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Magnified and Sanctified: the Music of Jewish Prayer

A report on the first ever International Conference on Jewish Liturgical Music in the UK , held at Leeds University (16-19 June 2015)

Malcolm Miller © 2015

 ‘Is there a Crisis in Synagogue Music Today?’ was one of the questions posed during a panel discussion at the first ever academic conference in the UK devoted to synagogue music.

Called Magnified and Sanctified: the Music of Jewish Prayer, it was held over four days at the University of Leeds.

This discussion was just one highpoint of a conference that attracted an international array of leading scholars and musicians from Europe, Australia, South Africa, USA and Israel to share cutting-edge research on all aspects of synagogue music past and present.

The event was presented jointly by the European Cantors Association academic wing and the Department of Music of Leeds University.  

The conference convenor was Geraldine Auerbach MBE for ECA and the conference director was Dr Stephen Muir, Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Leeds.

It was part of a three-year international project ‘Performing the Jewish Archive’, focused, not only on music of the synagogue – but also on music lost during the Holocaust and Jewish migrations, spearheaded by Dr Muir.

Dr Muir’s own recent rediscoveries of synagogue music by Polish and Russian cantors Froim Spektor, David Ajsenstadt and Novakovsky amongst others were performed in a superb choral concert on 17 June by the Clothworkers’ Consort of Leeds with Israeli soprano, now based in Berlin, Mimi Sheffer, alongside Jewish music by Rossi, Kurt Weill and Copland.

Three outstanding key-note presentations by distinguished experts in their field shed new light on core topics. Professor Eliyahu Schleifer (Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem) presented a public lecture demonstrating how synagogue tunes relate to ancient chants in ‘Unearthing Layers of Jewish Liturgical Music’, and a keynote presentation interpreting the mystical meanings of ‘Kabbalat Shabbat’ in a lecture-recital illustrated by Mimi Sheffer who is now based in Berlin.

Professor Rabbi Jeffrey Summit (Tufts University, Boston) shed fresh light on the significance of cantillation in contemporary Jewish communities, and its impact on the shaping of Jewish identity, the topic of his forthcoming book (for Oxford University Press). Professor Mark Kligman (who holds the Micky Katz endowed Chair of Jewish Music at UCLA) offered fascinating insight into the liturgical practices of the Syrian-Jewish Aleppo and Damascus congregations in New York, the topic of an award winning book.

Some forty papers ranged widely across Eastern and Western Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions, Orthodox and Reform practices, and different historical periods. The heady mix included studies of repertoires from SW France, Persian and Moroccan styles, 15th century manuscript cantillation sources, the aesthetics of 19th century Austro-German synagogue reformers Sulzer and Lewandowski, domestic and communal musics in Israel, singing styles of Reform communities and liturgical art musics from Israel and Britain.

Current concerns in research were addressed in another fascinating panel on ‘Jewish Musical Archives: Preserving the Tradition and Ensuring Access for the Future’, in which Dr Gila Flam, Director of the Sound Archives of the Israel National and University Library, and Bret Werb, Music curator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC, participated.

They underlined the valuable role of archives, the benefits and possibilities of digitization, with a plea for increased interaction amongst all archives worldwide. The fruits of research will hopefully soon be published in Musica Judaica, Journal of the American Society for Jewish Music, and the Journal of Synagogue Music and a special book and the subjects will be developed in future conferences in the USA, Europe and Israel.

What they said about it.....

Fantastic (in a word!)
Stimulating, original thinking, high level of scholarship and performance calibre – hugely professional

Marsha Dubrow, rabbi cantor scholar, New Jersey

An extraordinary learning experience and
has opened up several interdisciplinary connections for my work

Ben Spatz, Huddersfield (via USA)

A very good experience, enriching, educating, informative and socially pleasing. I got to meet very interesting people and learned a whole lot about what is going on today in the research of (mainly) Ashkenazi liturgical music. I was pleased to reveal to this community, the archival work and treasures of our Library
Amalia Kedem, National Library of Israel, Jerusalem

Learned a lot about a wonderful array of resources, repertoires and traditions and feel enriched by new connections. The planning and organisation was absolutely terrific. The best of any conference I have been to. Thank You
Yonatan Malin, Colorado

Really excellent experience – full of diverse scholarship. Very well done to all who conceived and organised this conference
Melanie Brown (Dublin)

Wow! Good fellowship, good scholarship, lots to think about
Rachel Adelstein Cambridge (via USA)

Updated 29th August 2015