Archives for posts with tag: identity


A workshop on juggling identities, included in the #unfinal exam for the course “Music in Israel” taught by Francesco Spagnolo (UC Berkeley Fall 2014).

The metaphor of “juggling multiple cultural identities” used in class resonated so much with everyone that I felt I should include this workshop as part of the final exam. The idea is to learn to take metaphors very, very seriously.

More on the course at

More on Sara Felder at


The influence of Music on a developing Jewish identity
Max Kazer


  1. Juggling
  2. My background
  3. Big question: What are the types of themes that emerge in Israeli music that help to forge a unique Jewish identity?



  1. Oral tradition
  2. Liturgical music
  3. Hine Ma Tov


  1. Diversity of Jewish rituals
  2. Connection with religious text
  3. Memoirs of Glikl Hameln

Jewish Camp


  1. Zionism & Aliyah
  2. Kibbutz-style communal singing
  3. Splendor Bridge


  1. Connection with Israel
  2. Sense of belonging in a collective

Summer in Israel


  1. Unity within diversity
  2. Hatikvah


  1. Diasporic origins of Jewish people
  2. Endurance & Optimism
  3. Ruth Behar, An Island Called Home

Yasmin Levy and the Politics of Performing Sephardic Identity

Christina Azahar

Inventing Sephardic Traditions from 1492 to the Early Twentieth Century

  • Expulsion of Jews from Spain during the Inquisition leads to formation of Sephardic cultural identity through experiences of transnationalism and diaspora
  • Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) popular songs surrounded by myth and often falsely thought to have origins in Medieval Spain
  • Scholars begin to collect oral musical traditions at the beginning of the twentieth century, categorizing them into romances, life cycle songs, and calendar cycle songs – often adding changes when transcribed

Isaac Levy and the Sephardic Song Revival

  • Collects Sephardic popular songs from 1950s and 1970s and publishes several collections of transcriptions and recordings that become the basis for late productions of Sephardic popular music
  • Work at Jewish national radio influences orientalist tendency to want to Mediterraneanize Israeli national culture

Yasmin Levy: Performing Sephardic Traditions for the World

  • Grew up in Jerusalem and was exposed to a wide variety of cultures and musical practices which she incorporates into her interpretations of her father’s repertoire as well as her original compositions
  • Eclectic performance style makes her music easily communicable across cultures and languages, but her blurring of cultural and linguistic distinction removes her output from the nationalist project of her father’s work by framing Sephardic popular music as a tradition intended for all people


Una pastora – Combined Recording of Isaac and Yasmin Levy


We recently reviewed Regev and Seroussi’s Short introduction to Israeli popular culture, which describes different modalities of “Israeliness,” or Israeli cultural identity.

To summarize:
1. Hebrewism
The work of early Israeli writers (in Hebrew) was a “realism without vernacular” (Robert Alter, UC Berkeley), leading to the creation of a “tradition of the new” that is musically expressed in the shire eretz yisrael, or Songs of the Land of Israel (SLI).
2. Globalized Israeliness
A paradox of Israeli culture: in creating a “Jewish state,” Zionism has had to reject Diaspora Jewish culture, and to normalize Jewish life by adopting global cultural traits. Musical expressions: rock and world pop.
3. Mizrachiyut
Or: location, location, location! A reaction to the “orientalization” of non-European Jewish culture that highlights Israeli culture on the basis of its geographic origins (the Middle East and the Lands of Islam). Primary musical expression: musiqah mizrachit.
4. Religious Israeliness
A wide cultural network that encompasses all Israelis who primarily identify themselves, as individuals and groups, through religion and religious practices. A wide variety of ubiquitous musical expressions, ranging from the revival of piyyut (Hebrew liturgical poetry) to rock.
5. Palestinian Israeliness
A hybrid and complex cultural identity fostered by ca. 20% of Israeli citizens seeking representation within the broader Israeli society.

But in class we also had the opportunity to speak directly with dr. Edwin Seroussi, the co-author of our textbook and a Professor of musicology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (The class is not sponsored by Skype, but we do use Skype a lot…).

Seroussi reminded us that the five modalities listed above were intended as a summary, and are neither a complete overview of the Israeli soundscape, nor mutually exclusive.

Eviyatar Banai‘s song is an example of the commutative power of musical cultural identity. We hear (and see) several of the modes listed above. Could you guess which ones? (I counted at least three…).

Dear Class,

As we discussed at the beginning of the Semester (and as indicated in our Class Syllabus), this Fall we are taking advantage of the fact that our class time coincides with a major Jewish Festival, Sukkot (Hebrew for “booths” or “tabernacles”). The festival lasts for seven days, followed, on the eight day, by shemini ‘atzeret (Hebrew for “eighth [day] of closing [assembly]) and simchat torah (Hebrew for “rejoicing of the Torah,” when the yearly cycle of reading the Hebrew Bible in the synagogue begins anew).

The Hebrew calendar is “lunisolar,”that is, based on the lunar cycle, but also integrated with the solar cycle. Therefore, Jewish holidays always fall during the same season each year, but not always on the same date of the Gregorian calendar. This year, the first day of Sukkot falls on Thursday, September 19, and shemini ‘atzeret falls on Thursday, September 26.

This presents us with the chance to make two field trips to local (Berkeley) synagogues on these dates (or on days immediately following them, if that is more convenient). Since at this point of the semester we are learning about the different Jewish musical traditions in the Diaspora, and about how sounds can define the identity of a group, everyone in the class is required to visit two different synagogues, and reflect on the similarities and the differences presented by each one. This will be a unique chance to experience and reflect upon one of the cultures we are studying in class by observing some of its manifestations in situ, and to further our understanding of fieldwork dynamics.

Below I am detailing how the field trips can take place. Please read the whole message, and register for the field trips. If the instructions are not clear, ask questions during lecture time on Tuesday (September 17). If the trips present a challenge of any sort, promptly inform me by email (ASAP).

All the best,

PS: Try clicking on the links above. If you are off Campus and you can read the corresponding entries in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, it means you’ve successfully configured your access to UCB’s electronic resources… Otherwise, read here. (If you are reading this post and do not have UC Berkeley or other academic credentials, the links may not work at all… Sorry about that!).

ASSIGNMENT / FIELD TRIPSVisit two (2) synagogues during the two weeks of the Sukkot Festival

1. Consult the list of Jewish congregations in Berkeley
The list is available online at this link. It includes addresses, contact information, and website links. Note that they are not listed in order of importance (but the first two are very close to Campus), and that not all of them will be holding services during the upcoming holiday.
2. Choose two (2) different synagogues
Individual visits can take place during class time (travel time is included in class time, so your actual visit may and up being as short as 30-45 minutes, depending on which synagogue you plan to visit), but also at the other times indicated in the Field Trip Registration Form (see below, No. 3). In other words, you can choose to conduct your field trips during class time, but also at another time (based on the registration form, see below No. 3), if that is more convenient for you. However, you must visit two (2) different synagogues on two separate field trips.
3. Register for each field trip
a) Add your name (First, Last) to the synagogue and time corresponding to your visit on the Field Trip Registration Form, a shared Google Spreadsheet linked here.
b) No more than twelve students can visit a synagogue at the same time (to limit your impact on the congregations you will be visiting).
c) You must use your login to bDrive to access the registration spreadsheet (more information here).
d) Registration closes at 3PM on Wednesday, September 18. Make sure you name is on the spreadsheet for both field trips by then!
4. Plan your visits (field trips)
a) Read the congregations’ websites (links provided in the list below and online, AND in the shared spreadsheet), and document yourself on the background and history of each of the two congregations you are planning to visit.
b) Plan your trip (all congregations are located within walking distance, and near public transportation), to make sure you maximize the time at your disposal.
c) In general, make sure you have as much information with you BEFORE your trip, so that DURING the trip you can focus on researching your surroundings.
5. During your visits: seven general rules of conduct
Remember that you will be visiting ritual spaces, and that you may not be aware of all the rules of conduct that govern them. Be as respectful as you can of your (unfamiliar?) surroundings.
a) Dress appropriately (use your judgment), and be quiet.
b) Silence your phones.
c) Stand when people stand, sit when they sit.
d) Ask for page in prayer book (don’t be shy about asking for assistance!).
e) Introduce yourself if anyone asks you why you are there. There is a long-standing history of visiting synagogues on the part of “strangers” (Jewish visitors from out of town, Jewish members of other congregations, and non-Jewish visitors), so your presence will not be out of the ordinary. But it will definitely be noticed.
f) Do not take notes, do not take photographs, do not make audio recordings, do not use any electronic devices while you are inside a synagogue
g) Do your best to minimize your luggage (backpacks, etc.), and try to not have any with you if possible (of course, some of you will be going back to class, so you may need your backpack with you).
6. During your visits: observe and listen to your surroundings (field work)
Be as aware of your surroundings as you can. Look for the following:
a) Architectural space: what does it look like, how is space distributed and occupied, etc.
b) Population: number of people attending, age, gender, dress code(s).
c) Use of space gender and age.
d) Languages (of the prayer books, of people conducting the prayers, etc.).
e) Sounds and music: any particular sounds? recognizable melodies? identifiable musical style or styles?
Also, refer to the four parameters listed in the Listening Assignment Sheet for Week 2 (soundscape; performance style, language, and context).
7. After your visits: take notes (field notes)
As soon as you are able to, write down your observations on the points listed above (No. 6), or on additional details and impressions you may have gathered from your visit. Try to be as systematic as you can in collecting your notes, so that you can compare them from one field trip to the next.
8. After your visits: class work
We will be comparing notes and impressions in class (weeks 4 and 5), and you will be asked to incorporate your observations in you weekly responses (note that on week 4 we discuss the many waves of immigration to Palestine in the early 20th century, each of which brought with them different musical traditions).
9. About instructors’ participation
Both Rachel Colwell (graduate student assistant) and Francesco Spagnolo (lecturer) will be also visiting two different synagogues at this time. But we will not register online, and we will only see those of you who are registered for the same field trips on such occasions. We plan to share our observations with the class as well.

When studying the many musical traditions that were brought to Palestine, and then to the State of Israel, by Jewish immigrants, we confronted the challenges presented by the multi-dimensionality of Jewish cultural identity.

Here are my field notes from our conversation, which led us to consider the role of ethnomusicology in Jewish Studies.

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.

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