Singing God's Words: Religious Experience, Chant & Sacred Text

Drawing from my book, Singing God's Words: The Performance of Biblical Chant in Contemporary Judaism, the first in-depth study of the meaning and experience of chanting Torah among contemporary American Jews, I discuss how and why a growing number of American Jews see the public chanting of Biblical texts as one of the most authentic expressions of their religious identity. I examine how this religious practice has taken on new meaning for contemporary Jews of all denominations and share my findings on how this ritual is shaped by such forces as digital technology, feminism and contemporary views of spiritual experience.

The Meaning of our Melodies: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship

Why do Jews have such strong feelings about the music we use in prayer? Across America, contemporary Jews come together every week to sing and pray in a wide variety of worship communities. Through this music, these Jews define and re-define their relationship to the continuity of Jewish tradition and the realities of American life. In this lecture, I examine the symbolic meaning of our melodies. Through song, members affirm who they are—and who they are not—as Jews.

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 2000 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.

Since 2000, 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 joined together to form the Peace Kawomera (Delicious Peace) Fair Trade Coffee Cooperative (now reformulated as The Naminyoni Community of Shalom) originally in partnership with the Thanksgiving Coffee Company in California. Coffee farmers composed 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 for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 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

In the years leading up to World War II, Jews played an important role as composers and performers in the cabarets of Europe. During the dark years of Nazi Germany, cabaret performances continued in the ghettos and concentration camps, with programs of satire, social commentary, popular songs of romance and longing as well as songs of resistance. In some camps, the Nazis forced Jews to perform to create a false sense of normalcy. Yet in many more instances, these courageous musicians developed repertoires that bolstered their spirit and provided opportunities for artistic and spiritual resistance in the face of Nazi persecution. Their music provides a window into the vibrant Jewish culture that continued to flourish during the Holocaust and helps us understand how their contributions strengthened the Jewish people during this unfathomable era of history. This program explores the music of these cabarets and the lives of the extraordinary men and women who performed on the edge of the abyss.