The Music of Caucasus Jews

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The Jewish religion and its people are among are among the most ancient in the

world, dating as far back as 5.000 years The Jewish total world's population is

considerably small comparing to the whole world's population. Jews never had a place or

a country where they could live as a nation; they have been scattered all over the world

and have been influenced by almost every culture and nation. Yet the following questions

arise: how has this nation survived and why didn't it disappear or get assimilated. The

ability to remain loyal to their faith, spiritual culture and thought is what made them resist

over the centuries. They created communities, built schools, synagogues and centers to

practice religion, study the language and celebrate holidays. Music being used in prayers,

songs for holidays and on occasions of mass gathering and religious celebrations such as

Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings, unifies Jews and plays a significant role in their life.

But what is Jewish music and how can we approach the study of it? According to

Amnon Shiloah, Jewish musical tradition is "musical tower of Babel." Anyone can

experience "a simultaneous panorama of sound" when passing the Western Wall, a

remnant of Jerusalem's Temple. On Friday evenings groups of worshippers gather before

the Wall, "all singing the same Shabbat prayer texts, but using many different melodies.

All are simultaneously performing the same fundamental ritual: welcoming the Shabbat

at exactly the same hour, expressing the same feelings, experiencing the same emotions.

Only melodies differ, expressing a whole spectrum of musical styles."

Abraham Z. Idelsohn, the pioneer of Jewish ethnomusicalogical research, defines Jewish

music as "the song of Judaism through the lips of the Jew" and as "tonal expression of

Jewish life and development over two thousand years." So we see that Jewish


music differs from community to community and should be studied separately within

each community rather than as a single conception.

According to the geographical distribution of the Jewish communities from the 16th

century until WWI, Jews were divided into different ethnic groups. The main division is

between Ashkenazi(originally from Germany and France, and who spread to eastern

Europe after the 15th century) and Sephardic(who settled in the Ottoman Empire or who

remained in the Middle East or spread to the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, Central

Asia and India).

My study concerns the Jews who belong to Sephardic ethnic group and also known as

Caucasus or "Mountain" Jews. They lived in Iran for a long time and then, trying to

escape persecution, moved to Caucasus and settled in the small villages of the Atlas

Mountains (that's why they are called "the Mountain Jews"). Despite the conditions they

have been living in, the Caucasus Jews have remained loyal to their religion and culture,

have observed traditions and customs and kept their language, Farsi (the influence of

Iranian language). However the influence of other Caucasus's nations on the Mountain

Jewish culture is immense. Now it is a mixture of traditions and rituals brought long ago

by Jews from Iran, which have been passing orally from generation to generation, and

ones adopted from neighboring nations. Today "Mountain" Jews live in modern cities in

Georgia (Western Caucasus) and Azerbaijan, Dagestan and Chechen Republic (Eastern

Caucasus). After the "perestroika" a lot of Mountain Jews started to leave Caucasus

and a considerable number of them came here, to New York.


Music in Caucasus Jewish culture, as in any other Jewish community culture, is

divided into two categories: liturgical (religious) and non-liturgical (traditional). In

religion music is basically used for prayers and religious rituals. These songs are tunes

for Bible texts or tunes based on biblical themes, melodies for religious poetry and

meditation. "The liturgical music of the Mountain Jews in the eastern Caucasus is

extremely austere. It consists of simple recitation formulae in flowing rhythm by the

cantor or in a responsorial manner between cantor and congregation. The range is narrow

and most formulae are based on descending melodic figures". (

Mountain Jews use music in blessings and prayers to be concentrated and focused, on

holidays and religious rituals "to give those various holy days tonal expression and ...

spiritualize them". (Idelsohn)

Traditional music of Mountain Jews consists of songs in Farsi and Russian. They

are about life of Mountain Jews and their homeland, about love and relationships between

parents and children. Most of them are dancing songs which are performed on weddings

and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. The songs are sung by popular musicians and accompanied with a

set of instruments: zurna (resembles flute), tar (resembles violin) and several drums. The

melodies to these songs are metric and have an ostinato line that is repeated over and

over again. These songs are recorded on tapes and CDs and are very popular.

Wedding and Bar/Bat Mitzvah are important life cycle events in the life of

Mountain Jews as in any other Jewish ethnic community. In Judaism marriage has a

supreme and fundamental value, for it is the only way for Jews in Diaspora to survive as

a nation. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a confirmation ceremony, which ushers a boy of 13 or a

girl of 12 into adulthood. Being religious rituals, these ceremonies take place in a


synagogue accompanied with prayers and blessings. The celebrations that follow these

ceremonies in Mountain Jewish communities considerably differ from those in other

Jewish communities. Men and women dance together either in a big circle or in pairs,

according to beat with hands performing particular motions. In other communities the

celebrations are performed differently. For example, on weddings in Hasidim

communities(Ashkenazi Jews), women and men dance in separate circles. They sing

shirot (a type of strophic songs) related not only to weddings, but also to other themes,

such as exaltation of Bible, the soul and the mind. In ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi

communities it is forbidden to use instrumental music in weddings because for

them a wedding is considered a sacred ceremony.

In Caucasus Jewish community the wedding is always preceded by a celebration of

the engagement. It is customary that before the engagement party takes place, a

procession with the groom and all his relatives march all the way from the

groom's house to the bride's house. Each of them is holding a tray with a present for the

bride and the groom is holding the engagement ring. This ceremony is accompanied by

musicians playing drums, zurna and harmonium, thus making everyone know that a

wedding will occur soon. When they come to the bride's house, the groom hands her the

ring and everyone starts to dance and congratulate them. Specific songs and melodies are

played during the engagement party.

Recently I was at my cousin's wedding party. When I heard the music I felt like I

was in Derbent again (Dagestan city where I was born and where a considerable part of


Mountain Jews live). It was hard to believe that here in Brooklyn, in the U.S., so far from

where Mountain Jews came, such a small community (only 3% of all Jews) is able to stay

together and remain loyal to their traditions. The songs, dances and accompanied

instruments were the same as those used in Dagestan. Moreover, I also noticed that the

tradition of having special songs for a dance between the bride and her father and for a

dance between the bride and the groom has been preserved. Amazingly, these songs were

exactly the same. My mom even told me, "I remember this song. On my wedding I was

dancing to it with my father."

Aside from having songs for celebrations of important life cycle events, there are

also special songs for holidays like Shabbat and Passover. When Mountain Jews came

here to Brooklyn, they started to form communities, build synagogues and centers where

they gather for holidays and sing certain songs the way they used to. On these holidays

our community tends to sing songs which came from our holy land and that are

universal to all Jewish people. The songs help them approach the sense of a holiday and

understand its meaning and purpose better. Shabbat (every 7th day of week), is a holiday

when Jews should rest and study the Bible. It is considered as a gift from God and

"associated with a heavenly queen, imprisoned in the sky; she descends to earth once a

week to dispense her holiness"(Shiloah). This idea gave birth to one of the basic rites

associated with the day: Qabbalat Shabbat - receiving the Shabbat. On Friday night all

members of Caucasus Jewish family sit at the table and sing "Leha Dodi Liqrat Kala"

("come, my beloved to meet the [Shabbat] bride") (see Songs,p.8), thus inviting Shabbat

into their home. This song helps Jews understand the importance and significance of this


holiday, implying the eagerness with which it is awaited. The other traditional Shabbat

song sang by Caucasus Jews is called "Shalom Aleichem" ("peace be unto you") (see

Songs, p. 8). This song shows the main purpose of Shabbat: Shabbat is intended to be the

time of peace and rest, the time of harmony and contentment. It is intended to enhance

the mood of happiness and joy. The only difference between the performances of these

songs by Mountain Jews and other Jewish communities is in the melody to the songs and

the accent, but songs convey the same message.

Another important Jewish holiday is Passover, which celebrates the liberation of the

Jewish nation from their slavery years in Egypt. On Passover seder (feast) it is customary

to tell the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. This custom is accompanied by

singing special songs which remind us of the events of the life in Egypt and in the desert

(after the exodus) and what these all mean to the Jewish people. "Mah Nishtana" ("why

different") (see Songs, p.9) is the song of the four questions that Jewish children are

asking at the seder able. The questions in this song like "why this night is different from

others?" and "why we eat matza ("unleavened bread") instead of regular bread?" lead to

the telling of the story of the Exodus. "Ehad mi yodea" ("who knows one") (see Songs,

p10) is another Passover song which is similar to "Mah Nishtana" that goes in a question-

answer way. It includes thirteen questions which are based on what the first thirteen

numbers represent in Judaism. Passover is a holiday that celebrates Jewish freedom; it is

a freedom of a nation with its convictions and beliefs and a freedom of being oneself. The

songs that Jewish people sing on Passover help them remember their history, the

principles of their faith, and what Judaism is about.


I remember when I lived in Derbent with my family, we would sit at the seder

table and sing those songs. My grandfather would tell us the story of the Exodus and my

small brother would sing "Mah Nishtana" that my grandpa taught him. Originally both of

these songs("Mah Nishtana" and "Ehad mi yodea") are in Hebrew; however, I remember

we were singing them in Farsi. For "Ehad mi yodea" ("who knows one"), we would sing:

Ekire ki mitanu who knows one

Ekire me mitanum I know one

Eki Hudo One is God


Interestingly, in Brooklyn when I was invited by a Mountain Jewish family for the

Passover seder, I was amazed seeing them sing exactly the same songs in Farsi

and using the same melody. I asked them, how they managed to preserve this tradition

(they are living here for ten years). The head of the family said, "These traditions, songs

and the language are the only things that connect us with our homeland, and we should

not forget them."

When I was asking my friends and relatives (who are also Mountain Jews), what

Jewish music meant to them and what they feel when they listen to it, most of them told

me that it is relaxing and inspiring and that it enhances the mood and helps to forget

about the problems. They also said that these songs make them feel nostalgic and remind

them of the life they had in Caucasus. I totally agree with them and I think that our music

and the songs are ones of those small things that unite us and make us closer to each

other. And, I am glad that here in the U.S., we have the possibility to gather and practice

our traditions the way we used to.