Assaf Shelleg, "Theological Stains: Art Music and the Zionist Project" (Oxford UP, 2020)

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Theological Stains: Art Music and the Zionist Project (Oxford UP, 2020) offers the first in-depth study of the development of art music in Israel from the mid-twentieth century to the turn of the twenty-first. In a bold and deeply researched account, author Assaf Shelleg explores the theological grammar of Zionism and its impact on the art music written by emigrant and native composers. He argues that Israeli art music, caught in the tension between a bibliocentric territorial nationalism on the one hand and the histories of deterritorialized Jewish diasporic cultures on the other, often features elements of both of these competing narratives. Even as composers critically engaged with the Zionist paradigm, they often reproduced its tropes and symbols, thereby creating aesthetic hybrids with 'theological stains.'

Drawing on newly uncovered archives of composers' autobiographical writings and musical sketches, Shelleg closely examines the aesthetic strategies that different artists used to grapple with established nationalist representations. As he puts the history of Israeli art music in conversation with modern Hebrew literature, he weaves a rich tapestry of Israeli culture and the ways in which it engaged with key social and political developments throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In analyzing Israeli music and literature against the backdrop of conflicts over territory, nation, and ethnicity, Theological Stains provides a revelatory look at the complex relationship between art and politics in Israel.

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D. is a psychologist, writer, Middle East television commentator and host of The New Books Network’s Van Leer Jerusalem Series on Ideas. Write her at r.garfinkel@yahoo.com.

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