Israeli composer explores roots, Yemenite experiences, while studying at Pitt
search
ProfileNaama Perel Tzadok

Israeli composer explores roots, Yemenite experiences, while studying at Pitt

'My grandma was around this music-making, but her girls were not. My idea was to try and close this gap.'

Naama Perel Tzadok. (Photo courtesy of Naama Perel Tzadok)
Naama Perel Tzadok. (Photo courtesy of Naama Perel Tzadok)

A Pittsburgh-based Israeli composer is giving voice to old tales.

While tracing her Yemenite and Tunisian roots, Naama Perel Tzadok, a graduate student in composition and theory at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Music, is preserving Mizrahi influences and cultural missteps in the early Jewish state.

Perel Tzadok’s maternal grandparents were Tunisian. Her paternal grandparents were Yemenite. They were all influential, but so was her childhood musical exposure.

“Every time we came to my grandma’s house, she would play a cassette and we would dance,” Perel Tzadok.

Yemenite melodies, and songs from Zion Golan, varied from the tunes played in school. “The music education in Israel is more Euro-centric,” she said. “What I heard at home was different.”

As Perel Tzadok aged, her musical fascination developed: In sixth grade, she began playing guitar. After graduating high school, and while completing national service, she explored other instruments and genres.

“I would sneak out to the rehearsals of a brass orchestra,” she said. “My officer wouldn’t have approved it, but I also took saxophone and guitar lessons.”

Perel Tzadok, 39, recalled listening to live performances, “sitting near the stage and being so fascinated by it. It just stuck with me.”

She enrolled as a guitar player at Rimon School of Music in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, but soon realized she enjoyed creating her own music more than playing others’.

“I shifted to composition and arrangement,” she said.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in music education and choir conducting, Perel Tzadok revisited earlier interests.

“I decided I needed more composition in my life,” she said.

Perel Tzadok began a master’s degree in music theory and composition at the University of Haifa.

“Those were amazing years,” she said. “In Haifa, it was very different from everything else.”

The confluence of Arab and Israeli students afforded new exposures and insights.

“The Arabic music was similar to what I grew up on,” she said. As opposed to strictly focusing on the West, there was an openness to “including other musical traditions.”

Perel Tzadok dedicated her master’s work to Yemenite music and its integration into the early Jewish state.

Of interest, she explained, was how Ashkenazi Jews shaped cultural norms and understandings.

Some composers and artists mined the Mizrahi Jewish experience and, whether through misappropriation, racism or mistake, failed to properly respect non-European Jews, she said: “We can’t ignore that, it’s part of the history.”

Perel Tzadok’s research led to the creation of an album, “Memory Traces,” which incorporates classical music, Yemenite folk music, modern music and opera.

“Memory Traces.” (Image courtesy of Naama Perel Tzadok)

Released in June, the record serves as “my answer to those composers,” she said. As opposed to improperly recognizing Yemenite women’s contributions, “This is how I would integrate that music as someone who grew up on both traditions.”

“Memory Traces” explores life cycles and bygone ways.

While many men were “busy traveling with merchandise,” Yemenite women often raised children, tended their homes, ground wheat and retrieved water from wells, Perel Tzadok said.

Undertaking these tasks led many women to create songs about themselves and others; lyrics ranged from discussing the birth of a child, to making lunch or even the dislike of a husband’s second wife.

“The songs were orally transmitted from one woman to another or from mother to daughter,” she said.

Perel Tzadok was intrigued by the role of the mekonenet (lamenter), a woman who would make “people cry, while standing at the funeral or the shiva by talking about the dead,” she said. The mekonenet was often a gifted lyricist who could “create a poem about the person on the spot even though she didn’t know the man or woman who died.”

There was a rich musical tradition, but after Yemenites immigrated to Israel, everything changed, Perel Tzadok said: “Communities spread out. Women didn’t have the same role as they had in Yemen — now they had water from the tap; they didn’t have to go to the millhouse to grind the wheat. The places where the music was created didn’t exist, so the music stopped being created.”

Some elements, like the laments and wedding songs, continued, “but the birth songs disappeared,” she said.

“My grandma was around this music-making, but her girls were not. My idea was to try and close this gap.”

Perel Tzadok relied on the work of an academic, who transcribed the laments, before bringing together Israeli musicians, and opera singer Shani Oshir, for an album prioritizing Yemenite women’s voices.

“Memory Traces” contains songs about marriage, birth and death, but perhaps the most moving aspects, Perel Tzadok said, concern the Yemenite Children Affair.

Yemenite mother and child in 1949. Photo by Eldan David courtesy of National Photo Collection of Israel, Photography dept. Goverment Press Office

Between 1948 and 1954, between 1,000 and 5,000 Jewish babies and toddlers, mostly of Yemenite descent, disappeared. Though parents were told that the children died, rumors later spread that the kids were kidnapped and given up for adoption.

Decades passed and, after several formal inquiries, the issue was set to receive new attention.

In 2021, the Israeli Health ministry drafted a report that admitted a role in the disappearance of Yemenite children during the 1950s, according to Haaretz: “Although the report doesn’t present new testimonies or details, and contains no data regarding the scope of the phenomenon, it is the first official reference by a ministry to its involvement in a scandal that has haunted Israel for decades.”

The report was never published.

Perel Tzadok said the Yemenite Children Affair affected numerous immigrant families, including her own.

“It was very painful,” she said. “Nobody ever gave them a firm answer as to where their children were. If they were dead, where were they buried? Where is the grave? Where is the body?

“These aren’t just stories,” she continued. “These are people’s lives. These are people’s children. When we recorded it I cried. It was silenced for so long.”

Perel Tzadok and colleagues from Pitt’s Jewish Studies Program will address related issues next month during a symposium and performance titled “Mizrahi Music, Feminist Perspectives.”

The March 17 event, according to Perel Tzadok, is an opportunity to delve further into these topics both as a researcher and performer and also to welcome Oshri to Pittsburgh — the Israeli Persian-Yemenite opera singer who sang on “Memory Traces” is slated to join the mini-conference.

Perel Tzadok is looking forward to showcasing the university, her colleagues and a beloved new neighborhood.

“We came here with nothing,” she said. “We arrived at midnight to an empty house and, within a week or two, managed to arrange a home. People donated stuff without knowing us. They invited us for Shabbat meals and dinners, and still do even though we are not new here anymore.”

Perel Tzadok and her husband have four children ranging in age from 11 to 3. Before arriving in Squirrel Hill, the family lived in northern Israel in Tirat Zvi.

“We came from the kibbutz, but even though Pittsburgh is a city it’s very family-friendly,” she said. “We love the nature around us and I really enjoy the university. We really love the warmth of the community here. We feel like it’s a very good choice that we’re here.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more:
comments