Holy cannoli: Jewish Italian music on the table

They’ll be singing songs from the ghetto at this year’s Jewish Music Festival. The Italian Jewish ghetto, that is.

Milan native Francesco Spagnolo is a Bay Area musicologist, but for an upcoming festival concert of Jewish Italian music, he and his band I-Tal-Ya will be anything but academic. After all, the March 4 concert will be held at Berkeley’s Caffé Venezia, and during the performance, the Chianti will be flowing.

But don’t expect “Volare” or “O Solo Mio.” The songs will have a decidedly Jewish accent.

I-Tal-Ya’s lineup includes Spagnolo, his wife, Cantor Sharon Bernstein of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, and Michael Alpert, founder of the klezmer band Brave Old World and one of the world’s greatest exponents of Jewish music. Though most festival offerings take place in traditional theaters, Spagnolo thinks Caffé Venezia is the right setting.

“It’s ideal,” he says in liltingly accented English. “A lot of the songs are about food. Think of Mickey Katz [the kitschy Jewish music parodist popular in the 1950s] in the Italian ghettoes in the 1600s.”

While klezmer from Ashkenazi regions and Ladino music from Sephardic Spain currently dominate Europe’s Jewish music scene, Spagnolo says Italy was also a major center of Jewish art and culture.

“Italy is the cradle of Jewish multiculturalism,” he says, adding ghetto life “forced Jews of all denominations to live together and negotiate culturally. Nothing like that happened until the founding of the state of Israel.”

Jews from northern and western Europe, as well as refugees from North Africa and the Middle East converged on Italy during the Renaissance. Even though they were forced into ghettoes, Italian Jewish culture blossomed.

“Venice in the 1500s is like Paris in the 1800s,” says Spagnolo. “Ghettoized Jews were considered very sexy, attractive and cosmopolitan. They had connections with Islam at a time when the worlds were very much divided. All of these Jewish cultures got together and met Italian music, and music is one of the most portable aspects of culture.”

So concertgoers at the Caffé Venezia will hear a healthy cross-section of music, much of it sung in the Judeo-Italian dialect (yes, there is such a thing). “Some songs are for liturgical occasions,” adds Spagnolo, “some for Shabbat and some for the seder.”

A widely respected scholar, author and performer, Spagnolo studied at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory and the University of Milan. In 1997 he founded Yuval Italia, the Milan-based Italian Center for the Study of Jewish Music.

A research fellow of the Jewish Music Research Center in Jerusalem and Ph.D. candidate at Hebrew University, he moved to San Francisco to be with his wife, whom he met in the music department of Israel’s National Archives in Jerusalem.

“How do you seduce an American cantor?” asks Bernstein, who admits to having a weakness for all things Italian. “Teach her an Italian Kiddush.” The two have a young son, Ariel.

Though he says getting back to Italy to oversee Yuval is a challenge, Spagnolo has done very well for himself as a local scholar. He serves as music curator of the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley and also teaches in the Music and Literature departments of U.C. Santa Cruz.

Despite all that time he spends in dusty museum archives and university libraries, Spagnolo says the upcoming concert program “comes from long hours in the car traveling from one gig to the next, and long hours at the dinner table with a good bottle of wine.”

In fact, the idea for the show itself originated after Jewish Music Festival Director Ellie Shapiro attended a seder at the Spagnolo-Bernstein home a couple of years ago.

“It was the best seder I’ve ever been to,” recalls Shapiro. “As part of the seder, they sang Italian drinking songs. I wanted Bay Area audiences to experience what I did.”

And so they will. Spagnolo looks forward to performing with his wife and breaking out of the academic mold. Given his love for all things Jewish, Italian and gastronomic, it shouldn’t be too hard.

Says Spagnolo, “We’ll put our love of Judaism literally on the table.”

I-Tal-Ya performs 11:30 a.m. Sunday, March 5, at Caffé Venezia, 1799 University Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $36. Information: (415) 276-1511 or at jewishmusicfestival.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.