Shoshana Damari’s classic rendition by Israeli drag queen, Galina Port de Bras (if you wish to hear a “clean” version, with Damari’s singing without the cheers of the crowd, click here):

For the sake of history, you may also want to take a look at an archival photograph Moshe Wilensky and Shoshana Damari (a mighty duo of Israeli music), performing for Jewish refugees (read: Holocaust survivors) in Cyprus, waiting to immigrate to Palestine in 1947-1948.

Moshe Wilensky and Shoshana Damari (Cyprus, 1947-1948)

I am sure you can appreciate how far this song (and the associated choreography) have come.

Transgender singer and Eurovision winner, Dana International, is the testimonial of a recent TV ad campaign for the upcoming staging of Bizet’s opera, Carmen, at Masada by the Israeli Opera.

What an amazing example of cultural convergence: “art music,” “popular music,” national cultural institutions, historical (archeological) definers of ethnic identity, broadcasting (and social media) all seem to be aligned here. And what an equally amazing example of how mainstream diversity can be in Israeli musical culture.


More, quite exciting, videos, can be found on the Israeli Opera’s YouTube channel.

As we will learn together later in the semester, Israeli singer Dana International (Sharon Cohen, born Yaron Cohen in 1972), represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest twice (in 1998 and in 2011), winning it in 1998 with the song, Diva:


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