Jewish musical traditions in France

By Hervé Roten

A Jewish story tells that when two Jews speak together, there are at least three different opinions ! In the same way, when we talk of "Jewish musical traditions", it is good to speak of it in the plural form as the multiplicity and variety are the master words of this universe. There exist in the world over a hundred different Jewish musical traditions.

France itself numbers around twenty of these traditions. They can be gathered into three big Jewish families living today on the French soil :
- The Sefardi (expelled from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 and 1497)
- The Ashkenazi (native of Eastern Europe and Alsace - Lorraine)
- The Jews from North Africa (by far the majority). The latter qualify themselves, often wrongly, as Sefardi.

The French community represents about 600 000 people. It is however far from being homogeneous; each of these three groups compound a plethora of sub-groups of different origins, and have each one of them their proper musical tradition.

This patchwork of communities gave birth to a musical practice inside a liturgical or communal context.

Liturgical music represents the majority of Jewish musical performance. The singing, omnipresent in the synagogue or at home, symbolizes the rhythms of the worshipper’s life. A religious Jew goes to the synagogue three times a day, to recite the tunes learned from his fathers according to oral tradition. Jewish holidays brings a musical blossoming more or less marked according to their signification and their importance in the liturgical calendar.

Since the fall of the Temple (70 A.D.), music instruments are in theory forbidden inside the synagogue (except for the Shofar : a ram’s horn in which we blow during the holidays of the new year and Yom Kippur). However since the second half of the 19th century, the Ashkenazi sometimes use the organ to accompany the singing, outside of the periods of prohibition of Shabbat and high holidays.

The actors and keepers of this musical tradition are : the cantor (hazzan), the Rabbi and the worshippers who actively play a part in the services, because the singing often assumes a responsorial role. Among these worshippers, let’s note the importance of the "Ba°ale massore" (literaly : holder of the tradition). That learned man, who knows the tradition by memory, is the guarantor of the correct following of the rites and tunes sung in the synagogue. Let’s notice that these traditions, mainly oral at their origin, go together with a written tradition since the second half of the 19th century, consisting of transcriptions of existing prayers, and new tunes created for various liturgical events of the Jewish year.

Each synagogue has its own musical rite. It depends on the location of the synagogue, the practice of secular traditions and the origins of the majority of the worshippers. Thus in a homogeneous community, formed exclusively by Tunisian Jews, the prayers are sung following the Tunisian rite. In the great synagogue of la Victoire in Paris, the rite is mainly Ashkenazi, but the majority of tunes come from the consistorial period ... therefore quite distant from the Polish or Russian rite for example. Certain communities - particularly in towns where the number of Jews is low - worshippers of varied origin gather, resulting in a mixture of various tunes and traditions (following the impact and the force of the present groups), giving birth to a "mixed" tradition, that will be passed on.

There is - in parallel to this liturgical practice - a communal musical practice. This practice claims the Jewish identity as a foundation of a musical awareness. Thus the music from Eastern Europe (Yiddish, hassidic), oriental and Judeo-Spanish - that were once sang in everyday life - are linked to a diasporic culture who often disappeared and that we are trying to live again. These practices generally take place inside community centers, reception halls, concert halls or even cafe-theaters. The singing is the predominant part but the dance, which perpetuates hassidic or Israeli folklore, has a significant part. To accompany the singers or the dancers, instruments such as the violin, the clarinet, the accordion or the guitar are often used.

Immerising fully into these traditions of yesteryear, the Jew of today becomes a simple participant, an exterior spectator of a culture, a folklore and an imaginary world that he knows only through such performances, and that he nurtures as a full part of his roots and Jewish identity.. Thus the Ashkenazi make live again the chants of Yiddish folklore. The hassidim dance and express their joy with the music of orchestras that recall the ancient Eastern European orchestras (Klezmerim). Likewise, the old romances or Judeo-Spanish lullabies recall, with the guitar, the history of Salomon’s kingdom. However, the different performers of this music are often not specialists in a unique tradition. They don’t hesitate to appropriate and adapt those easily interchangeable repertoires, playing Yiddish songs followed by Judeo-Spanish tunes. This way they pick into a vast musical directory, derived from the tribulations of the Jewish people, to create a kind of legendary folklore.

For several decades, popular Israeli songs and dances (such as the Hora : Eastern European dance) entered into the repertoire of Jewish musical traditions in France. This music, of a popular essence, includes all the participants and are generally performed by youth movements or during big family celebrations such as weddings, bar mitsvahs, or cirumcisions.

This brief panorama puts to light the diversity and vivacity of the Jewish musical traditions in France. Hence, there exist two kinds of musical performance inside the community. The first one is liturgical and expresses the worshipper’s faith to God. The second, communal, tightens the links Jews have with each other by means of a "recomposed" folklore for an occasion, place of encounter of the difference of the other.

These two practices are complementary and couldn’t live one without the other. Like two parts in a couple, they yearn for each other, argue and make up to go forward in the realisation of their profound authenticity.

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