International Jewish Music

Jews have wandered the world over, and sometimes all that wandering gets packed into one song.

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Then the CD gets to something so unusual and so moving, that it seems to encompass the entire Jewish people and its travels--the song "Fel Shara" by the Italian group KlezRoym. Singer Eva Coen actually sings in five languages: Ladino, Italian, French, English, and Arabic, all in one song. Her delicate, haunting voice reinterprets an old Sephardic love song, but its mix of Eastern European and Mizrachi influences shows how the Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition absorbed the music of their new homes. Italy, which is Europe's oldest Jewish community, now has a crop of young Jewish musicians who weave the already multi-layered Jewish song with Italian folk music, plus jazz and cabaret.

Listening to Coen, I could imagine the Jewish traveler of medieval times, trying to blend in to a new culture while still dealing with the usual human concerns of love and loss.

The CD also includes a fabulous Ofra Haza selection, "Rachamim," which uses the words of Israeli poet Natan Alterman. It describes a woman walking down the street who is ogled by all the men of the neighborhood, but all she wants is "Rachamim," which is a man's name that also means "mercy." Haza sings for both – for mercy and for the man she loves, all at the same time. In the song, I could hear Shechunat HaTikva, or the neighborhood of hope in South Tel Aviv where the singer grew up, still a place where local guys flirt shamelessly and Mizrachi music blares.

After the Italian masterpiece, I was eager to hear more Jewish music from unexpected sources. The CD delivered with a Turkish song from the husband-wife team Janet and Jak Esim, called "Ija Mia Mi Kerida." Because about one-third of the Jews who fled Spain settled in Constantinople, Jewish music thrived in Turkey. Since so many Turkish Jews have left for Israel, that musical scene is mostly gone, but the Esims have painstakingly tried to preserve it, recording aging singers and learning their songs.

A Vision of True Peace

I heard Spanish Jewry's painful escape as a thread running through much of the exotic, blended sound of today's Jewish music. While some Spanish Jews fled to Turkey, many fled to Mexico and South America. Consuelo Luz, featured on the CD, sings the Spanish "Las Estreyas" or "The Stars," which was a popular love ballad in Spain before the Inquisition. Born in Chile, and descended from a famous converso, she now lives and sings in New Mexico, the destination of some Spanish Jews in the 1500s. Without planning to, Luz returned to her Spanish-Jewish roots by settling in the Southwest.

The big story now is what will happen when the Sephardic music carried by Spanish Jews and transported throughout the world hits Israel in big numbers with the increasing aliyah (emigration to Israel) from South American countries. For a hint of what's to come, the Brazilian singer Fortuna takes on "Shalom Aleichem" in Hebrew. Fortuna interprets the song's promise of peace as a remembrance of the way things were before the Jews were kicked out of Spain, a time when Christians, Jews, and Arabs lived together.

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Aviya Kushner

Aviya Kushner is a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Columbia College of Chicago. She is the author of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning.