JBuzz News & Reviews February 22, 2012: James Loeffler: University of Virgina Professor Explores Lost History of Russian-Jewish Composers

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JEWISH ACADEMIC & UNIVERSITY NEWS

U.Va. Professor Explores Lost History of Russian-Jewish Composers

Source: UVA Today, 2-22-12

James Loeffler

(Photo: Jack Looney)

University of Virginia historian James Loeffler explores the lost world of Jewish composers working in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution in his new, award-winning book.

“The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire,” examines composers who viewed themselves as both Jewish and Russian and who saw their work contributing to both identities. He focuses on the second half of the 19th century through the Russian Revolution, covering two generations of composers.

“It is an attempt to rethink the stock image of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe,” said Loeffler, an assistant professor of history in the College of Arts & Sciences.

The research director of Pro Musica Hebraica, Loeffler is a pianist who has been actively involved in Jewish music for the past decade as a scholar, critic and performer. He co-founded the Jewish Music Forum, a new national academic organization supported by the American Society for Jewish Music and the Center for Jewish History in New York, and has served as a music consultant to numerous organizations and institutions.

Loeffler’s book has been lauded by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, receiving its Béla Bartók Award for Outstanding Ethnomusicology Book, and the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, which presented him the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies. His work was a finalist for the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, which recognizes the important role of emerging writers in examining the Jewish experience.

Loeffler’s book fills an important void in the scholarship of these composers, said Joel Rubin, an assistant professor and director of music performance in U.Va.’s McIntire Department of Music.

“This is the first substantial piece of research on this movement,” Rubin said. “A lot of what had existed before was old and romantic and not up to the standards of scholarship we are used to today. It is important he has tackled the subject and I am happy to have more material I can teach to my students.”

Rubin said the composers were influenced by Zionism and feelings of national aspiration, as well as by their Christian Russian contemporaries to create artistic music with Jewish roots. He said Western classical music evolved over a long time, without much contribution from Jews until the latter part of the 19th century.

“These are people who left the shtetl and went to the conservatory,” Loeffler said. “These are the contemporaries of Piotyr Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and later Igor Stravinsky.” Among them was Anton Rubinstein, a Russian-Jewish pianist and composer and a founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first in Russia.

“The people I write about are complex, but they felt they had to be validated by others,” Loeffler said. “They thought they were Russians and Jews and that they didn’t have to choose. They thought they were furthering classical music, that their twin identities would feed into each other and that they would be more accepted. And for a brief period they were heralded as the young guns, bringing Russian classical music into the modern era.”

But the brief period did not last. Loeffler said they had to choose an identity; if they did not choose, one was assigned.

“They believed art would transcend politics, but they found that it didn’t,” Loeffler said. “The Russian culture liked Jewish music, but it didn’t like Jews.”

Russian composers, though, wrote on many classic Jewish themes, Loeffler said, citing Dmitri Shostakovich and his the song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and his 13th Symphony, subtitled “Babi Yar.”

“It becomes a symbol that represents to liberals a freer, more pluralistic Russia that embraces minorities and allows free expression – or it warns of the dangers of a fifth column within the society,” Loeffler said. “It becomes a barometer of what kind of Russian you are.”…READ MORE

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Ruth Ellen Gruber: In summer, Jewish studies flowers in Eastern Europe

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JEWISH STUDIES — UNIVERSITY NEWS

Source: JTA, 8-1-11

In Austria and Poland recently, I couldn’t seem to get away from students, scholars and just plain interested folks who were taking or teaching summer programs in Jewish studies.

Visitors to the Auschwitz Museum Memorial in Oswiecim, Poland, enter the Arbeit Macht Frei gate on a rainy day. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

I myself spoke at a three-day “summer academy” in Vienna where more than 100 members of the general public turned up for lectures by international experts on Eastern European Jewish history.

In both Vienna and Krakow, I met informally with some of the 71 teachers from Jewish and public schools in North America and Israel attending a nine-day summer academy of lectures, travel and workshops organized by the Vienna-based Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation.

The programs reflected the remarkable resurgence of both Jewish informal learning and academic studies that has taken place in Europe since the fall of communism. This process has opened up opportunities and fields of scholarship to new generations of students and researchers. It also has gone some way toward repairing the damage wrought by the Holocaust.

About 750 institutions of European Jewish learning were “lost forever” in the war, according to the European Association of Jewish Studies, with many cities experiencing a “near total devastation of their Jewish studies resources.” In postwar communist Europe, teaching and research in Jewish and Holocaust studies was virtually taboo.

The pace of reconstruction has varied from country to country. But today the European Association of Jewish Studies lists nearly 450 academic institutions and universities in two dozen European countries where Jewish studies courses or classes are taught. Many other programs are associated with non-academic bodies.

Summer programs have a special place in this scheme, as they often are geared specifically to visiting foreign participants. Some of them, such as the 5-year-old Leo Baeck Summer University at Humboldt Unviersity in Berlin, are organized in partnership with North American or Israeli institutions.

The benefits of study abroad programs are well known: exposure to other cultures and languages, contact with new ideas, the opportunity to forge international connections….READ MORE

Mel Gordon: Badkhn Belt? Jewish humor was born in 1661, prof says

Years of terror during the Chmielnicki massacres and the badkhn’s appearance led to the canonization of what we know as Jewish humor.

Source: JTA, 3-3-11

The Chmielnicki massacres weren’t particularly funny.

A drawing of a Jewish badkhn
Photo by: JTAFrom 1648 to 1651, nearly 100,000 Jews were slaughtered throughout Ukraine by Bohdan Chmielnicki and his roving bands of Cossacks. It was arguably the worst pogrom in history, leaving hundreds of Jewish communities in ruins.

Yet according to Mel Gordon, a professor of theater arts at the University of California, Berkeley, those years of terror led to the canonization of what we now know as Jewish humor. Much of what we’ll be laughing at during Purim festivities, this year starting on March 19, stems from that horrific period.

And it happened on one day in July 1661 when the badkhn — a kind of cruel court jester in East European Jewish life — was spared a ban on merrymakers.

“We’re funny because of the badkhn,” Gordon told JTA.

Gordon, who has authored numerous books on theater, cinema and popular culture, lectures widely on his badkhn theory at Jewish and non-Jewish venues.

“Everyone says that Jews are funny because they suffered so much,” he said. “That’s ridiculous. You think the rest of the world hasn’t suffered? What about the Armenians, the Biafrans, the American Indians? None of them are known for their humor.”

Nor are Jews funny because they’ve “always been funny,” another common falsehood, Gordon says. It’s only in the past 100 years, with the rise of Hollywood and nightclub society, that Jewish humor has become a staple of American popular culture.

“At the turn of the 20th century, the Jews were commonly perceived to be a humorless, itinerant nation,” he wrote in “Funnyman,” a 2010 book co-authored with Thomas Andrae about the short-lived Jewish comic book superhero.

So it’s not genetic, and it’s not because of suffering or social marginalization, that led to this thing we call Jewish humor — it’s the badkhn.

The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim spiels in shtetl society.

His humor was biting, even vicious… Much of the badkhn’s humor was grotesque, even scatological.

Before the 1660s, there were at least 10 different stock comic types in shtetl life, Grodon says. One would rhyme, one would juggle, one might sing. Wealthy folks would hire a variety for their simchas, or festive celebrations.

But in the summer of 1661, a decade after the Chmielnicki massacres and its resultant famines, leading rabbis from Poland and Ukraine — the “Elders of the Four Councils” — met in Vilna to discuss why such evils had befallen the Jewish people.

The elders decided the Jews were being punished by God. A return to strict observance was the only solution. Levity and luxury were to be avoided.

As one of the new conditions, wedding festivities became much more somber, and holidays such as Purim and Simchat Torah less raucous. The traditional Jewish comics were outlawed.

During one discussion on July 3, 1661, Gordon relates, a rabbi asked his colleagues, what about the badkhn? He’s not really funny, the rabbi said. In fact, he’s abusive.

The elders agreed, and the badkhn was exempted from the ban — he wasn’t a merrymaker and wasn’t encouraging levity. And that’s how the badkhn became the only Jewish comic permitted in the shtetls, Gordon says, and how his particular brand of sarcastic, bleak humor set the tone for what we know today as Jewish comedy. Before the 1660s, the badkhn was the least popular Jewish entertainer – now he was the sole survivor.

“Jewish humor used to be the same as that of the host country,” Gordon said. “Now it began to deviate from mainstream European humor. It became more aggressive, meaner. All of Jewish humor changed.”….READ MORE

Jeffrey Veidlinger and Dov-Ber Kerler: Awarded preserving Yiddish memory from before World War II NEH grant

Source: Indiana University, 5-5-09

Preserving Yiddish memory from before World War II NEH grant will enable IU professors to share oral histories collected in Eastern Europe:

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded two Indiana University faculty members $267,000 to preserve and annotate oral histories they collected from Yiddish-speaking residents of Eastern Europe and make the material available to scholars, educators and the public. Professors Jeffrey Veidlinger and Dov-Ber Kerler were awarded the grant through the NEH Preservation and Access program. Their project, which also received a 2005 NEH grant, is called Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories, or AHEYM — aheym is the Yiddish word for homeward…..

“Many of these people we interviewed hadn’t spoken Yiddish for 20 or 30 years. But the minute you turned it on, they were completely fluent,” said Kerler, the Dr. Alice Field Cohn Chair in Yiddish Studies, professor of Jewish studies and Germanic studies at IU Bloomington. Veidlinger is the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair in Jewish Studies and associate professor of Jewish studies and history at IU Bloomington….