Traditional Tropes, Celestial Gathering: Mapping Nusach Cantillation in DC

Some background on Max O’Hern’s project on nusach cantillation in DC

This project seeks to understand how Jewish nusachim (scales and phrases in sacred music) have been preserved by the institutions of religion and music in the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area. Nusachim is recited in a process called cantillation, whereby the cantor (or reciter) “sings” the text according to a series of markings next to the text known as te’amim. Te’amim is interpreted far differently between congregations and styles of reading the tanakh (Hebrew Bible), such that nusachim takes on unique characteristics in different communities. Non-musical academic studies of the general Jewish population in DC, as well as original articles from the Occidental, a local English-language Jewish newspaper from the 19th-century, are used to provide context to interviews with rabbis, cantors, and administrators of DC’s various synagogues and other institutions of cultural preservation, in order to understand what has remained constant in the prioritization of preserving styles of cantillation.

Having long been tangentially aware of Jewish secular music, Max was first inspired to look into Jewish musical culture in diasporic communities by a lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London last year. Dr. Abigail Wood, lecturer on Jewish music at SOAS noted the variety in how different cities shape the type of Jewish community that springs up there, and how that community produces its own musical tradition. Further research into the ethnographic examination of Hasia Diner confirmed that there could be a unique music culture in DC that would be worth investigating. One question originally guiding this investigation was whether or not DC’s cantors viewed themselves as part of a community of musicians or as individual interpreters of liturgical phrasing. Another was if secular Jewish musicians identified ethnically or religiously with respect to their artistic influences.

How the project changed over the semester

This project was originally intended to be an exhaustive map of Jewish cantors in DC, in an effort to compare the song-styles across the city. This was scaled down to accommodate time constraints, so the project narrowed to certain specific congregations in DC. The project was then going to look at the confluence of Jewish liturgical and secular music, with a particular lens toward the Washington Jewish Music Festival in May. The chronology of the event made it difficult to coordinate with secular musicians that were, for the most part, out of town until then. As such, the focus shifted to how institutions such as synagogues and the festivals try to preserve DC’s Jewish music, and what that says about how those musicians identify their musical heritage.


Cantor Oscar Sharfman and the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Ms. Lili Kalish Gersch and the DC Jewish Community Center, Dr. James Loeffner & Mr. Hillel Ofek and Pro Musica Hebraica, for taking the time to share their musical worlds. And of course, Professor Ayyagari for putting this all together!

Max was unable to get permission to shadow Ms Gersch for the opening of the WJMF. Information collected on that event was therefore omitted.


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