NEW YORK—Besides Israel, Italy is perhaps the smallest region in the world to feature the greatest concentration of different Jewish traditions. In its 2,000 years of history, the Italian Jewish scene has drawn on a number of traditions including the Ashkenazi, Sephardic and dominant Italian branches.
The Primo Levi Center—New York’s cultural organization dedicated to Italian Jewry—organizes each year an event to celebrate the hazanut, the religious singing traditions, from Jewish Italy and the Mediterranean. This year they invited Elia Enrico Richetti, former chief rabbi of Trieste and Venice, to perform a series of Ashkenazi songs from several Jewish communities in Northern Italy, in front of an intimate yet enthusiastic crowd at the Kehila Kedosha Janina, a Romaniote synagogue in Lower Manhattan.
Richetti is a cantor, as well as one of the very few people in the world to preserve memory of Ashkenazi Italian hazanut.
“I hope that events like this can be useful not only to spark the interest of the scholars or to preserve these pieces in archives,” said Richetti. “I hope that people will like the pieces, they will adopt them in their synagogues, and will keep these traditions alive.”
Francesco Spagnolo, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, presented the performance. “Most of these songs are no longer in use,” said Spagnolo. “Rabbi Richetti knows [the songs] for a variety of reasons … because of family, because of his wife, and because of where he worked as a rabbi.”
The three main communities where these songs are (or used to be) sung are Gorizia, Trieste and Verona. While the community of Gorizia did not survive the Holocaust, Trieste and Verona still have modest-sized congregations. Other songs that Richetti performed originate from the Ashkenazi traditions of Venice and Casale Monferrato.
Richetti revived the songs from Gorizia through his family’s memory. He learned the songs from Verona after meeting his wife, who is from Verona. And he discovered Trieste’s singing tradition when he became the chief rabbi of that community in 1979.
“He does not read music. He memorized all of the rituals in his mind,” said Spagnolo. “While he was the rabbi of Trieste, he resurrected the ritual there. He learned it from old cassette tapes and from the old people, but he had to reconstruct the melodies because sometimes people remembered only portions of them.”
The Primo Levi Center has filmed and recorded the performance and will preserve it in its archives. The Center’s director, Natalia Indrimi, welcomed the guests at the beginning of the evening and stressed that the event was held in memory of Erna Finci Viterbi, who was a board member of the Center.
“We can perhaps take a piece of the tradition, start teaching it and establish here a base where the Italian hazanut can be learned,” said Indrimi.
Photo: Isaak J. Liptzin / Awen Films (Courtesy of Primo Levi Center)