In Memory of Roger Mismuth, A”H, champion of tolerance in Tunisia as a laborer, business leader, the “only Jewish senator” in the Arab world from 2004-2010, and President of the Tunisian Jewish community for decades
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Sephardi Ideas Monthly is a continuing series of essays and interviews from the rich, multi-dimensional world of Sephardi thought that is delivered to your inbox every month. On account of chagim, we are presenting the October issue now and will be presenting November’s SIM later this month.
Last month’s issue of Sephardi Ideas Monthly featured Chris Silver’s brilliant essay on Habiba Messika, “The Life and Death of North Africa’s First Superstar,” the fascinating and singular figure from the world of North African music during the first half of the 20th century. Silver, the Segal Family Assistant Professor in Jewish History and Culture at McGill University, recently presented at, “Uncommon Commonalities: Jews and Muslims of Morocco,” a conference organized by the ASF’s Institute of Jewish Experience & Association Mimouna, and he is currently working on a book on Jews, music, and the Maghreb in the 20th century.
This month, Sephardi Ideas Monthly follows up with an original interview with Silver, who generously shared his time, knowledge, and insights with us. The interview begins with Silver’s 2009 accidental discovery of the Jewish role in 20th-century North African music, and then explores some of the musical styles, historical figures, and aesthetic and socio-historical meanings of the music. Embedded links to wonderful (and rare) musical examples are included. Enjoy!
Jews, Music, & the Magreb: An Interview with Dr. Chris Silver
The Sephardi Report: How did you first discover (or perhaps stumble upon) this hidden treasure of North African music from the first half of the twentieth century? How did you become aware of the role played by Jews in this musical culture?
Chris Silver: In 2009, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon one of the last record stores in Casablanca. It was like entering a time capsule. All of the records and cassettes for sale at Le Comptoir Marocain de Distribution de Disques, for example, were what collectors call “dead stock,” meaning merchandise that had never been sold and was still in new condition. I knew little of North African music at the time so I asked the salesperson to spin a few of those old-new records for me on the store’s aging turntables. He obliged. Intriguingly, before every drop of the needle, my in-house DJ would not only tell me the name of the artist in question but often, whether or not the artist in question was Jewish. Those asides sent me down a historical rabbit-hole. From there I began collecting: first Moroccan vinyl, then Algerian and Tunisian as well, and eventually the earliest recordings from the beginning of the twentieth century, which were pressed on another material known as shellac. Until I embarked upon my PhD and began working with more traditional archives, records served as my go-to primary sources for reconstructing a history that had first been whispered to me between songs in the Moroccan cultural capital. As my collection grew and as I connected the dots between the names of artists, composers, and songs, the truly staggering role played by Jewish musicians in forging the sound of twentieth century North Africa came into sharp focus.
TSR: What are some of the distinctive aesthetic characteristics of this music?
CS: There are, of course, multiple musics in North Africa. And Jews were active participants in many of those musical forms, sometimes earning the honorific of shaykh or shaykha (meaning, “master”) in the process. While the focus of state-sponsored initiatives in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and much scholarship has understandably been on the various and overlapping Andalusian traditions –– also known as the nuba, the multi-modal suite music born of medieval al-Andalus –– it should be noted that the soundscape in the Maghrib (the region stretching from Morocco east to Libya and south to Mauritania) was always that much more diverse. For instance, the colloquial-cum-classical sung poetry of the malhun and hawzi come to mind. But so too does stambeli, a Tunisian trance music connected to sub-Saharan trade and of which, unlike gnawa in Morocco, there were notable Jewish practitioners until at least the 1950s. When accounting for Hebrew piyyut or Berber ahwash, the sonic (and multilingual) diversity of North Africa becomes all but impossible to ignore.
Incredibly, many of those sounds were already captured on cylinder and flat disc (the phonograph record as we know it) beginning some one hundred and twenty years ago. It was at that early moment when Jewish impresarios like Edmond Nathan Yafil led the effort to record the Maghrib. Not only did such recording pioneers capture the above, but so too the various types of popular music that emerged during the colonial period and upon which Jews left an indelible mark, from the Franco-Arab song to the popular shaʻbi style.
Samy ElMaghribi performing one of his famous songs, Ala Whida (“Instead of her”)
(Image Courtesy of Youtube)
The Safi, Morocco born Solomon Amzallag (better know as Samy Elmaghribi) “was among the most in-demand artists of mid-century on account of his warm voice, his pioneering popular music, and his dexterous oud-playing.”
The sage for the month of October, 2019, is Hakham Abraham Hakham
Born in Sanandaj, Kurdistan, young Abraham Hakham began his Torah studies with his father, Hakham Azaria, a local sage and judge. Abraham's brother was appointed the city's rabbi upon his father’s passing, and then, when his brother died, Abraham—now Hakham Abraham—adopted his nephews and assumed the position of rabbi.
In 1912, Hakham Abraham was appointed the rabbi of Kermanshah, a city of 6,000 Jews. He simultaneously headed the Kol Israel Haverim – Alliance Israelite Universelle school, attended by many of the local Jewish children.
But even as he strengthened Jewish life in Kurdistan, Hakham Abraham was a lover of Zion, and on of Passover Eve of 1936, he made Aliyah to the Land of Israel. After the re-founding of the State in 1948, Hakham Abraham established two Jerusalem institutions: the Tipheret Jerusalem Synagogue and the Magen Abraham Yeshiva. He served as the rabbi, preacher, and spiritual leader of both.
There is a remarkable story connected to Hakham Abraham’s passing in 1964:
A few days before his demise, on a Sabbath Eve, [Hakham Abraham] told his wife that he could not see his reflection in the Kiddush cup and that he sensed his end approaching. At midnight of the 4th of Elul, 5724 (1964), he rose from his bed, washed his hands and kneeled at the entrance of his room beneath the mezuzah. When his wife approached, he requested a towel. After drying his hands, he recited the appropriate blessing and, as he leaned his head on his wife's shoulder, his soul left his body in sanctity and purity.
Hakham Abraham spent most of his life working on a single work, Sepher Izraeli, a collection of sermons and commentary on all of the Torah Readings. He only submitted the manuscript for publication two months before his death.
Below is a passage from Sepher Izraeli in which Hakham Abraham analyzes Cain’s sin and teaches why it is so important to give charity generously:
“Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil.” Our Sages, of blessed memory, explained that Cain brought withered fruit, for he brought his offering offhandedly rather than out of desire and willingness. He therefore brought withered fruit that falls on its own from trees after having eaten the ripe and excellent ones himself. The Torah says, “(Bring) an offering of choice products”…and King Solomon, may he rest in peace, said “He who is generous to the poor makes a loan to the LORD,” not like some people, who when giving charity to the poor give crumbs or leftovers from cooked food left on a plate that should be thrown away, something unsavory that an impoverished person might eat or discard. Or those who, when giving money, look for the smallest coin to put in the charity box, or to give to those of modest means, Torah scholars or orphaned children and the like… Jews giving charity should all give generously, therefore, and give things of choice and exceptional worth.
Center for Jewish History
15 W 16th Street
New York City
For thousands of years Jews have lived across North Africa and the Middle East. Despite the long history, 1948-1967 marked the effectual end of many of these Jewish communities. The Dahan Center, together with the American Sephardi Federation and Yeshiva University, seeks to explore this history through research and personal anecdotes.
Join us as we host international scholars, as well as local students, to share stories of the rich life that once was and the events across the region that caused the majority of Jews to leave.
Among our distinguished speakers will be Hakham Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, Dr. Sasha Goldstein-Sabbah (Leiden University), Dr. Samuel Torjman Thomas, and multidisciplinary artist Ms. Dana Avrish!
The conference is organized in collaboration with Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry for Social Equality.
The American Sephardi Federation with the Jewish Community of Urmia, Iran and participants from Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey present:
Center for Jewish History
15 W 16th Street
New York City
The first of its kind to take place outside of Israel, an evening featuring an international team of scholars exploring the history, culture, language, and traditions of the Nash Didan, the Aramaic speaking Jewish communities of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.
Centro Primo Levi and the Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation in partnership with Kehila Kedosha Janina and the American Sephardi Federation present:
Conversations on Jewish Life on the Island of Rhodes
A multimedia pop-up installation
On view 29 October through 24 November, 2019
Sunday through Thursday: 1:00PM to 9:00PM
Friday: 1:00PM to 4:00PM
Saturday: 5:00PM to 10:30PM Bourekas, sweets, coffee and tea will be served during opening hours
148 West 4th Street
New York City
Los Corassones Avlan is dedicated to centuries of Jewish life in Rhodes. It expands the ideas of the Rome Lab, a 2017 installation created by Centro Primo Levi and the Jewish Museum of Rome, which challenged traditional museum narratives by playing on the tension between personal memory, official history and ongoing research debates.
Conceived as an old funhouse, made up of objects, projection and rotating soundscapes, the new installation will juxtapose ambiguities, uncertainties and discontinuities onto linear representations of the past. It will invite the public to imagine a world that was profoundly different from ours and to question stereotypes and prepackaged depictions of other cultures that increasingly restrict the way in which we experience the present.
The project will be installed in a 19th century carriage house on West 4th street that shares the courtyard with the historic night bar named after Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s novel Vol de Nuit. The bar was once a popular eatery and cabaret called The Samovar, which the photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals seized in one of her legendary images of lower Manhattan and where Al Jolson is believed to have performed in his early career.
During the month of November, the carriage house, which is usually closed, will become home to the exhibition and to roundtables, readings, talks, film and music presentations, where the public will experience the little-known story and traditions of the “Rodeslis,” the Jewish community living on the island of Rhodes for an unknown number of centuries until its destruction in 1944.
*Centro Primo Levi’s public program is made possible in part through the generous support of the Viterbi family. The Rhodes installation was made possible through the generous support of Peter and Mary Kalikow and Bruce Slovin.
Total cost: $900
(includes airfare, hotels, sightseeing, and meals)
• Berlin, Hamburg, and United Germany!
• The Holocaust and the Nazi Era (including a visit to a former Concentration Camp)
• Germany's current politics and its relationship with the US and Israel - including a meeting with German Federal Officials!
• Jewish Life in Berlin, past and present, and Sephardi communities in Germany
Please click here to apply
Applications Close on 25 November!
~If you have any questions about the application or trip,
please contact ASF Young Leaders~
Travel to Germany with the American Sephardi Federation - ASF Young Leaders and Germany Close Up this spring! This will be Germany Close Up’s first-ever partnership with a Sephardic group – join us and make history! This trip has been tailor-made just for us to connect with our past. We’ll interface with what remains of the Portuguese Jewish community in Hamburg, dive into artifacts of the Turkish Jewish community in Berlin, and explore other Sephardic histories on our journey. We will find out how Germany is relevant to a more diverse Jewish story – including Sephardic Jews!
About Germany Close Up:
Founded in 2007, Germany Close Up introduces young Jewish professionals to modern Germany. The Germany Close Up experience is administered by the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, the New Synagogue Berlin Centrum Judaicum Foundation, and the German government’s Transatlantic Plan.
Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise, just 75 years after the Holocaust. This irrational hatred of Jews and the world’s only Jewish State harms both innocent victims and perpetrators infected by bigotry. The resurgence of anti-Semitism poses a challenge to all people of conscience: How can we work together to stop anti-Semitism?
This contest is crowd-sourcing new solutions to help end “the world’s oldest hatred.” The contest is sponsored by the CombatAntiSemitism.org Coalition.
People of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities are encouraged to participate by creatively addressing one of the categories.
Round 1 Deadline: 1 December 2019 Future Rounds Coming Soon
This years exhibit explores the Judtice of Zionism through the lens of Jewish and Latino national liberation struggles for independence from European colonialism. A new collection of art pieces will be revealed, including pieces from master artists Norma Lithgow and Deyvi Pérez. It will be a night of celebration of the shared history and culture of the Jewish and Latin communities.
Donate now and your tax-deductible contribution will help ASF preserve and promote Greater Sephardi history, traditions, and culture as an integral part of the Jewish experience!
Contact us by email to learn about giving opportunities in honor or memory of loved ones.