Thursday, July 5, 2012

A conference in Jerusalem - L'Italia in Israele - the reaearch of Leo Levi into Italian Jewish musical tradition..and more

L’Italia in Israele (Italy in Israel) – The Contribution of Italian Jews to the Establishment and Development of the State of Israel - was a two-day conference in Jerusalem, June 27th and 28th 2012, at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, an international cultural and conference centre established by the Jerusalem Foundation nestling in the Yemin Moshe quarter. The venue offers spectacular views of the Tower of David, the Jerusalem Old City walls and the Judean Desert. Among the various subjects discussed, the conference placed emphasis on the story of a specific Jewish community from Puglia (also known as Apulia), a mountainous region in the “boot heel” of the peninsula of Italy bordering the Adriatic Sea. During the Fascist era, a group of several dozen Catholic peasants in San Nincandro collectively converted to Judaism and immigrated en masse to the newly created State of Israel.

Instrumental in the conference was Professor Silvia Godelli, regional minister for the Mediterranean, Culture and Tourism in the Puglia region. Ambassador of Italy in Israel – Luigi Mattiolo – was also in attendance. In his notes in the conference brochure, Eliahu C. Benzimra, chairman of the Association of Italian Jews, talks of the local Italian community as being prominent in its unique artistic- and professional contribution to culture, society, science, technology and agriculture, despite the modesty of its numbers. He adds that, through preservation of the tradition of worship at the Conegliano Veneto Synagogue in Jerusalem, members of the Italian community have held onto their deep connection with a Jewish cultural heritage that goes back two thousand years. The Conegliano Veneto Synagogue and the U.Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art provide an important meeting centre for the Jerusalem Italian community and the Israeli community in general. Living in a new reality, Italian immigrants to Israel have continued to undertake promoting the values that have made Italy a symbol of culture.

In the hall adjacent to the auditorium, a photographic exhibition titled “Italy-Israel: Sixty Years of Relations”, presented by the Italian Embassy, perpetuating the presence of Italian Jews in some of the most important events of Israel’s history, greeted guests to the conference. The exhibition was first shown at the Knesset in honor of the visit to Israel of Giorgio Napolitano, President of the Italian Republic in 2008.

In “Hand in Hand with Italian Culture”, chaired by Dr. Carmela Callea, director of the Italian Cultural Institute (Tel Aviv), various areas of involvement of the Italian community were addressed. First to speak was art historian Dr. Andreina Contessa, chief curator of the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art. Professor Sandra Debenedetti Stow of Bar Ilan University then spoke about Jewish scholars, also about linguistics and the translation of sacred- and secular Italian texts at Israeli universities. Dr. Flavia Cevidalli Lwow, of the Israel Museum, spoke about artists and art dealers, the presence of Italians in the plastic arts and in all important fields in Israeli culture – in architecture, cinema, painting, Judaic art, archeology, etc. - and mentioned contributions made by Italian Jews to the Israel Museum, such as the Vera and Arturo Schwartz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art. Finally, we heard ethnomusicologist Dr. Massimo Acanafora Torrefranca, of The Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre, in a talk summing up the work of Leo Levi. Musicologist Leo Levi (1912-1982) was the first scholar to research Italian Jewish oral traditions. He did not limit himself to any one approach, nor did he censor or filter the 1100 recordings he made in the 1950s in 20 centres of Italian Jewish life, focusing on 27 different Jewish musical traditions throughout Italy. Levi recorded old and new music, analyzing harmonic structure, intervals, sociological aspects and the way verbal texts were used and interpreted. Levi’s research resulted in the first and only aural documentation of the cross-cultural spectrum of Italian Jewish music, that of the synagogue, of private homes, liturgy, life-cycle traditions and its use of Hebrew and Judeo-Italian languages; much of this orally transmitted heritage was being lost over the first half of the 20th century. Levi settled in Palestine in 1936, returning to Italy, where he connected with other important ethnomusicologists interested in “music of the people”. His recordings are preserved in the archives of Ethnomusicology Archives of the Santa Cecilia National Academy (Rome) and the National Sound Archives of Jerusalem in the Jewish Music Research Centre of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Leo Levi died in Jerusalem.

Tying in with focus on southern Italy, an evening event on June 27th provided conference-goers with a unique musical experience, presented by the Pizzica Musical Ensemble “Kalàscima”, a folk band from Salento in southern Italy: Riccardo Laganà-percussion and vocals, Luca Buccarella-accordion and vocals, Massimiliano de Marco-guitar, Irish bouzouki and vocals and Valentina Cariulo-dance, violin, vocals. The pizzica, a popular Italian folk dance that originated in the Salento region and spread through Puglia and eastern Basilicata, is danced by a couple (not necessarily of opposite sexes); belonging to the tarantella type of dance that is part of village- and family celebrations, it is also a therapeutic dance, its energy and speed traditionally used to heal a person bitten by a tarantula spider. There has been a recent revival of interest in pizzica music and dance as part of the neo-“tarantism” movement. (Tarantism, widespread in southern Italy from the 15th to 17th centuries, has actually been defined as a nervous disorder marked by uncontrollable body movements. It is popularly thought to have been caused by the bite of the tarantula). But back to the conference performance in Jerusalem. The cloth we saw held and incorporated to the dance by Valentina Cariulo is a symbol of both distance and communication. The style of singing used by the ensemble was no bel canto technique, rather a technique used for singing folk music, the sound being forthright and produced largely in the throat. Most of the songs performed were highly strophic, energetic and exuberant, with a pleasing mix of earthy singing and instrumental timbres; and there was much improvisation. Centered around on the subject of love, its carefree joy and its complications, the songs were sung in regional dialect. The audience, largely made up of Italian-born Israelis, wasted no time in becoming a part of the good humour – people clapped to the catchy rhythms and a few, unable to stay seated, got up and danced.

The conference concluded with the screening of “Lookout to San Nicandro. Eti’s Journey”, a film produced by Vincenzo Condorelli in 2009. Film director and producer Vincenzo Condorelli lives and works in London.
The film traces the history of the above-mentioned small rural community in San Nicandro Garganico pronouncing itself to believe in the Jewish faith, despite having no previous connections with Judaism. Under the leadership of Donato Manduzio, an almost illiterate farm laborer, many members of the community converted to Judaism, the only case of its kind in modern times. The documentary features descendants of the community living on both sides of the Mediterranean – in the Galilee, to where some of the families immigrated following World War II, and in the Gargano region of the Province of Puglia. Eti, a student of Cinema at the Tel Hai College, is working on her final course project – a film dedicated to her grandparents living in Safed, who, as children, came to Israel with the San Nicandro group. Thus begins granddaughter Eti’s physical-, psychological- and historical journey - the search for her roots.

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