A major international research arts project, “Performing the Jewish Archive,” has been awarded a grant of just over £1.5 million by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in the U.K., under the theme, “Care for the Future: Thinking Forward Through the Past.”
The project, headed by Russian music specialist Stephen Muir, a senior lecturer in Musicology and Performance at Leeds University, will bring rediscovered music and theatrical works by Jewish artists to the attention of academics and the public. As well as performing material that has lain dormant, forgotten, hidden or lost, Muir says that the grant will enable the creation of new works out of existing archives.
Muir, who is not Jewish, became interested in Jewish music approximately six or seven years ago. “For some reason the subject grabbed me, shook me up and made me think and I can’t let it go,” he said. His recent research has focused on the musical documentation of Russian and Polish Jewish composers who found their way to South Africa through displacement and migration. An opportune trip to Cape Town led to the discovery of a manuscript by Dovid Ajzensztadt, a major figure in Polish music in the 1920s who was murdered by the Nazis. Ajzensztadt’s lost Passover cantata, “Chad Gadya,” was performed for the first time since the Holocaust at a concert in Leeds earlier last year.
“Performing the Jewish Archive” is a 40-month project and involves a multidisciplinary team that includes seven academics, three doctoral students, a postdoctoral research fellow, a project manager and various sub-contracted staff working worldwide.
Muir told the Forward that the successful funding application has provided the opportunity for extensive archival research, as well as the possibility to put on a series of five prestigious performance festivals in five different locations: the U.S., U.K., Prague, Cape Town and Sydney. However, he stressed that the money will also go towards community groups and schools.
Muir is currently working with a synagogue in Leeds, which will be putting on a musical later this year, based on material gleaned from historical communal records. Participants delved into the archives of the Leeds Jewish community and, with the help of local playwright and actor, Vanessa Rosenthal, their ideas have been worked into a script.
Poignant stories of immigration, oppression and integration emerged which took place around the time of the 1905 Alien Act — legislation that was passed, principally, to keep Jews out of Britain. Stories also include accounts of individuals who made their way into the U.K. at the Hull Docks, a port of arrival for new immigrants in the north of England.
Local activity such as this musical, said Muir, is equally important as the headline events.
Muir says that he, and most of his colleagues who are working on the project, are driven by questions of justice, and are motivated by “a question of righting historical wrongs” that may have been perpetrated during the Holocaust through political censorship. He wants to try and correct “what we can to try and get people to think differently” and takes the view that, “The fact that some musicians, composers or playwrights have become marginalized because they were Jewish, or whatever the cause, needs to be addressed.”
Muir welcomes hearing from members of the public — via the PTJA website — who may have unearthed any documentation in the form of letters, plays or compositions that may be utilized as part of the team’s research.
Muir and his team are aware of the fact that, for some, there is a sense of cynicism or fatigue about looking back into such archives and opinion may be divided regarding the benefit of their research. But, he is adamant. As their theme suggests, “We’re as much about looking forward, as [we are about] archeology.”