Music as representation of gender in
Venice 11-13 July 1998
Edwin Seroussi (Bar-Ilan University)
De-gendering Jewish music:
The survival of the Judeo-Spanish folk song revisited
Women were significant movers in Jewish culture in the past but they remained excluded from the "text" of Judaic studies because they did not produce written texts. Today, however, perceptions such as that Jewish women did not pray are being contested, as the female involvement of women in communal prayer, even in the Middle Ages (when the status of women was at its lowest point), is uncovered by new research (see, for example, Hauptman; Taitz; Weissler 1991 and 1995). Moreover, the identity of "Judaism" with the subcluster of behavior called "religion" excluded non-religious areas from studies of Jewish societies in the past (Sacks 1995:4). The examination of gendered behavior as it functions in a total socio-cultural environment, not just in the domain called "religion" (Sacks 1995:5), is therefore a goal towards an anthropological study of Jewish women "as subjects, as actors, not as symbols or objects that are acted upon" (Sered 1995:206).
Musical performance, particularly singing, is a field of action outside the domain of "religion" in which Jewish women acted affirmatively throughout history. In a broader historical and socio-cultural perspective one can retrieve documentation about assertive Jewish women making music. However, written documentation concerning this phenomenon is meager and available data is reduced to the oral traditions which reached our day and were recorded by modern ethnomusicologists.
A fundamental issue in the role of women as music makers in Jewish culture is related to the Talmudic dictum (Berachot 24a): "the woman's voice is indecent" which appears in regard to the prohibition of a male to recite a blessing or any other prayer while hearing a woman singing. Maimonides expanded this prohibition to any circumstance in which a woman sings (Schreiber 1984/5:27). Thus, as a rule, Jewish men are forbidden to expose themselves to a woman singing anywhere, anytime. In modern times the question arose if it is possible for a man to listen to a the voice of a woman singing even on the radio or on a record (Yossef 1954/5, responsum no. 6).
Subordination, and even humiliation, as a fundamental condition of women in traditional, i.e. "orthodox", Jewish societies derives from the androcentric view of Judaism as a text-oriented religion. Despite the Talmudic segregation, Jewish women continued to sing in the framework, and seldom outside, of their communities, developing their own, rich song repertoires in vernacular Jewish languages. Their active voices became, therefore, a latent threat to men in public and intimate spaces. Evidently, the enforcement of a strict sexual segregation in the realm of singing led to the development of physical and temporal spaces where musical performances by women were carried on, away from the eyes (or rather the ears) of men. This segregation remained rather theoretical, as men were constantly "exposed" to transgressions of the Talmudic dictum, even if by accident.
The Judeo-Spanish or Ladino folk song of the Sephardi Jews is one the richest and most vibrant Jewish repertoires which reached the twentieth century in full blossom. This repertoire has its roots in medieval Spain, although it was considerably expanded and transformed in the five hundred years that elapsed since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The repertoire comprises songs from different genres. One of the most venerable among them is the romance, an epic-lyric ballad. The Sephardi romance and songs of other types were transmitted by Sephardi women in Morocco and throughout the Sephardi settlements in the Ottoman Empire. We emphasize here the survival of the romance among Sephardi women, because of the "problematic" subjects it treats in some texts, such as female infidelity, incest and rape.
If Sephardi women were subordinated to men's authority, and if men's authority expressed in religious texts ruled out the listening to their voice of women in general, and to their songs of "obscene" content in particular, then what was the social mechanism that allowed for the continuous practice and the survival of the Sephardi folk song among women? The answer to this question is the subject of the following paragraphs.
Women: the great absent of Jewish music research
The sexual segregation of the women's voice and the inability of their majority to read written texts excluded them from active participation in the institutionalized rituals of Judaism. These rituals constitute the bulk of social contexts where music was performed in a traditional Jewish community.
Musicology perpetuated this segregation by treating separately women and men's repertoires on the basis of a series of dichotomies based on the language of the texts of the songs (Hebrew for men/vernacular Jewish languages for women); contexts of performance (year cycle for men/ life cycle for women) and style (recitative, cantillation, "great" music traditions for men / folk songs, "small" music traditions for women). When the oral component of Jewish music was recognized as a vital source and started to be documented since the late nineteenth century, the carriers of this lore, women, were practically absent from the scholarly discourse.
The most influential text on Jewish music to date (Idelsohn 1929) limits its treatment of women to three [!] sentences: 1) "participation of women in the [Second] Temple choir is nowhere traceable"; 2) "women are excluded from participation in religious music"; 3) "[Eastern European Jewish] women were generally kept at home, excluded from instruction in Hebrew lore. They received their religious and ethical education from their mothers and from books in Yiddish, and awaited the ideal marriage to men well versed in the Torah but utterly unprepared and ignorant of worldly matters. The bride knew that in most cases she would be doomed to help her husband earn a living... All these bitter experiences of life struck the Jewish woman primarily, and found utterance in her song... These songs are in a pathetic style and in a desperate sadness" (Idelsohn 1929: 16, 27 and 394-395 respectively). A Jewish woman in Idelsohn's eyes is a subordinated subject, and her song a passive expression of this subordination. Evidently Idelsohn was projecting in these sentences a perception originating in his own Eastern European society. Moreover, in his brief exposition of Judeo-Spanish songs, Idelsohn (1929:376-8) does not mention that these were actually transmitted by women. Apparently Idelsohn compiled these musical "objects" of the Sephardi tradition from secondary sources and one wonders if he ever interviewed Sephardi women (cf. Katz 1972-5).
Idelsohn's observations quoted above reappear in a recently published introduction to Jewish music (Shiloah 1995:178-180). Shiloah adds to the discussion the notion of "antiquity" of Jewish women's songs due to their "archaic nature", a concept which he borrows from Bela Bartok and Edith Gerson-Kiwi. Furthermore, he presents a list of "traits" characteristic of women's songs in all Jewish societies. For example: women songs are orally transmitted and thus lack the characteristics of written songs "that conform to metrical and aesthetic rules which the men's songs possess" (Shiloah 1995:179). Women's repertoires are, according to this view, more conservative and simpler than those of men.
Such dichotomies on the basis of gender are more a reflection of inherited scholarly traditions, rather than an unbiased observation of the Jewish music traditions. Needless to say, the music of Jewish men's songs are orally transmitted too and some songs of Sephardi women conforms to the metrical schemes and "aesthetic rules" of artistic poetry.
Women are also absent from the literary research of the Sephardi song around the Mediterranean. For example, a recent scholarly edition of Judeo-Spanish oral literature (Dîaz-Mas 1994) discusses this repertoire in all its aspects without mentioning the word "women", even not in the discussion of the context of performance of the songs. One can only argue that a scholarly tradition of deep philological roots which bluntly avoids the "transmitter" in favor of the "transmitted" object is speaking here. As Sacks (1989:99) had already argued, scholars addressed Jewish women's lore and material culture as if these "do not embody expressions of gendered power, but are simply interesting artifacts in their own right".
Only recently was the issue of gender considered in depth in the scholarship of Jewish music. Still, studies of Jewish music and gender focus, as gender studies of other music cultures do, only "on the description of male and female domains, styles, and performance types" (Herndon 1990:26). A more deep analysis, one which considers biology and culture, is still needed.
In relation to Sephardi female singers, we should notice the recent studies by J. Cohen (1995; 1997) on the development of new strategies and contexts for the performance and transmission by women of the traditional song in Ladino in the twentieth century. Cohen, who also treated the role of women as musician in medieval Spain (Cohen 1980), examines the transformation of women's roles by means of a typology which categorizes female singers according to their social position within the contemporary Sephardi community: tradition bearers, inside performers, outside performers. This examination yields new insights on the expanding contexts of performance by Sephardi women in the twentieth century, including field work, live concerts, radio and television broadcasts and commercial recordings. Sephardi female singers also assume new roles as music educators and, sometimes, as counselors to scholars.
Towards a new interpretation of the Judeo-Spanish folk song survival
Cohen's study, however, falls short from treating the question of how and why the Judeo-Spanish or Ladino repertoire transmitted orally by women survived before the twentieth century within a male dominated, patriarchal, religious and text-oriented community in a Muslim context, far away from its Iberian origins. One reason why this question was not addressed directly is that modern ethnography takes for granted the central role of women in the transmission of the Sephardi tradition and excludes ethnohistorical sources. These sources show us there was a relation of: a) confrontation, i.e. rabbinical opposition to women singing in general, and to the singing of Judeo-Spanish traditional songs specifically, and b) resistance, i.e. Sephardi women created their own time and space for the performance of their songs.
Confrontation is rooted in the segregation of the female singing voice, which is wider in scope than other halakhic rules concerning female segregation, such as those related to menstruation. Girls and adult women do not menstruate, but they sing. Sephardi women of all ages engaged in the active, assertive behavior of singing as a form of resistance, not as passive "vessels" of song transmission, as Cohen (1995:182) correctly described it.
Sephardi women often had no particular sense of being limited in their choices by the traditional gendered social system of Judaism, any more than men. Ethnographic evidence attest the independent character of the Sephardi women's musical activities. Ladino folk songs were performed around the Mediterranean within the time and space of women's activities, for audiences of women and children, as a pastime (for example while nursing the mother of a new baby during the days prior to the circumcision) or accompanying chores such as laundry, rocking babies and cooking. Sephardi men could certainly hear their women's songs in rituals related to the life cycle where physical segregation was relaxed: weddings and funerals.
Susana Weich-Shahak (forthcoming), who has carried the most extensive ethnography of the Sephardi folk song in Israel and abroad, reports the existence of societies of female singers, usually called compañas, which meet once a week to sing together, each time at the house of another woman. Members of these associations were sometimes invited to weddings to cheer up the audience. There is probably some relationship between these associations and other, more formal, societies of singers in Sephardi communities in the past, such as the hevrah kadisha ("The company of kaddish [reciters]") which sung in burial processions and weddings. When they sung at weddings in Morocco, these companies included girls too.
Some Sephardi women were renowned as cantaderas, semiprofessional singers who accompanied themselves with tambourines and frame-drums called pandero or panderico in the Eastern Mediterranean or sonaja in North Morocco. In Morocco one also finds the use castañetas by female singers, an obvious import from Spain. Female performers of percussion instruments in the Balkans and Turkey were called tañaderas. It is interesting to note that the female drummer-singer-dancer in Eastern Mediterranean Hebrew culture as "indicative of a much more extensive and important realm of female activity that would otherwise be acknowledged" goes back to Biblical times, as Meyers (1994) has pointed out on the basis of recent archeological findings.
Sephardi female instrumentalists were not restricted to percussion instruments only. The traveler Victor Guerin, for example, witnessed in mid-nineteenth century Rhodes how Sephardi girls and women used to meet regularly at the fountain in the calle ancha ("wide street") and noticed that most of them knew how to play "a guitar that resembled a Spanish mandolin and accompanied singing and dancing at celebrations" (1856, quoted in Angel 1987:100).
Sephardi rabbis on women's songs and singing
Sephardi men, who dominated text writing and transmission in their communities, shaped the image of their singing women as threatening "others" that have to be controlled. The rabbinical literature explicitly treats this subject. A fresh reading of these texts reveals that the singing of folk songs was one of the most powerful means for the expression of female self-identity in traditional Sephardi societies. Rabbinical opinions on the singing of Sephardi romances and canciones by women are a relatively neglected source of study. A few years ago I published texts by Sephardi rabbis from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries that treat this issue (Seroussi 1993). Hereby is the translation of some of these excerpts:
1) Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas, Reshit hokhma (Venice 1579; ed. Y.H. Waldman, Jerusalem 1984, ch. 10, p. 589, no. 35):
Religious songs arose the communion with God, but the songs that women sing, with their frivolous lyrics and dirty language, cause the separation between soul and body and even if [the lyrics] do not use corrupted words, all these are lyrics without substance, and people of low stature are attracted by the lyrics of these cheap songs, and they loose their soul, and about them the prophet said: "Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes" [Amos 5:23].
2) Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shelomo Abraham Hacohen (Izmir), Shevet musar (Constantinople 1712, ch. 124, fol. 76b):
It is forbidden [for] women to rise their children with lascivious songs and lustful lyrics, because these songs profane body and soul. And the mind of the woman becomes light and [she] interprets these lyrics about forbidden loves as if they referred to herself and she imagines that she actually participated in the plot and from this she falls into profane thoughts, as the snake that engenders the flying serpent, the leper of prostitution. And moreover, when the woman gets used to utter these lascivious songs from her mouth, she leans towards empty words and to defiling her mouth. And there are women who talk to their little children blasphemies as if they were playing with them. Damned the name of those [women] who do such a thing, because this shows that they are attracted to the evil of prostitution and they cause a malignous epidemic because when their children grow up, they learn to listen and to say the same dirty utterances and desecrate their mouth without being aware of it. For this [reason] the woman should care for each word she utters so that these will be pious and graceful words, pleasant and exquisite words.
3) Yaacov Huli, Me'am loez (Constantinople 1730, commentary to Genesis 38, fol. 188b):
Whoever rises his hears to listen to innocuous words [devarim betelim] and to songs of women, and even [to songs] of men that are not pizmonim (religious songs), causes damages to himself.
These texts reflect the rabbis' awareness of their women's extensive singing activities and their inability to stop them from doing so. Moreover, in the literature one finds few cases of Sephardi and Oriental Jewish women who not only performed but also created in the field of poetry and song. In Spain and around the Mediterranean, Sephardi women even composed songs in the exclusively masculine field of religious poetry in the medieval period (Haberman 1981). Fleischer (1984) assumes that the wife of Dunash ben Labrat, the poet who is credited with founding the medieval Spanish school of Hebrew poetry in the tenth century, was a poetess. Another striking example are the religious poems (piyyutim) by a Moroccan Jewish poetess from the eighteenth century (Chetrit 1980, 1993).
The existence of assertive Sephardi women performers is exemplified by yet another rabbinical responsum. The text is part of a case included in Moshe yedabber (fol. 57a) by Rabbi Moshe Israel of Rodhes (died 1782) described by Angel (1978:32-33):
While selling their wares in the gentile district outside the city of Rhodes, two Jewish merchants witnessed a group of non-Jewish men and women as they were leaving the scene of a social gathering, playing drums and trumpets. Among the group were two Jewish women, who were singing and rejoicing along with the others. The two merchants reported the incident to the Chief Rabbi who, in turn, summoned the women to a meeting at which he warned them about their inappropriate conduct. The women replied that while they did indeed go to gentiles parties, they did so solely in a professional capacity, not to socialize with the non-Jews, but to sing for pay. Moreover, they assured the rabbi, they were guilty of no wrong-doing, as they did not eat the gentile's food or even drink their water. Despite these assurances, the rabbi told the women that their conduct was improper and that they must discontinue working in such capacity.
This story has a second part in which one of the female singers curses in public one of merchants who accused her in front of the rabbi, the merchant curses her back, and the singer's grandson, "a strong, brutish person", threatens the merchant. From this story we learn that semi-professional Sephardi female singers used to perform for gentiles, even at an advanced age (the singer in our case is a grandmother). Postal cards from Saloniki dating from the early twentieth century portrait some of these Sephardi female ensembles.
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 Palacîn). 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 condescend 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 Geniza. 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 Tetuan (Alvar 1969, 161ff; Larrea Palacín 1954, nos. 80 and 172; Días-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 the reciter is the mother herself (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 silent mother to whom the pleas of the sacrificed son are addressed) point to a strong feminine-oriented tradition. This feminine character goes back to the version of the song found in the Geniza 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 Zarakast [Zarakest, 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 and Larrea Palacín) while it decreased in the Ottoman centers.
Male "appropriation" of Sephardi women's songs
The dramatic changes in the composition, transmission and reception of the Judeo-Spanish song in the twentieth century led to its transformation into a transnational genre of popular music. The traditional song in Ladino became a "commodity". The demand for the traditional song as an object of entertainment, rather than as component of a specific ritual, created a new situation whereas men "appropriated", or more accurately "exploited", women's song for commercial profit. The songs were performed by professional Jewish male singers who appeared in new contexts, particularly the entertainment stage (such as the Turkish gazino).
Since the early twentieth century, the phonographs produced by the European recording companies in the Eastern Mediterranean opened a new market for the song in Ladino. Sephardi male singers, such as Isaac Algazi and Haim Efendi, started to record songs from the women's repertoire, besides liturgical pieces from the masculine sphere.
Men's "appropriation" of women's repertoires is not a new phenomenon among Sephardi Jews. As early as the sixteenth century, collections of Hebrew sacred hymns included quotations of first lines of songs in Judeo-Spanish from the women's repertoire as indications for the use of their melodies as contrafacta in the singing of religious poetry (for approaches to this phenomenon see Cohen 1990; Seroussi and Weich Shahak 1990-1). The extent of the contrafactum phenomenon among Sephardi Jews is a definitive proof that:
1) a vigorous tradition of Spanish folk songs, including old romances, existed among women prior to, and after the expulsion from Spain and remained virtually undocumented (an exception are some Judeo-Spanish love songs found in an eighteenth-century Hebrew manuscript, see Attias 1972), and
2) men had access to, and command of, these repertoires and used them for their own purposes. Even if the Sephardi male poets rationalized this transaction as an allegorical transfer of the profane songs of their women to the realm of the sacred, their activity is yet an example of the ambiguity of gender identity created by the process of appropriation.
Against these "traditional" modes of male appropriation, one finds in the twentieth century the reverse process, i.e. the appropriation of masculine repertoires by female singers. Sephardi women sing today tangos and fox-trots as an integral part of their "traditional" repertoire. These songs permeated into their repertoire with their exposure to the phonograph and the radio in the early twentieth century (Seroussi 1990). The expansion of the women's repertoire by adopting songs from male repertoires probably existed before the eruption of the mass media. However, it was intensified in our century, with the creation of an open musical space of mediated popular music which is shared by members of both sexes.
The Ladino folk song constitutes today a widely disseminated repertoire of "World Music". The process that lead to such a development is complex (Seroussi 1995). However, Sephardi women did not participate in this process. The appropriation of their repertoire by others (Jewish and non-Jewish men and women professional artists around the world) ended therefore centuries of transmission and performance, which were acts of asserting identities and of resistance in the traditional Jewish society.
The existence of a special social space for singing ended with the "liberalization" of Sephardi women in modern states, including Israel. In the orthodox camp, however, this social phenomenon may be still alive. Musical performance may still serve as a space for independent female expression among orthodox Sephardi women. But the vocal performance of the venerable Judeo-Spanish romances and canciones from the Sephardi diaspora, as well as equivalent traditional repertoires in Judeo-Arabic, disappeared. They are substituted today in Israel by less threatening instrumental arrangments of "Hasidic" pop hits played on Yamaha electric organs.
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