Piety on Stage: Popular Drama and the Public Life of Early Modern Jewish Confraternities
In the summer of 1720, in the ghetto of Ferrara, the members of the devotional confraternity Ḥadashim la-bekarim (Daily Renewal) organized and staged public readings of Moses Zacuto’s dramatic poem Tofteh ‘arukh (Hell Arrayed). The readings, which were held after midnight and included musical accompaniment by an instrumental ensemble, afforded the opportunity for the entire community to channel religious and aesthetical impulses into a public ritual of devotion, while supplying the members of the confraternity a platform from which to popularize both their rites and the underlying learned culture. The Ferrara readings were by no means an isolated phenomenon. Marking the observance of liturgical feasts with the organization of sometimes elaborate events, in which ritual enactment and entertainment were combined, was a staple of Jewish confraternal life in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italy. These performances, most of which were at the semi-professional or amateur level, went from dramatized readings to cantatas, to small oratorios, and often involved purportedly composed Hebrew poetry of considerable literary merit. By reconstructing the commissioning, performance, and audience reception of some of these works, this essay explores the ways in which devotional confraternities and akin groups used dramatic and music poetry to promote confraternal rituals and gain new visibility, thus also contributing to reshape the public sphere inside the ghetto.
Keywords: Early Modern Italy; Jewish devotional confraternities; Hebrew poetry for music; Hebrew dramatic poetry; Immanuel Frances; Moses Zacuto
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