On April 3, the Center for Jewish Studies honored Talia Cohen ’19 with the Best Student Paper in Jewish Studies award.
Cohen’s paper, which she wrote for her Romantic Poetry class during the fall semester, examines a work by Jewish composer Isaac Nathan as a powerful response to anti-Semitism. Specifically, she considers his decision to set Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” to a Sephardic Portuguese tune for Solomon ha-Levi Alkabez’s 16th-century mystical Sabbath poem, “Lecha Dodi.”
According to the abstract, “While Hebrew Melodies (1815), the songbook to which the musicalized version of Lord Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ belongs, was widely popular and generally held in favorable opinion at the time of its publication, several reviewers criticized the project from one of two seemingly contradictory angles: some took issue with the widespread veneration of Jewish music in a Christian society, finding the songs ‘too Jewish,’ while others complained that the music was not true to its ancient Israelite roots and therefore ‘not Jewish enough.’”
The paper, titled “She Walks in Beauty Like the . . . Sabbath? A Musical Message of Jewish Pride” explores how the many tunes for Lecha Dodi highlight the parallel imagery between the woman of Byron’s poem and the feminized Sabbath bride of Alkabez’s hymn, suggesting an implicit celebration of Jewish particularity. It then moves on to argue that the tune chosen specifically for the Byron poem comes from the Sephardic Portuguese tradition and bears clear melodic markers of the cultural exchange between Jews and the broader Christian world, emphasizing a people’s right to engage with their surroundings and evolve.
“In choosing a tune that simultaneously defied Jewish melodic stereotypes of the time and was still undeniably ‘Jewish’ by virtue of its melodic connection with one of the oldest continuous Jewish practices and markers of Jewish chosenness, Nathan, consciously or not, celebrates Jewish distinction and argues for the Jewish right to self-definition amidst a period of prevalent anti-Semitism,” Cohen explains.
Dalit Katz, director of the Center for Jewish Studies and adjunct associate professor of religion, cited multiple reasons for selecting Cohen’s paper for the award, “Members of the committee were impressed by Talia’s thorough research, the textual analysis, as well as the originality of the work.”