An important acquisition I made this week was a complete set of the ten volume Otzar Neginot Yisrael, authored by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882-1938). Published between 1914 and 1932, this set revolutionized the understanding and study of Jewish music, and the music printed within the books until today serve as an invaluable source into the folk and religious music of the many Jewish communities of the diaspora.
Born in Latvia to an Orthodox family, Idelsohn’s father was a shochet, and he studied in the local old-fashioned cheder. After being exposed to the world of music via the chazanim of his local shul, he pursued a musical career, taking part in several synagogue choirs and studying music in university. A staunch Zionist, he moved as a young man to Eretz Yisrael, where for the first time he was exposed to the music of the many Jewish communities that lived side by side in Old Jerusalem. Jerusalem of the time had over 300 synagogues, each with its own musical tradition and customs. Idelsohn decided to attempt to record the music of these many communities and over the next few years, managed to record over 1000 songs, including many that are not known from any other source.
In his introduction to his first volume, devoted to that of the music of Yemenite Jews, he writes of his experiences in his attempts in finding recruits to sing for his recordings. Using the most modern method of recording, his recording device being the first such in the Holy Land, he found a group of Yemenite Jews to sing for him in return for payment. He writes how after his recording, he demonstrated his replaying back the music to them, to the horror of the participants who were sure that this was the work of the devil. They proceeded to scatter and escape Idelsohn and his witchcraft, before Idelsohn even had a chance to pay them their dues.
Another issue Idelsohn encountered was rabbinical disapproval of his recordings. The local Yemenite Mori instructed the community not to sing and record for him religious songs, limiting their repertoire to secular songs. When several people disobeyed his guidance, two of these people had deaths occur in their families. Seeing this as a sure sign of a punishment for their interaction with this sorcery, the rabbi placed a cherem on anyone who continued to violate the sanctity of the religious songs by allowing their recordings.
The volumes Idelsohn published in this set include the songs of the Jewish communities of Yemen, Persia, Buchara, Georgia, North Africa, Balkans, Germany and those of chasidim, among others. Idelsohn was able to demonstrate how Jewish music has its own features and identity and is unique among the music of the world. An interesting feature of much of Idelsohn’s printed music is his insistence on the writing of Jewish music from right to left as opposed to the rest of the world’s writing from left to right.