5. A traditional space for singing women: songs of mourning


The "space" of mourning is one in which Sephardi women’s voices were heard (see Alvar; Larrea Palacín; Molho 1950:180-181; Weich-Shahak 1989b:154-157, 1992:57). This is no surprise, for female performers of laments in mournful events is a feature found in most cultures, including the ancient Hebrew culture. The ground-breaking study by Suliteanu (1972) on the Yiddish laments from Rumania is a testimony of this phenomenon among Ashkenazi Jewish women.

Against the condescending view which perceives women as professional lamenters because they cannot control their emotions, Tolbert proposes "that expressing emotions in lament performance is an expression of power" (1990:44). Mourning is one reason why Hasan-Rokem (1995:97) assumes that it is the voice of women the one which is heard in-between the lines of the ancient midrash (exegetical tract) Ekha (Lamentations) rabba.

In a study of Sephardi mourning poetry, Gutwirth (1993) has argued in favor of the "feminine character" of the medieval mourning poetry in Judeo-Spanish on the basis of the analysis of a song of this genre found in a sixteenth-century manuscript from the Cairo Genizah. The song is based on a literary motif stemming from ancient literature, "the child-eating mother" already found in the Bible (2 Kings 6, 25-29, Ezra 5, 10; Lamentations 2, 20), in the midrashic literature (Ekha rabba 1, 15; Yalkut Ekha 1; Pesiqta rabbati 29) are well as in Josephus’ War of the Jews. The poem has survived in the oral tradition of the Jews of Tetuán (Alvar 1969, 161ff; Larrea Palacín 1954, nos. 80 and 172; Díaz-Mas 1982, 186ff.). In the written tradition, the center of the scene is the horror of male actors who found out that the exquisite aroma that has stimulated their appetite is a roasted child. This motive was kept in the paraliturgical male tradition (Najara 1946:474ff.), which "emphasizes the mother’s cruelty rather that the son as the object of her gaze" (Gutwirth 1993:117). In the oral version, still sung in the memorial holiday of the Ninth of Av, the performer is a woman (in the person of the semi-professional women mourners), the traditional circumstances of the performance is female-oriented (funerals of women of exceptional longevity whose sons are alive at the time of the funeral) and the structure of the story (the pleas of the sacrificed son to his silent mother, for example, not to eat his eyes with which he studied the Law) point to a strong feminine-oriented tradition. This feminine character goes back to the version of the song found in the Genizah which is characterized by the exclusion of extraneous male characters.

Indeed a major area of performance by Sephardi women is the singing of laments and dirges, a tradition that goes back to medieval Spain. Incipits of dirges in Spanish, most probably from the women’s repertoire, were located in a fifteen century manuscript of mourning poems in Hebrew (Yahalom). Jewish plañideras, professional female singers of laments, are mentioned in texts from medieval Spain (Angles 1968:52-53). Rabbis defended this custom, despite its clash with the Talmudic approach to the female voice. The responsa no. 158 by Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet (1326-1407) is an example of this defense:

In Zarakasta [probably Zaragoza] the mourners used to go to the synagogue all the seven days of mourning [shiv’a] for morning and evening services, even of the first Saturday and weekdays, and after the prayer when they return to their homes followed by most of the congregation which accompanies them up to the entrance to the courtyard, the woman mourner awakes the entourage and plays the drum in her hand and the [other] women lament and clap their hands, and because they do this in honor of the deceased their custom should not be abolished (Sheshet 1993/I: 167).

The role of Sephardi women as lament singers continued strongly in the oral tradition of the communities in North Morocco (see Alvar; Larrea Palacín Weich-Shahak 1989b; for the singing of mourning women of Jewish ancestry among conversos, see Levine 1991) while it decreased in the Ottoman centers (see however Molko 1950:180-181).

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