Sharing the legacy of Jewish Italian liturgy: the extraordinary challenge dedicated to Leo Levi

The history of the music of Italian Jews is a rich and complex one. Every Jewish community in Italy, be it large or small, maintained its own musical tradition up to the early 1900s. It is an extremely diversified heritage that survives in very diverse formats and different levels of preservation spanning communities that have completely disappeared and whose music is to be found only in a few transcriptions and individual tunes to communities where the liturgical tradition is still very much alive, vibrant.
Protecting this legacy, favoring its use, and sharing it is the challenge of the Online Thesaurus of Jewish Italian Music, a database offering systematic access to recordings, transcriptions and scores also valuing archives and resources already present.
A balance of the first year of activity of the project, promoted by the International Center Leo Levi with the support of prestigious Israeli, American and Italian institutions, was recently illustrated in Florence at the presence of rabbis, cantors, and scholars. The meeting was also an opportunity to remember Leo Levi (1912-1982), the extraordinary protagonist of Italian Jewry to whom this initiative is dedicated.
An Italian ethnomusicologist, he was the first to study the oral musical tradition of Italian Jews. A grandson of a rabbi, his attempt to submit a PhD thesis at the University of Turin was thwarted by the onset of fascism and he emigrated to Palestine in 1936. He returned to Italy after World War II and dedicated himself to the study of Italian-Jewish music. “It is moving to think of him and his rescue work carried out with a small tape recorder, from synagogue to synagogue”, remarked David Meghnagi, Vice-president of Leo Levi Center. The Thesaurus comes from this commitment. Its goal is to offer scholars, musicians, laymen, community members and anybody with an interest in Jewish music, a comprehensive online database of the music of Italian Jews. It also aims to raise a new generation of chazanim.
In this regard, as Meghnagi anticipated, “one of the ideas is to establish study paths in Israel”. Also, each year a chazan who particularly distinguished himself will be rewarded. In the first edition it was decided to pay homage to three great Masters who are no longer with us: Rabbi Fernando Belgrado, Rav Elia Richetti and Rav Vittorio Della Rocca. For Meghnagi, the involvement will also take the form of a CD dedicated to the liturgical music of North Africa. A theme already explored in the Shira Shir collection that introduces to various moments of Jewish-Libyan life: the joys of birth, the pain of loss, and the Psalms of the Stairs recited on Shabbat afternoon.
The Thesaurus was created through the vision and insight of rabbi Joseph Levi, son of Leo Levi z.l., who was chief rabbi of Florence for over twenty years. “Our ambition – he said – is to make known the millenary tradition of Jewish-Italian ritual music and at the same time to make Italian Judaism flourish and grow with its beautiful and particular musical traditions”.
These traditions, he added, have very ancient roots and constitute “a continuous contribution to both the aesthetic and religious history of Judaism, in continuity with the action of the Levites who carried on the beauty of singing at Beth HaMikdash”. Therefore, there are also initiatives connected to Thesaurus such as courses on the history of siddur and minhaghim carried out in collaboration with the Shemah School for Jewish studies and culture. Forming the chazanut, Rabbi Levi says, “was an integral part of my father’s hopes; it’s the same for me, as a rabbi who cares about continuity”.
“The original idea is the fruit of an intuition of Edwin Seroussi, professor of musicology, former winner of the Israel Prize. It is a work in the name of Leo Levi, which however does not end in his legacy. Indeed, the intention is to update our database as much as possible, also using the new generation of cantors. A life-giving commitment”, sayd Enrico Fink, President of the Florentine Jewish Community and appreciated voice on the artistic and singing scene. Many goals have been achieved in the first year of the project, also coordinated by Piergabriele Mancuso – The Medici Archive Project. Still others are on the horizon so to illuminate “what is, without doubt, one of the most important treasures of Italian Judaism”. This commitment does not intend to replace those carried out by others in this field. Realities that already operate in the field of Jewish liturgical heritage will, on the contrary, be “even more easily accessible”. It is a project in which Fink strongly believes, “strengthened by the existence of a wide-ranging international network that gives value and meaning to our challenge”.

Above, Leo Levi at the Italian synagogue in Jerusalem.