The Telephone Game

The Telephone Game

I am in sunny Israel this week. Yesterday Yaala Levi Zimmerman, the daughter of Leo Levi, invited me to her house in Tel Aviv where she and her husband, David, showed me photos, books, lectures, and recordings by her father. The Alan Lomax of Italy, Leo Levi traveled the length and breadth of the country recording the music of Jewish communities. The hundreds of hours of tape that he collected are housed in the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Yaala, rightly so, thought my project was speculative but interesting. Focusing on the music of the Jewish community of Rome, I am exploring the idea that there is some kind of bond between the music sung by Jews in the Second Temple and the music sung today, through an unbroken line of family traditions going back 22 centuries.

Nevertheless, I learned a few days ago from a member of the Roman Jewish community that if I am in search of this kind of “pure” Italian Judaism, untouched by the traditions of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or other influences, Rome ain’t the place for me. Rather, I need a place where the Original Gangsta Jews have been living isolated from the influx of traditions—mainly those who arrived in the late-15th century after being kicked out of Spain and Portugal.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a vacuum where cultures do not evolve, though some say that Yemenite Jews, who have lived in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula since the time of King Solomon (approximately 930 BCE), have experienced such a history. I wonder if there is an American Academy in Yemen.

A Roman friend told me that perhaps Torino may have a more “filtered judaism.” In Leo Levi’s archives, I found three recordings of cantors chanting the beginning portion of Genesis:

  • a Sephardic interpretation from Rome (MP3)
  • a version from Tuscany according to the “Italian” rite (MP3)
  • and a version from Torino (MP3)

They all have commonalities and are all sung practically in the same key, but differences abound—ornamentation, length, accents. For example, the singer from Torino goes down a perfect fourth on the word bereshit (“in the beginning”) while the other two go up. The cantor, we have to assume, didn’t wake up that morning and decide to mess things up a bit and go down instead of up. The way one chants is a reflection of one’s interpretation of the text. What are the implications of such a change? Does our man in Torino know something that the others don’t?

They are all following the ta’amei ha’mikra, the special markings placed above and below biblical texts, codified in the 7th through 10th century. It is meant to delineate syntactical structure and as a memory aid in the oral tradition of cantillation. I love the idea that this tradition dates back to Moses, giving singing lessons on Mt. Sinai, and we’ve been playing the Telephone Game ever since—whispering the music to our neighbor, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not.

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One thought on “The Telephone Game

  1. Dean Rosenthal

    I applaud your research, Yotam. I suggest listening to the very, very beginning of the Nonesuch (perhaps there is no other) recording of “The Cave”.

    There is a significant interest in the tradition you suggest, and to me, there is no doubt that we have all played the game of “telephone” over the centuries. I suggest some languages were lost, other evolved, some stayed the same to a very significant degree.

    There is a nice relationship there in your way of hoping to see the connection. “Jewish Music: Its Historical Development” (by Idelsohn) is an invaluable source (in English).


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