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Saved From extinction

Thanks to the efforts of Cantor Daniel Halfon, the rich musical tradition of Portugal's Marrano communities has been recorded on a best selling CD

13 March 2008

By Ben Shalev

When Cantor Daniel Halfon was a boy in late 1950s London, his father took him to a different synagogue every Shabbat. Halfon's father liked to listen to different styles of the services and wanted his son to be aware of this rich diversity. But one Saturday, Halfon asked his father to take him back to the synagogue they had visited the week before, of the Portuguese community. "The singing I heard somehow resonated inside me. I felt as if this was my place," Halfon recalled. He was just four at the time.

Almost 50 years later, Halfon is the most important, if not the only, keeper of the flame of the liturgical music of the Portuguese communities, which were established in the 17th century in Amsterdam, New York and London by Marranos who fled the Iberian Peninsula for fear of a second Inquisition and returned to the fold of Judaism.

Contrary to other styles, in which both young and old are fluent, the Portuguese ritual is threatened by extinction: It is being preserved mostly by the elderly and may disappear entirely with their death. It is difficult to stop this natural process, but recently those seeking to maintain this tradition were given an aid to help them in their struggle: "Kamti Lehallel" ("I Rise in Praise"), a CD set documenting the Spanish and Portuguese musical traditions, issued by the Feher Jewish Music Center at Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, and featuring Halfon.

"I wanted to do something before it was too late," Halfon says, "and my goal is for the members of the congregations to hear the discs, and say 'Wow, that's ours?' So we have something that's worth preserving."

Why is the Portuguese liturgy gradually disappearing? "Every community has its story," Halfon explains. "The Amsterdam community was for the most part decimated during the Holocaust, and most of its members today are people who came from Israel and brought their customs with them. In London, the customs were kept up through the 1970s thanks to Cantor Eliezer Abinun, but now the traditional liturgy is in danger of being supplanted over time by the one the Iraqi Jewish immigrants brought with them. An alarming indicator of the possibilty of this change is what has happened with 'Et Sha'arei Ratzon,' a central piyut sung on Rosh Hashana. Musically speaking, a Rosh Hashana without its being sung is not a Rosh Hashana . During one of my recent visits, I found that they now sing at least part of it in the Iraqi style, and as far as I'm concerned that's not a good sign.


"In New York, the situation is better," he continues, "but because most of the community's members are Ashkenazim, they may like to hear the Portuguese style, but they find it difficult to participate." And what is happening in Israel? Members of the Portuguese congregations  immigrated to Israel in relatively small numbers; not one local synagogue uses Portuguese liturgy, although a small congregation meets once a month in Jerusalem's Old City . Halfon himself is the cantor at a Jerusalem synagogue most of whose congregants come from Iraq and North Africa.


Halfon began his supplemental studies of Portuguese liturgy at the age of 11, studying with Eliezer Abinun: "I came to him every week with a tape recorder and he would sing, tell stories, show me how to function as a cantor. Afterward, at home, I would listen to the recordings and practice." In the late 1970s, Halfon was invited to be the second cantor of New York's Spanish-Portuguese synagogue. Here, the senior cantor, Rabbi Abraham Lopes Cardozo, taught him the liturgy used in Amsterdam while another, elderly rabbi taught him about the nuances of the liturgy used by Portuguese-Jewish congregations in Gibraltar.


According to Yuval Shaked, director of the Diaspora Museum's Center for the Study of Jewish Music, who will be leaving his post at the end of the month: "Daniel's knowledge of all the variants of Portuguese liturgy is phenomenal. Usually, you encounter people who are very well versed in what they grew up with. Daniel can start singing and then [suddenly] stop and say: In London they sing it this way, in Amsterdam they do it a little differently, and in Gibraltar there is a third version. He has the senses of a researcher."


The idea of recording a disc documenting the musical traditions of the Portuguese community surfaced around 10 years ago. Halfon didn't have to try very hard to convince the Center for Jewish Music's previous director, Avner Bahat, and its current director, Shaked, of the project's importance. The Portuguese liturgy has some unique characteristics: It combines influences from North Africa and Western Europe, and blends liturgical music with classical Baroque-era music.

'Created from scratch'

"This music is fascinating, because it's a tradition that was almost created from scratch," says Shaked. "After 100 years as Catholics, the Marranos did not recognize the Jewish customs. They wanted to connect to Judaism, as we would say today, but they didn't know how. So they invited hakhamim [rabbis] from North Africa and Salonika, who taught them how to sing and pray. In the older tunes one really can discern the Andalusian roots, but as time passed, the influence of classical Western music increasingly began to seep in. Tunes in minor keys switched to major keys, and quarter tones disappeared.

"In addition to their historical importance, these are beautiful melodies," he adds. "But even during the project's early stages we realized that melodies are not enough to make a disc. True, in the synagogue they sang a cappella, but that doesn't mean that we, too, are limited to a cappella. We wanted to present the tradition in a modern way, to make it resonate as richly and vibrantly as possible."

Thus arranger-composer Raymond Goldstein wrote fresh arrangements for the collection's pieces, and the recordings feature a six-man choir as well as an ensemble of 10 musicians, conducted by Azi Schwartz. "In the end it has to be an attractive product and one that can compete with Deutsche Grammophon," explains Shaked.


The double CD album, released some months ago, has so far sold over 1,500 copies, and it is the best-selling album in the catalog of the Diaspora Museum's Center for the Study of Jewish Music. Halfon hopes the second edition will be released soon. He is currently looking into organizing a concert in which some of the works included on the disc will be performed. But sales are not the only measure of success for Halfon: "After Yom Kippur I received e-mails from people in Amsterdam who wrote, 'We listened to the discs before the holiday and it created the atmosphere for us.' When I read that, I felt I had succeeded."

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