Academic journal article Western Folklore

Musical Tradition and the Crisis of Place: Reform Jewish Songleading, Shabbat Shirah, and the New Dining Hall

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Musical Tradition and the Crisis of Place: Reform Jewish Songleading, Shabbat Shirah, and the New Dining Hall

Article excerpt

In June 2000, the songleading tradition at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) - a Reform Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin - received a jolt. Over the previous half century, the camp's Friday evening song session, called Shabbat Shirah, had become a crucial part of the campers' Jewish religious experiences. After die Sabbath meal, the entire camp population would assemble together for the only time that week. Specially trained guitar-toting counselors would lead a structured progression of Hebrew liturgical and paraliturgical songs, and the entire camp would sing along; occasionally campers would add their own lyrics, or supplement the songs with hand motions to indicate their familiarity with the material. Both current campers and camp alumni ascribed to this time of the week a deep sense of communality and spirituality. Campers would cite the event as a central reason for returning year after year; staff and faculty members, many of whom had been campers themselves at OSRUI, looked forward to arbiting the experience for new generations of campers; and alumni would make special return visits to participate in and observe the camp's Friday night ritual from the sidelines. Recognizing the centrality of the song session to camp life, OSRUI's camp leadership thus afforded the experience great care, consideration, and regulation.

Yet for the camp's Board of Directors - who had themselves all attended the camp as youngsters - such admiration for Shabbat Shirah also held another dimension. While respectful of the camp's current practice, the Board members viewed the Friday evening song session as having migrated significantly from its original state decades earlier. Thus, when the OSRUI leadership saw an opportunity to reshape Shabbat Shirah in a manner that might bring the experience closer to its original form, they enthusiastically pursued it. A new dining hall, Board members told me informally, was the vessel through which this transformation would take place: a site large enough to seat the rapidly expanding camp population comfortably for meals while offering a reinvigorated communal space for song sessions afterward. In creating a structure that meant to reconstitute the purpose and function of the camp's first dining halls, the leadership thus aimed to reestablish what they saw as the organic spirituality and smooth progression of the events that had so affected their own adolescent years.

Understanding why and how this building failed to impact the camp's Shabbat Shirah tradition in the way the leadership had hoped provides the impetus for this essay. Many scholars have examined music as a reflection or representation of place as it exists across numerous dimensions of time and space - and both Kay Shelemay (2001) and Timothy Rice (2003) have included the concept of place as a primary component in their recent models for ethnomusicology.1 Yet in most analyses, the "place" discussed, though central to the music's meaning, tends to receive only an incidental role in musical production itself. Studies tend instead to frame the issue from a sonic perspective, exploring music's penchant for generating a sense of place (see, for example, Stokes 1994) . When musical venues have received attention, moreover, they have typically been framed either as inspirations for musical production, or as sites that served merely as vessels for other types of social interaction (see, for example, Feld 1996) .2 In this essay, I aim to make inroads toward incorporating the place itself into musical investigations by introducing a case study in which a change in place at a summer camp led to a state of crisis. Through an in-depth explanation of this episode, I argue that the actual physical site of musical creation and interaction can have an enormous influence on the music with which it is associated, to the point that a qualitative change in venue (and its associated acoustic) can wreak havoc with the social and interpretative norms such music represents. …

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