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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


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.

As I announced in class last week, the conflict with another event that had been previously scheduled at The Magnes for tomorrow, Tuesday April 17, 2012, is providing us with the welcome opportunity to be the guests of our neighbors across the street, The Marsh Arts Center.

Class will meet there (2120 Allston Way), at the usual time. Please be punctual, so that we can all enjoy some of the student performances planned for this semester:

  • Hannah Glass will present her research on creating a new fusion genre based on the various musical cultures explored in class
  • Steven Yang (violin) and Michelle Lin (cello) will present their work on klezmer genres
  • Ran Zhang will present her work on cross-cultural performance practice, and play two Israeli songs on the gu zheng (the link only works with a UC Berkeley secure connection)

This all looks (and sounds) quite promising, and we are indeed very fortunate to be able to use a fully equipped art performance space this week.

See you tomorrow!

P.S. I will be posting specific listening assignments for this week’s lecture (Thursday) on bspace and the blog as usual. As you recall, there is no longer a need to submit written responses at this point. I graded all assignments last week. Instead, we will be discussing plans for the upcoming Final (refer to the syllabus for the date).

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