16 April 2008

A man of notes

"The day the music died," by David Brinn, in the Jerusalem Post, focuses on Feher Jewish Music Center's former director Dr. Yuval Shaked, whose 12 years at the center ended March 31.

He had single-handedly overseen, since 1999, the FHC's collection of thousands of recordings of Jewish music, from classical, religious and pop genres, to the computerized database. It was the music source for scholars, cantors, academics and musicians from around the world.

I've known him for years and understand his passionate dedication to the collection.

Each time I wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post on FHC resources and achievements, he was deluged with phone calls and emails from people wanting to volunteer, by new immigrants wanting to perform the music, and by people (in Israel and abroad) wishing to donate valuable collections to the archives. He spoke at several JFRA Israel genealogy society meetings and located music composed or recorded by several members' ancestors.

Over the years, we had discussed arranging a CD of Iranian Jewish music, and I'm sorry I didn't pursue it with more diligence. It would have been welcomed by the Diaspora Iranian Jewish community and funding could well have been located.

While visitors can still come and access the music data bank through listening stations, he says, in the story, that he made a calculation before he left - only about eight percent of the collection is accessible today in the data bank. "The rest is in my memory," he said.

On one memorable visit - I always went with a one-hour visit scheduled and stayed for several hours, discovering new materials - I sat on one side of his desk piled high with newly received materials waiting to be catalogued into the database. Flipping through the stacked high cases, a series of Ukrainian National Archives CDs caught my eye. Based on a famous ethnographic music expedition in the early 1900s which recorded on wax cylinders, the Archives had produced digitized CDs to preserve and transmit the rare collection.

One featured recordings made in Mogilev, Belarus (where my family lived from at least the early 1700s). I listened to recordings made by people my ancestors had perhaps heard - a famous cantor and others - it was as good as finding an archival document. It filled in the gaps and and helped me understand what life was like then. I am just one of thousands of people around the world who have used these and other resources.

According to the story:

"We've serviced people from all over," said Shaked. "We've gotten emails with queries of people who want information on their distant relative who was a ba'al tefila in a small village in Eastern Europe, things like that."

"We have numerous recordings that don't appear anywhere else, like 78 rpm recordings that were privately produced and ended up with us. We digitize them and archive them, write bios of forgotten cantors and singers, and find and attach photos if we can find them. Many times visitors have come, and have located a relative of theirs, whom they didn't believe that a recording of still existed," he added, with a clear passion in his voice for the subject matter.

Over the past few months, I've visited his office and we've often communicated by email. Each time, he voiced his worry at what would happen to the FHC after his departure, and how this would impact people worldwide who utilize it.

"By dismissing me, they're effectively closing the center," Shaked told The Jerusalem Post. "Everyone who's familiar with the collection knows it's unique in the world."

What is worse is that almost all recent funding for various initiatives of the Center came from Yuval's own prodigious fundraising efforts. But the museum's management did nothing to find funding for his position.

Museum director Hasia Israeli told The Jerusalem Post that the center is not being closed, but part of a "reorganization process."

"There are budget cuts we needed to face, and this was part of that decision," she said, adding that the center is going to continue digitalizing its data banks of music archives.

According to Shaked, however, unless there's someone in his position, that effort will never materialize.

Although the director said efforts were being made to find funding to bring Yuval back, he says the only efforts are coming from him. When he was terminated, there was no effort made to approach the Feher Foundation to find a solution, and even the museum's fundraiser was not asked to become involved.

"Even now, the efforts to find funds are not being undertaken by the management, but by the chief curator of the museum and by myself at home."

What is most important is that he has always maintained that the FHC could be self-sufficient if the museum would properly promote the CDs and concerts produced by the FHC.

"The center could cover all its expenses if the management would support these projects and transfer the funds. The center sells CDs, not only at the museum and on our site, but through Amazon. However, the money from Amazon, for instance, is transferred to the American Friends of Beth Hatefusoth, and the management in Israel has always refused to ask them to transfer the funds here. It's used to pay the salary of a secretary in their office instead," he said.

The recently released excellent double CD of Kamti LeHallel with the music of the Amsterdam, London and New York Spanish & Portuguese communities, received no museum promotion, according to Cantor Daniel Halfon.

Yuval maintains that the project was damaged by the museum's management, which gave it no recognition or attention. It wasn't even mentioned at a board meeting that took place two weeks after its release.

Shaked said in the story that the management's attitude has been ambivalent for a long time: "In my first meeting with the director in February 2006, she told me that she wasn't sure the museum should even have a music center - she preferred a data bank on Jewish kitchens."

The center was founded by musicologist Dr. Avner Bahat in 1982 and directed until 1999 by him, when Yuval became director after working with Bahat from 1996. The FHC has released 20 CDs and cassettes featuring traditional singing of Jews in Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Bombay and Spain; music of vanished communities, and other types of music.

Read more here.

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