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Paloma lectures on Spanish-Jewish experience

Vanessa Paloma, an internationally known performer, scholar and lecturer, spoke Thursday in the Campus Center about Sephardic Jewish music and culture during the “Golden Age,” an era that witnessed the expulsion of Jews from Spain. The Sephardic Jewish culture emerges from Spanish, Portuguese, North African and Middle Eastern descendants. / photo by Cameron Barr

Vanessa Paloma, an internationally known performer, scholar and lecturer, spoke Thursday in the Campus Center about Sephardic Jewish music and culture during the “Golden Age,” an era that witnessed the expulsion of Jews from Spain. The Sephardic Jewish culture emerges from Spanish, Portuguese, North African and Middle Eastern descendants. / photo by Cameron Barr

Robert Penalber
Staff Writer

Internationally renowned performer Vanessa Paloma integrated live music into her lecture about the culture of Sephardic Jews Thursday.

The lecture, held in the Ludwick Center, covered the Jewish community during the age of interfaith coexistence and how it has thrived despite the Jewish expulsion from Spain.

“Even today, we still have the marks of Jewish presence,” Paloma said.

Paloma, whose interest in Sephardim came as a result of studying in Israel, spoke about the elements of the music that began in the Iberian Peninsula.

Paloma said there are elements from the daily lives of the Sephardic Jews that are taken from the culture and incorporated into the music, such as the plasterwork of the synagogues.

“It’s an example of lifelong learning going on,” President Devorah Lieberman said. “I’m delighted to share this common experience.”

As Paloma shared traditional stories heard in the Jewish culture, she followed it with a song played on her harp.

“They have their own repertoire for their own sphere,” Paloma said.

Paloma incorporated lecture between each song to give background on the Sephardic culture, describing the Diaspora from Spain during 1391 until 1492.

“The incorporation of the music, the images and a lecture really brought it all to life for me,” junior education major Brittaney Koontz said.

Those who did not migrate instead suffered forced conversion to Catholicism.

Those who did not convert traveled to what is known as “playa de los judios,” the Jewish beach, 14 kilometers from Spain.

“These boundaries we have in our modern nation-states don’t represent the music and culture we have,” Paloma said.

Paloma played another song about Jews while they were on the trains to Auschwitz, leaving their homeland to die.

The audience, made up of students and faculty, was silent as Paloma played the eerie, slow tempo song.

One song came from the myth of Sephardic families as they left their homes in Spain.

These families would keep a spare key from their old homes and pass them on to the next generation.

Another song represented the roles of women in the synagogues with their purity being most present.

The song detailed a young Moroccan woman and the fear she had of losing her purity and consequently her honor.

“One of the constant fears for women dealt with the fears of assimilation,” Paloma said.

Women, as part of Jewish law, were to cover their bodies.

Paloma explained how marriage is considered the highest state of divinity for the women because it symbolizes her maternity role.

She finished with one last song called “La Novia, El Novio,” a song that enumerates all the parts of a bride’s body.

The audience participated in singing with Paloma to an upbeat cadence.

“It was interesting to learn of the combination of Jewish and Spanish culture,” sophomore psychology major Elizabeth Janetzke said. “I didn’t expect it.”

As Paloma finished her lecture, she left the audience with a question to consider: if one does not know people that are the ‘other’ then how can they relate?

“Society influences social control. Being Jewish is not just one thing.” Paloma said. “It involves the background and ancestors of the people.”

Robert Penalber can be reached at robert.penalber@laverne.edu.

Also see the related story, “Cross-cultural music honors past.”

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