A unique moment in Sephardic music is emerging in the Republic of Serbia. Since 2000, a small but vibrant Sephardic music scene has been formed through the efforts of a small group of individuals. The scene keeps alive a repertoire that has survived many upheavals: the Holocaust and the near-total extermination of Sephardic sacred music practitioners from the region; a half-century of religious suppression under the Yugoslav government; and the political turmoil of the 1990s and the establishment of the Republic of Serbia from what was once Yugoslavia. Each of these major socio-political shifts had an impact on how today’s musicians learned and contributed to the creation of Sephardic music. Since 2000, the maintenance and reworking of the Sephardic music scene in Belgrade has taken place almost entirely because of small group individuals. The Sephardic music scene that has emerged is now made up of one concert stage ensemble, Shira u’tfila [Song and Prayer], and a collection of synagogue singers. Though the scene comprises only a small number of musicians, these individuals exercise considerable power in determining how broader categories like Sephardic and Jewish are represented and contribute to the civic, state, and international public imagination.
The expression of being Serbian, Sephardic, and Jewish is shaped and transmitted by this small group of musicians as they actively engage in a variety of discourses. These discourses concern the role of technology in the transmission of their practice, historical consciousness and nostalgia, and personal and social identities. By looking at how musical and social domains are established and promoted through performance, I show how personal taste and individual creativity play a role in representing Jewish culture in Serbia and Serbian-Jewish culture to an international audience. Ultimately, Shira u’tfila helps redefine ideas of Serbian Jewishness, and articulates an understanding of music in Jewish life as behavior that embraces both sacred and secular, both Jewish and non-Jewish, repertoire.