by Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience
What are the possibilities, potentials and limitations in the creation of new Israeli culture that challenges norms when geographically located in the Diaspora?
Hadar Ahuvia is a dancer raised in Israel and the United States with a decade-spanning career, working with prestigious dance companies and choreographers in the U.S. She is the child of a multi-generational family of Israeli folk dance practitioners and has worked in dance since childhood. A chapter written by Ahuvia titled “Joy Vey: Choreographing a Radical Diasporic Israeliness” was recently published in the The Oxford Handbook of Jewishness and Dance.  In this chapter and in her recent choreography projects, Ahuvia approaches the challenge of trying to imagine how Israeli artists can create an Israeli culture in the context of an anti-Zionist political perspective. Her recent writing offers a sophisticated phenomenological account of ideologically engaged performance, intertwining descriptions of the physical act of dance with analysis of the underlying political basis of her aesthetic.
In this brief essay I will discuss a less public but developing aspect of Ahuvia’s work: her newfound role as a prayer leader and singer experimenting with Ashkenazi liturgical music in the context of online services. As I will relate in my observations based on Ahuvia’s internet-based prayer services and interviews I conducted, these experiments with liturgy resonate with her choreography; in both fields she is seeking to construct new stylistic approaches that draw on her experience of Israeliness and diasporic Jewishness to articulate a politic that is focused on fostering alternatives to Zionism as the basis for the expression of Jewish identity. Her current musical approach has sought a basis for creativity and ritual practice by cultivating a deeper engagement with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. How these concerns and ambitions are expressed on the level of sound are the themes I will begin to address in this blog post.
Ahuvia’s ritual experiments are simultaneously connected to the structures of American Jewish community life and deeply countercultural. Her services embrace the institutional basis of synagogue experience and are formatted very closely on the typical model of synagogue zoom services that have emerged during the pandemic: they are characterized by a “talking head” format in which prayers in Hebrew are juxtaposed with explanatory discussion in English and are organized around texts drawn from the siddur, the traditional body of Jewish prayer texts. In content, however, these services self-consciously cut against the grain of the norms of American Jewish political discourse upheld by most synagogues. According to Ahuvia, she is attempting to “decouple Judaism from Zionism” as an organizational principle. This political framework is expressed in the remarks she makes in her contextualization of the prayers during the services and seems to give urgency to her impulse to pray.
The services are given form by Ahuvia’s study of Ashkenazi nusach—a term commonly used to describe the melodies and prayer modalities associated with the liturgy. Ahuvia has repurposed sounds that she understands to be traditional aspects of Ashkenazi heritage as a methodology for creating an experience that moves beyond Zionist culture and that calls upon an image she holds of Jewish heritage to imaginatively construct a Jewish future. For Ahuvia, the conventional forms of diaspora Jewish identity must expand to include an Israeli-diaspora identity, a new kind of Jewish person whose perspective is formed by the political and cultural experience of Israel and the particularities of its histories of conflict.
I write this essay with the caveat that Ahuvia’s work and the political realms she engages with are daunting; addressing the scope of the histories of violence that inform her work is beyond the scope of this brief essay. Ahuvia has embarked upon a critique of Israeli history and political culture that is expansive; she exercises this critique through her physical and psychological person. Her creative work can be understood as both a technology of the self and an act of protest against what she understands to be a history of injustice in the wielding of political power. She engages multiple forms of aesthetic and spiritual response to articulate her political and emotional stance. These efforts involve a discourse of language politics and of signification through the associations held by music and sound. Ahuvia is attempting to locate within her native Israeli culture a basis for her self-described “diasporist” perspective. In this essay I will address the way these experiments with sound are embedded in a typically American Jewish ritual undertaking: the professionally led prayer service, performed in the digital environment of the Zoom video.
Ahuvia has been working as an educator at a Park Slope synagogue, Kolot Chayeinu, since 2011 and occasionally leading services. She also worked at Kane Street synagogue, another Brooklyn synagogue, where she learned the basics of prayer leading. After the onset of the epidemic, with her opportunities in the dance world limited, Ahuvia began to explore a variety of Jewish practices, tuning in to online workshops held over Zoom and Facebook. These included Yiddish song circles led by Josh Waletzky and Jeyn Levison, classes in Yiddish at YIVO, studying prayer at Kol Tzedek’s Online Beit Midrash, and workshops in mystically oriented vocal practices with Israeli singer and scholar Victoria Hanna.
Inspired in part by her study of Qi Kung, a system of movement-based practices with roots in Taoism, Ahuvia began to look for practices stemming from Jewish communities that offered what she understood to be parallel forms of spiritual work. She sought to deepen her knowledge of Jewish prayer by studying nusakh. Nusakh, or nusakh hatefillah (Hebrew, the manner of prayer) is a term that is used to refer to the system of prayer melodies associated with Jewish liturgy in the Ashkenazi tradition, although the term has come to be embraced more broadly across Jewish heritage groups. Seeking instruction in nusakh, she found the Jerusalem-based Machon Schechter program for lay leaders, Ashira Tehilot. Classes were being conducted online due to the epidemic, facilitating Ahuvia’s participation from New York. Her teachers were Ba’al Tefila (Hebrew, prayer leader) Uri Kroizer and ethnomusicologist Dr. Naomi Cohn Zentner. Cantor Eliyahu Schliefer of Hebrew Union College was also a guest teacher in the program. The program met weekly over a six-month period. Its goal was to teach folk melodies and prayer motifs that are accepted as traditional in Conservative/Masorti settings to participants who were mostly lay prayer leaders in their communities.
Ahuvia studied in the Ashkenazi track offered by Ashira Tehilot. In a distinctly Israeli turn, Uri Kroizer, her nusakh teacher, had also studied Moroccan prayer chant. His approach to intonation had absorbed some of the sounds and ornamentation of North African Arabic music. This synthesis is typical of some Israeli prayer music. This Israeli vocal music approach uses melodic elements of Ashkenazi liturgy, pronounced with modern Israeli Hebrew phonology (as opposed to Ashkenazi Liturgical Hebrew, which has its own pronunciation systems), inflected by the intonation of Arabic vocal music.
Ahuvia is aware of the unique synthesis involved in this Israeli prayer music style and embraces its influence on the sound of her own singing. She told me, “Somehow this combination makes more sense to me than the American version of Ashkenazi prayer music that combines nusakh with folk-pop music. Because of the sounds, scales, and the emphasis on heterophony over harmony. Maybe I also like this sound mix better because it’s what I grew up with.” In her assessment of the distinctly Israeli approach to prayer music, Ahuvia recognizes the historical interweaving that has produced her own cultural standpoint. As in her dance that draws upon the achievements of Israeli folk and modern dance, she acknowledges her connection to the aesthetics that have been produced by Israeli culture-makers, even as she grapples with the history of violence that produced Israeli society.
In the United States working as a professional artist, Ahuvia has supplemented her income by working in synagogues. This common pattern of Israeli immigrant employment helped her find a community where she could begin to activate her budding interest in prayer, public ritual and political activism. Her concerns and approaches have a variety of characteristics that might be likely to bump problematically into the conventions of Jewish institutional life, where a pro-Zionist perspective is often the norm. In the liberal milieu of Park Slope, Brooklyn Ahuvia’s politics were less of an issue than they might have been in a more conservative “mainstream” American synagogue.
What set her apart in her community of employment was not her politics, but rather her interest in traditional Ashkenazi nusakh as the basis for public prayer. Ahuvia was developing a sound characterized by monophonic chanted prayer melodies led by an individual soloist. This musical format has fallen out of fashion as the basis for communal prayer in many or perhaps most American synagogues. Instead, communal singing of metered melodies sung in unison has become the normative musical style for Jewish prayer. Ahuvia was seeking to develop a voice in a style of soloist prayer leading that she values for its meditational depth and musical aesthetics but that is unusual in American synagogues and is often associated with an approach to prayer leading that is considered old fashioned or outmoded.
Leading services for the Kolot Chayeinu community, she experimented with Ashkenazi nusakh both in her use of melodies, drawn from her online studies, and in the use of Ashkenazi liturgical Hebrew pronunciation.  As a native Hebrew speaker, Ahuvia is fluent in the pronunciation system of Israeli Hebrew—modern Hebrew pronunciation is an effortless choice for her to make in her pronunciation of prayer texts. By contrast, using Ashkenazi pronunciation takes effort and at times strain.
Starting in the 1950s, but in some communities earlier, American Jewish institutional life began to adopt the pronunciation of so-called “modern Hebrew,” based on Israeli practices, in synagogue prayer leading. This move involved the sidelining of Yiddish-inflected Hebrew pronunciation practices that Jewish people from European-immigrant backgrounds used in the context of family and community and that had evolved over the course of a thousand years of Jewish life in Europe.  Still today, in many synagogues one can hear the result of the clash of language usage in the way elder synagogue goers pronounce prayers. The clergy in the Reform and Conservative movements, however, uniformly employ an Americanized version of Israeli Hebrew pronunciation in the prayer services.
Ashkenazi Liturgical Hebrew is by no means a monolith and has multiple historical and contemporary variants. In the American context, its most notable differences from the norm of Israeli pronunciation are the soft sof, and its distinctive diphthongs borrowed from Yiddish. This sound has been the object of much maligning in some Jewish American institutional contexts and was rejected intentionally as what was seen by some as a vestige of a destroyed European Jewish culture, in comparison to the vitality of the rebirth represented by Zionism.  For many, or perhaps most, American Jews who have grown up in liberal-movement synagogues, American-accented Israeli Hebrew pronunciation is the expected norm of synagogue prayer. Ashkenazi phonology is often unfamiliar to Jewish people of Ashkenazi descent.
Motivated by her interest in reclaiming Ashkenazi heritage and by an impulse to challenge the Zionist legacy of American synagogue language politics, Ahuvia would teach her zoom prayer service attendees to pronounce prayers in Ashkenazi Liturgical Hebrew. She created transliterated prayer sheets for participants to read from, inviting them to say the prayers in a way that was new for them but had sonic markers of something that was understood to be very old. One participant in a service said the pronunciation made her “sound like my grandparents.” The sound of Hebrew pronunciation helped foster a sense of blurred temporality that generated a suture across generations.
While Ahuvia’s political commitments align her with left-wing synagogue culture, or perhaps more closely fit the non-synagogue institutions of Jewish leftist political organizations, her musical prayer concept does not fit neatly into these organized Jewish spaces. Over the course of the pandemic, she began to conduct her own independent online weekly prayer service she refers to as “Shachris/t,” the Hebrew term for the morning service, transliterated both in Ashkenazi and Israeli phonological systems. More recently she began an evening service program one night a week in addition to her morning service offering. These weekly meetings have a steady following of a few dozen participants who regularly attend via Zoom. The Zoom services give Ahuvia a platform to explore her aesthetics and develop her skills as a prayer leader.
Ahuvia chants the texts of the prayer services, editing down the service to some of its key textual elements so that the service will take about the length of one hour. Her voice is quiet and focused and employs a small melodic range. The prayer leading makes use of a set repertoire of melodic motifs, varied with a certain degree of improvisation. Her melodic choices are drawn from familiar Ashkenazi melodic models but are audibly inflected by the sounds of Arabic vocal music, reflecting her enculturation in the Israeli sonic environment and enriched by online classes in Moroccan Hazzanut with Hai Kurkus.
Her identity is further reflected in her pronunciation of the texts, which in general conforms to the Israeli phonological system. She explains that by “using the Masorti Siddur [Hebrew, traditional prayer book], part of my hope was also to offer a space to engage with more liturgy which is rare for leftist non-synagogue goers, which I think is really rich. I used that siddur because it is fully transliterated and offers access, but it’s in the Sefardi pronunciation. I often begin by saying that I’ll move between pronunciations, and invite the polyphony of pronunciations.”
In the service, Ahuvia offers commentary about the texts, frequently framing the prayers in the context of the justice issues that animate her political consciousness. For example, she conveys this message when discussing “prayers that usually speak exclusively to the return of Jewish refugees to the land, using those moments to speak for the longing of all refugees to return home with peace and blessing.”
Ahuvia talks about “giving herself permission” to locate herself and her passionate concerns in the prayers, a theme that she also mentioned in her discussion of her choreography and its relationship to the Israeli dance environment it emerged from. Ahuvia seems to crave and gradually be gaining the authority to allow herself to speak in the language of Jewish prayer, despite seeming to perceive a paradoxical positionality as a person with a secular background engaging with the sacred. She seems to be pushing back against the power of historical forces to paralyze the ability to speak and the compulsion towards compliance with party lines that enforce rules of identity. There is a “presumed person” who speaks in the voice of Jewish tradition, and another who critiques the exercise of power in Israel-Palestine. Ahuvia embraces a persona of surprise, seeking to dismantle these expected categories of personhood and the normative expectations about the kind of Jewish person who can engage with ritual, or with the products of Israeli culture.
As Ahuvia notes in her chapter “Joy Vey,” Israeli folk dance emerged as part of a nationalist arts movement. Its development was contextualized in its sponsorship by the state towards the goal of fostering Israeli national identification. Ahuvia associates this cultural nation-building project with the displacement and destruction of Palestinian lives. Yet she grasps hold of this idiom as the basis for her work of creating new dance that critiques the political structure that the dance genre itself was designed to uphold. In a related approach, Ahuvia repositions Ashkenazi heritage towards the goal of supporting her project of creating a Jewish identity “beyond Zionism.” Her work as a prayer leader draws on sounds commonly associated with Orthodox Judaism, male cantors, and the Israeli national experience of drawing together Jews from diverse locations of diaspora into one political/sonic environment. These musical elements are positioned as tools to help her build prayer music that is explicitly resistant to the political and social structures that support “common sense” categories of Jewishness. Instead, Ahuvia embraces a stance as a figure who is at once Israeli and diasporic, deeply delving into heritage and committed to transformation.
Ahuvia’s prayer leading invokes a category of diasporic musical expression, based on the culturally intimate space of Jewish ritual. She works in the context of American liberal Judaism which has largely rejected the Ashkenazi sounds that she references in her singing. The musical approach heard in her services calls upon the structure of what musicologist Judit Frigyesi refers to as davenen, non-metered flowing chant without a clear beat structure.  Frigyesi argues that davenen is the basis of all Ashkenazi prayer music; this musical approach can be heard in a variety of forms across the Ashkenazi diaspora, including in an aestheticized form in the work of professional cantors. Ahuvia’s approach to prayer leading references a style that is vulnerable in the current moment and heard primarily in Orthodox settings where only male voices are considered to be legitimate in ritual performance.
The radical reclamation of the sound of nusakh and davenen is both an act of heritage reclamation and an artifact of the pandemic zoom era and its reverberations in the life of the Jewish community. As with many performing artists during the pandemic, Ahuvia experienced isolation, the omnipresence of talk of death and physical vulnerability and a lack of performance opportunities. These experiences guided Ahuvia towards seeking new presentational art forms suited to online sociality that would give her the opportunity to exercise her inward explorations—in her case, the genre she found in which to express herself has been Jewish ritual performance.
Zoom services are by necessity frontal—the forms of participatory music that are typical of the contemporary American synagogue are not practical for the streaming video format. Across the Jewish world, the norms of synagogue behavior that have accrued over the past fifty years have shifted and frontal performance has been foregrounded. This environment has made room for new kinds of experimentation with the social engagement of prayer and has fostered new approaches that feature the artistry of prayer leaders. This context has created a new opportunity and impetus for experimentation. Ahuvia’s services are a touchstone for the unregulated spirit of possibility and hunger for community that has emerged in response to the limitations of the streaming video technologies that typify social life in the pandemic era. The juxtaposition of identities, spiritual and political goals, and aesthetics that animate her work are a bright reminder of the possibilities that have been awakened by the breadth of access to digital distribution networks. The depth of Ahuvia’s engagement with heritage, political questions and Jewish musical concepts reflect the pulsating needs of a diverse Jewish community grappling with issues that institutions may be ill-equipped to address.
1] See Hadar Ahuvia, “Joy Vey: Choreographing a Radical Diasporic Israeliness,” The Oxford Handbook of Jewishness and Dance (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2022), 676-693.
 Ahuvia notes that, “Another important node to mention is my collaboration with Tatyana Tenenbaum, and the workshop we created as New Jewish Culture Fellows, to try and introduce our embodied approaches to sounding within the davenen context which I was in the midst of studying while we created this.” This workshop which was conducted under the auspices of the New Jewish Culture Fellowship of Brooklyn Jews, and supported by UJA/Federation of New York, was titled “Prayer of the Morning: Embodied Sound Practices for a Diasporist Davening.”
 See Lewis Glinert, Hebrew in Ashkenaz: a Language in Exile (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); and, see Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner and Sharon Avni Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps (Rutger University Press, 2020).
 Yiddishist and cultural critic Rokhl Kafrissen has written on the subject of the emotional weight of the perceived competition between Yiddish and Hebrew phonological systems for American Jews of Ashkenazi descent. For example, see Rokhl Kafrissen, “Make Bilingualism Great,” The Conversationalist, May 24, 2019.  See Judit Frigyesi “Preliminary Thoughts toward the Study of Music without Clear Beat: The Example of ‘Flowing Rhythm’ in Jewish Nusah,” Asian Music 24, no. 2 (Spring – Summer, 1993), 59-88; Judit Frigyesi, Writing on water: the sounds of Jewish prayer (New York, NY: Central European University Press, 2018).