The Birth and Demise of Vocal Communities

Ruth HaCohen

Learning to sing in Kibbutz Giv‘at Shmuel, 1945. Gan Shmuel Archive via PikiWiki Israel.
Learning to sing in Kibbutz Giv‘at Shmuel, 1945. Gan Shmuel Archive via PikiWiki Israel.

In the absence of a developed concept of "vocal communities," it is hard to appreciate the formation, sustenance, and decline of real and imaginary Jewish communities in the last two centuries. Assigning such a role to organized sound must lead us into a certain history of perception and reception, performative practices, propagated and less pronounced ideas. Vocal communities, I propose, constitute themselves through a shared sonic phenomenology, embodied in listening, participatory vocalization, or both; the flow of communal emotions, as well as collective beliefs in the power of sound; and a cherished vocal corpus. A globally encompassing configuration, the social, religious, and ideological functions of vocal communities have considerably grown in modern times. This is particularly the case in the Western Jewish modern world. Across the Jewish Diaspora, premodern communities could construe themselves through a variety of means and media—comprising texts, rituals, learning, law, economic and familial relations, customs, and memories. The vocal dimension, however important, was one of several modes whereby a community could cement itself as a social and historical entity. Within the boundaries of the synagogal space, it was the men's undertaking to uphold the sonic realm in a form that wavered between cantorial recitation and heterophonic participation, sometimes perceived by outsiders as noisy and unordered.

This sonic condition has radically altered since the beginning of the nineteenth century within major Jewish centers in Europe and, subsequently, in other continents. With the sociohistorical transition from a Gemeinschaft to a Gesellschaft social structure, often paralleling the shift from community to nation-state, indigenous Jewish communities lost their old moorings, while new ones established themselves in urban centers hitherto inaccessible to Jews. Attaining membership in a community became a matter of choice, one among several affiliations an individual could assume within and without the Jewish world. Communal life was concentrated mostly in the synagogue, whose architectural shape and sonic content underwent far-reaching transformations in an attempt to enhance its dignity and rites. The process of molding a disciplined sonic space-time involved, primarily, the assumption of control over modes of participatory vocal production, whose best model was choral singing, prevalent in the neighboring Lutheran churches.

Luther's ingenious strategy for establishing his Reformed church as a confederation of local congregations entailed, first and foremost, the creation of an embodied theology of unmediated, synchronized, and vernacular communal voices. Hence the communities established were not only "imagined." Through sound, shaped in chorale form, they shared a physiology of breathing, intoning, and listening; they sensed together the ebbs and flows of chorale melodies and the excitation of their amassment. Furthermore, however localized each community became over time, through a shared corpus and related common practices, each member could still feel at home in any of them. Franz Rosenzweig, for whom, allegedly, a single synagogal experience, however traditional, led him to relinquish his Lutheran proclivities while re-adopting the Jewish faith, would still write the following regarding the singing community, on its "eternal way" to redemption:

For it is music which raises that first intimate togetherness that is founded in the mutual space and the mutual hearing of the word to the conscious and active intimate togetherness of all who are assembled. The space first created by architecture is now really filled with the sounds of music. The chorale, filling the space, sung mutually by all in mighty unison, is the real foundation of the church deployment of music. . . . In the chorale, language, which otherwise has to speak its own and particular word from the mouth of each individual, is brought to silence. Not to that silence which simply silently listens to the read out word, but to the silence of his peculiar nature in the unanimity of the choir. (Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. Barbara E. Galli [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005], 383, translation slightly altered.)

The affective unity that such simultaneity confers on the singing community— Rosenzweig further maintains—bestows on the text an existential longevity and a shared validity that words alone apparently lack. While he seemed to have overlooked the harmonizing effect of the chordal setting of the melody, divided among the standard four voices, his basic argument, related to the power of synchronized vocalities, remains intact. Vested in such musical attire, moreover, the various prayers enter the annual cycle of holidays, he further argues, engraving their specific festal flavor on the collective emotional memory. This is especially the case, one may add, when the verbal meaning of the text is no longer accessible to those pronouncing it—a characteristic predicament of many mid-European synagogue-goers at the time. The alternation between the unified singing of the community and the cantorial elaboration of the congregations' emissaries—hazzanim and professional choruses—further deepened the sense of vocal community qua communitas.

Louis Lewandowsky (1821–1894), who divided his musical oeuvres for the synagogue between those intended for the professional chorus (Todah ve-zimrah), and those proposed for the use of the entire congregation (Kol rinnah u-tefillah), would have probably endorsed this appraisal. And so would his followers, up to the present day, spanning between Reformist and ultra-Orthodox Jews— those exposed, early on, to the synagogal treasures he bequeathed. Lewandowsky, however, was not the only one to supply the burgeoning vocal communities, spreading in Europe between London and Odessa, with the "tonal stuff their religious sentiments turned to be made of." Viewed from this perspective, the state-sponsored, coordinated onslaught led by the Nazi authorities on November 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht, was meant indeed to shatter what still remained of that hard-gained emotional solidarity and communal shareability that those vocal communities wrought in the course of a century of highly promising diasporic life.

Such vocal communities were not confined, of course, solely to the synagogue. In Germany, inspired by the various groups associated with the Wandervögel (lit., wandering birds)—the prototype of the youth movement founded at the turn of the twentieth century—for whom shared singing became a central social practice, various Jewish youth organizations similarly shaped their esprit de corps through group singing. This trend became even stronger after the Nazis came to power, boasting new Liederbücher (songbooks) that featured German, Jewish, and Hebrew-Zionist songs, as in the case of the Hawa Naschira (Let us sing) collection, published in 1935 in Leipzig and Hamburg. Though of a clear Zionist orientation, this collection hinges, as well, on the beloved German lore of high and folkish tunes and songs. The typical introduction to this motley musical and lingual compilation, however, stresses that "communally sung song is an expression of shared sentiment," in which "Jewish youth increasingly excels." In the spirit of Jewish philosophers Hermann Cohen and his disciple Rosenzweig, whom they cite, the editors (Joseph Jacobsen and Erwin Jospe, both composers of some of the numbers) wished to deepen the knowledge of the sense of community rooted in "our music," resorting, as well, to Maimonides's authority (who embraced poetry for its intrinsic value rather than for its national religious association) to allow for a "foreign" music. In comparison with the widespread Was die Wandervögel singen of 1900, which could have served as a model for their volume, one may find here a greater variety of styles, but in less sophisticated settings, maybe reflecting the lack of a proper musical training of the purported users of this Liederbuch, partially mimicking the monovocal shironim circulated at the time in the Yishuv. Like the Zionist haluzim (pioneers), even the most radically secularized ones, they, too, found the treasures of Jewish vocal communities beyond the Elbe—the potential of various Hasidic niggunim—of great lebendig (לעבעדיק), and devoted a significant portion of their volume to these tunes, as did the even more renowned Schireh eretz jisrael, edited by Jacob Schönberg (likewise published in Germany in 1935).

It was, indeed, through such Zionist, semireligious handbooks, and the work of shlihim (messengers) from Palestine who taught enthusiastic youngsters shirei 'Erez Yisra'el, that communities of haluzim could crystallize while still in Europe, concomitantly bonding themselves to other such groups in an imagined confraternity. Indeed, one cannot conceive of the social cohesion and passion typical of that stage in the history of the Zionist movement without the adhesive choral power fostered by the ever-growing tonal corpus. All of us who still grew up in Zionist youth movements, before they became so strongly divided by means of an imaginary political green (or rather red!) line, experienced the yet-palpable connectivity formed by such shared vocal lore, beyond the difference between datiyim and hofshiyim, Hashomer Hatzair or Hazofim (scouts). Part of this lore was deeply musical, other parts less so; some were movingly performed, others—in a peculiar "noisy" way. Differences notwithstanding, this shared canon shaped a grand vocal church, or virtual synagogue, of all such local and partisan communities. It also affected the "real" synagogues in Palestine (later Israel), whose Zionist aspect became less and less affected by the nineteenth-century middle-European "bel canto" synagogues. (The corresponding development in the United States was considerably different.)

True, all vocal communities—as in the case of other ritualistic groups—ever risk their precipitation into the abyss of routine and monotony. An informed renewal of repertory, working through the ethos or connotative value of imported or newly composed tunes has recently become a designated goal of newly formed minyanim in Israel and other diasporas. These predominantly egalitarian synagogues tend to adopt "performative" rather than "performance" strategies (or participatory rather than theatrical ones, to follow Michael Steinberg), while caring for the vocal quality of the "singing body"—often carried by female voices. And yet, while such communities benefit from the contribution of first-rate scholars in traditional Jewish Studies, they often miss a deeper understanding of the semiotics, aesthetics, and theology of the sonic realm, pertaining to the synagogue and beyond. It is through the quest for such knowledge that a vocal "togetherness" (à la Rosenzweig) may be creatively renewed, enabling new modes of spirituality and humaneness.