The Performance of Sacred Text and the Construction of Religious Experience
At a time in America when worshippers, across religious traditions, are seeking more intimate and personal experiences with their faith traditions, lay congregants are employing many strategies to assert control over religious life. For many contemporary American Jews, across denominational lines, this search for deeper spiritual expression has led to a reconceptualization of the meaning and experience of chanting Torah. In this talk, I examine this approach to religious experience in contemporary Jewish life where God's presence becomes real at the intersection of chant, the individual, community, and sacred text.
The Meaning of our Melodies
Jews have very strong feelings about music in prayer. The “right” music can make services feel deep and accessible. The “wrong” music can make you feel alienated or bored. In my research, I’ve found that when I spoke with men and women about music in Jewish worship, within minutes they were talking about the deepest spiritual questions in their lives. What tunes and chant represented the essence of who they were and what they believed as Jews? What music constituted authentic practice? What was their relationship to their ethnic and religious history? Where, and when, did they feel truly comfortable and fully at home? With engaging stories and many musical examples I examine the question: “Why do we feel so strongly about the music in our Jewish lives?”
Searching for a Metaphor: What is the Role of the Shaliach Tzibur (leader in prayer)?
When Jews pray, no one stands between us and God. Jews from Abraham to Tevya have a history of talking quite comfortably, one on one, with The Holy One. So--If we don't need anyone to talk to God on our behalf, then what is the leader, the cantor, the reader, doing up there? Just what is the role and purpose of the shaliah tsibur? In this talk, I suggest and explore a range of metaphors—from High Priest to song leader, from tour guide to train conductor—that can be used to describe the function of the prayer leader. Through these metaphors, we will consider what is happening when we lead, and are led by others, in prayer.
Abayudaya: The Music and Culture of the Jews of Uganda
The Abayudaya, a community of approximately 1000 people living in villages surrounding Mbale in Eastern Uganda, are practicing Jews. Many members scrupulously follow Jewish ritual, observe the laws of the Sabbath, celebrate Jewish holidays, keep kosher and pray in Hebrew. This community self-converted to Judaism in 1919 and over the past eighty years has moved increasingly mainstream in their Jewish practice.
The story of the Abayudaya challenges stereotypes of race, religion and culture. The Abayudaya have endured adversity in the practice of their Judaism, surviving the persecutions of Idi Amin. They have warm, productive relationships with their Christian and Moslem neighbors. At a time when little positive news comes out of Africa, this is a story of hope and faith.
For the past twelve years, ethnomusicologist Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit has been working with the Abayudaya. Together with photojournalist Richard Sobol, he is the author of Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda. Rabbi Summit has also recorded, compiled and annotated a CD for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings entitled Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda. This CD was nominated for a GRAMMY Award for best album in the category of Traditional World Music. This compelling music blends the rhythms and harmonies of Africa with traditional Jewish prayer. In this lecture, he focuses on the Abayudaya’s musical traditions to examine the culture, history and the current situation of this extraordinary Jewish community.
Coffee, Music and Inter-religious Harmony in Eastern Uganda
Uganda has a history of ethnic and religious divisions that intensified during the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin in the 1970s. Yet in the 1990s, the Abayudaya (Jewish people) of Uganda set out to build productive, respectful relationships with their Muslim and Christian neighbors. In Namonyoni sub-county, outside of the town of Mbale, 586 Muslim, Jewish and Christian farmers have recently joined together to form the Peace Kawomera (Delicious Peace) Fair Trade Coffee Cooperative in partnership with the Thanksgiving Coffee Company in California. Coffee farmers are composing music in a variety of local styles to educate farmers to the benefits of Fair Trade, to encourage farmers to join the cooperative and cooperate across religious boundaries. In these songs, they also teach the most effective methods to cultivate coffee and stress the importance of Fair Trade profits to educate their children. Jeffrey A. Summit returned to Uganda for the coffee harvest to record this music and examine the impact of their efforts on behalf of economic justice and inter-religious cooperation.
Cabaret at the Edge of the World: Performing in the Shadow of the Holocaust