Italian scholar Francesco Spagnolo is keenly aware of the long-standing Jewish presence in Italy.
"Never before the creation of the State of Israel did Jews of so many varied origins live together, and in such a stimulating, if at times threatening, environment as in the land they called in Hebrew 'I-Tal-Yah,'" he says.
"I-Tal-Yah" -- Island of Divine Dew in Hebrew -- means Italy in Italian, a land where Jews have lived for more than 2,000 years and which has seen layer after layer of immigration from all over the Jewish Diaspora.
For centuries, Jews in Italy have maintained specific local identities, which were reflected in a wide variety of distinct customs based on Sephardic, Ashkenazic and ancient Italian Jewish traditions. These included foods, dialects, rituals -- and also the melodies used in the liturgy. Almost every Jewish community had its own melodic tradition.
Spagnolo, who founded and directs the Milan-based Yuval Center for the Study of Jewish Music, has released a CD presenting a sampling of these melodies.
Titled "Italian Jewish Musical Traditions," the CD was released in association with Hebrew University and Rome's Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia.
It is based on recordings made in the 1950s by Italian Jewish ethnomusicologist Leo Levi, the first scholar to devote research to the Italian Jewish oral music tradition. In more than 80 recording sessions, Levi, who died in 1982, collected more than 1,000 prayers, chants and other items from nearly 50 cantors and other sources.
"The recordings constitute testimony -- in most cases, the only account -- to 27 liturgical traditions preserved in the Jewish communities of more than 20 Italian cities," Spagnolo says.
These include such places as Rome, Ferrara, Asti, Venice, Florence, Trieste, Ancona, Moncalvo, Gorizia, Verona, Padua, Casale Monferrato, Turin and Pitigliano. Most of these places have few, if any, Jews today.
"The percentage of melodies that are still in use has definitely decreased since Levi's work," Spagnolo says. "But many of the communities where he recorded were already on the verge of disappearing before World War II. My impression is that these recorded melodies carry us back to a time that could only be preserved in an oral tradition."
The CD follows a liturgical order, beginning with Shabbat and the High Holidays and continuing through the various festivals of the Jewish year. It also includes liturgical songs and chants related to life-cycle events such as marriage and circumcision.
Most of the texts are in Hebrew, except for some Passover and Purim songs in Italian. Most of the melodies are likely to be a revelation for Jews outside Italy.
"It shows an exceptional kind of music," Spagnolo says. "It is both genuinely Jewish" and "genuinely Italian." The melodies are mixed with bel canto and opera, as well as folk and political music.
Spagnolo's interest in Levi's work and Italian Jewish musical traditions has changed his life. He met his wife, the American cantor and Yiddish singer Sharon Bernstein, when he was in Jerusalem, working in the sound archives where copies of Levi's field recordings are kept.
The couple have begun working with American musicians Michael Alpert and Willy Schwarz as an ensemble to perform Italian Jewish music and take it to a wider audience in the United States and elsewhere. They also would like to help American and other cantors incorporate Italian liturgical traditions in their synagogues.
The couple have another connection to Levi. In July, Spagnolo and Bernstein were married at the synagogue in Florence by the city's rabbi, Joseph Levi -- who is Leo Levi's son.
At their request, Rabbi Levi incorporated a number of rarely heard liturgical melodies in the wedding service. "We frankly did not know what a beautiful singing voice he has, and we were both crying to hear such exquisite and authentic renditions of pieces which we had before only accessed on his father's recordings," Bernstein says.
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