Mamma Mia! That’s a Chanukah

The Skirball Cultural Center has chosen to focus on Italian Jewry as the theme for its upcoming “Hanukkah Family Festival,” a series of performances, workshops, exhibits and other activities on Sunday, Dec. 10.

Italian Jewry is a fitting theme since the Jewish community in Italy is one of the oldest in the world. Jews have been in Italy since the Romans conquered Jerusalem and forced the Jews to build the Arch of Titus in Rome.

While many Jews assimilated, others came to Italy from Spain, Greece, Turkey, the Balkans and North Africa and brought their diverse traditions with them. Primarily Sephardic Jews, these immigrants spoke Ladino, “a jargon language very close to Spanish,” says David Glukh, whose five-piece ensemble will perform medieval Ladino songs as well as songs composed by Italian-Jewish Renaissance composer Salomon Rossi and Italian-Jewish Chanukah songs.

To prepare for this assignment, Glukh, a 31-year-old Juilliard graduate, sought out arcane recordings and compositions from specialty Jewish music stores, libraries and even ventured online. What he found were beautiful, old melodies but no harmonies, so “we came up with our own arrangements,” he says from New York, where his ensemble is based.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect to his research was his discovery that “almost every city in Italy or even community has its own set of different songs and different liturgy.” He points out that, since these songs come from the oral tradition, one community’s “Maoz Tzur” will be distinct from another’s, which means that melodies and meters often differ. Some songs originating in the Balkans have 7/8, 9/8 or even 12/8 time signatures, he says.

Glukh, who hails from Moscow, has not limited himself to Italian-Jewish music. Over the years, he has performed in fusion klezmer bands, bands that combine klezmer with Irish, Eastern European, Far Eastern and Israeli music.

In addition to the Glukh ensemble, the Skirball will feature an exhibition of Chanukah lamps from Italy, with an accompanying workshop, as well as a workshop in Italian silver etchings in which participants will learn to make Sephardic hamsas, ancient hand symbols, from metal.

The event is also child-friendly and will include a Chanukah puppet show performed by Jenny Nissenson and Bill Burnett, creators of Nickelodeon’s “ChalkZone!”


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