When I teach about the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE and the Babylonian exile that followed, I open the unit by playing “Rivers of Babylon,” written and performed by the Jamaican Rocksteady band, The Melodians (1970). Boney M performed the song later that decade, when it became a major hit across Europe.
The song begins with the first lines of Psalm 137 (slightly revised: the “we” becomes “he”):
By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he wept
When he remembered Zion.
Psalm 137, in its subsequent verses, describes the captive Israelites hanging their harps on the willow trees, incapable of singing the songs of Zion as requested by their captors. They find themselves in exile, far from home, anguished and suffering, as they cry: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?” Having witnessed the violent destruction of their city and its temple, they are unable or unwilling to find the words and melodies to sing.
The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” poses the same question to its audience:
But the wicked carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha song in a strange land?
Rather than hanging their musical instruments on the nearby willows, however, this Rastafarian song insists that the response must be different. They must not remain silent. They must continue singing, and their songs for freedom must be louder and more insistent.
Sing it out loud
Sing a song of freedom, sister
Sing a song of freedom, brother
We gotta sing and shout it
We gotta jump and shout it
Shout the song of freedom now
The Melodians’ song is upbeat and energized. As David W. Stowe demonstrates in “Babylon Revisited: Psalm 137 as American Protest Song” (Black Music Research Journal, 32.1, 2012, 95-112), this musical rendition of Psalm 137 departs significantly from earlier Puritan and gospel tunes. The lyrics mention King Alpha, which refers to Ras Tafari, Haile Selasie I, the Rasta messiah, as does “O Far-I,” which replaces the biblical “O Lord.” The final verses of Psalm 137 are omitted from the song; the song lyrics replace a wish for violent revenge with a call to place agency in the act of singing itself (or perhaps subversively allude to the end of the Psalm without explicitly quoting it). The song thus transforms a statement about memory and mourning into “an exhortation to struggle and protest through music” (108).
When my students first read Psalm 137 and other sources about the destruction of the first temple in preparation for class, they usually focus on the texts’ descriptions of death, loneliness, dislocation, suffering, and theological self-blame, and in its anguished and angry conclusion. If they were to imagine the aural dimension of this psalm, putting its words to music or creating a soundtrack, they would choose morose, slow, depressing tunes, perhaps a dirge. Indeed, when they listen to a recording of a traditional synagogal Jewish chanting of the Book of Lamentations later in that same class meeting, it confirms their initial ideas about these sources’ sad themes and tunes.
But when they hear the upbeat rhythms of “Rivers of Babylon,” they understand that the same or similar phrases and textual fragments, slightly altered, can be used not only to mourn but also to resist. Singing in the face of suffering and oppression, the song insists, is a powerful form of resistance (and, perhaps, the refusal to sing – that is, to remain silent – in the original psalm was also a deliberate, albeit different, form of resistance).
Boney M’s rendition of the song omits the theological and liberatory Rastafarian references from The Melodians’ original piece, but I like sharing this version with students as well, for other reasons, including that it is sung by women. Because male authorship and transmission of biblical texts is so often taken for granted by my students, it is helpful for them to hear the words articulated through the voices of women.
This juxtaposition between expected and unexpected tunes and voices allows my students to explore the range of emotions and perspectives – even contradictory ones - that a single phrase or question or verse can contain, and to recognize that sound plays an important role for how we understand or access a text’s motivation and meaning. Listening to the song sensitizes us to the many dimensions of sound in and beyond our sources. We might therefore also listen to other musical performances of Psalm 137, for example the tunes sung during contemporary Jewish wedding ceremonies, a practice designed to remind those celebrating that even at moments of great joy there is continued suffering. When we return to analyze Psalm 137 in the context of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., our analysis becomes much deeper and more open-ended because my students have heard musical renditions of the psalm that allowed them not only to reinterpret the psalm’s words in new ways but also to imagine a range of different possibilities for its composition and recitation, in antiquity and thereafter. A nearly identical set of words, set to different music, teaches us that ancient texts captured many varied reactions to and experiences of the same historical event for those who read or recited them.
How and why do we incorporate sound into our classrooms?
Last semester, I thought a lot about the role that sound plays in my classroom and in my pedagogy. I wondered:
(1) How do we sensitize students to listen for the many sounds described in ancient texts?
(2) How can we incorporate sound most effectively into our classrooms?
(3) How do we encourage students to create their own sounds, and to use their own voices, in our assignments?
Below, I share some of the ways in which I have experimented with sound in my teaching, including a final project in which each of my students produced their own podcast. While all of the examples below stem from my course titled “Ancient and Medieval Jerusalem from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives,” my hope is that these ideas will resonate with others who teach about the past in other contexts as well.
The Sounds in Our Sources
There are no recordings of sounds from antiquity and yet, once my students and I started paying attention to the aural dimensions of our texts, we noticed that written sources frequently allude to and incorporate references to sounds. Our analyses of these sources changed when we took sound into account. We noticed, for example, sounds of celebration associated with David’s conquest of Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6 and, in contrast, the different registers of sound – weeping, groaning, silence – in the five chapters of the book of Lamentations. We compared the ways in which both the biblical book of Ezra as well as Ibn al-Athir’s writings about Salah a-Din refer to the simultaneous and indistinguishable sounds of joy and sorrow in the context of re-consecration (of the Second Temple and of the Dome of the Rock, respectively). We analyzed the sounds associated with pilgrimage, processions, and liturgy in Egeria’s account of her trip to Jerusalem and Margery Kempe’s loud and incessant weeping on her journey to the holy city. We discussed which sounds came to be specifically associated with women’s presence in the city in sources as diverse as Lamentations Rabbah and a 16th-century collection of Ottoman firmans. In contrast to accounts of loud public celebrations during festival times, we also read legal and administrative documents across historical periods that limited public sounds of worship, which were considered noise, and examined the ways in which religious pluralism was institutionalized, bolstered, or undermined through the legislation of sounds of worship. By turning to the theme of sound throughout the semester, the students added an important dimension of analysis that they had not previously considered and which they could then apply far beyond their study of Jerusalem’s history.
Hearing Sounds in Our Classrooms
In addition to reading for sound in our texts, there were many opportunities to use sound recordings – beyond the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” and traditional Jewish recitations of Lamentations and Psalms – in the classroom to assist in our analysis of sources and to deepen discussions of the larger themes they evoked.
(a) Listening to some sounds allowed us better to understand our sources by imagining the aural context their authors assumed when they wrote their texts. For example, in his autobiography, Muhammad al-Ghazali describes what drove him to travel to Damascus, Jerusalem, and eventually the Hijaz. In the midst of a spiritual crisis, he found that his tongue dried up and he could no longer lecture – that is, he found himself unable to make any sounds and thus felt compelled to seek God out in other venues and make sense of his confusion by traveling. In Damascus, al-Ghazali stayed for full days in the mosque’s minaret; in Jerusalem, he went daily to work inside the Dome of the Rock. By listening to a modern recording of a muezzin’s adhan, amplified through the minaret, and watching a 3-dimensional video of contemporary worship within the Dome of the Rock, we were able to think about how al-Ghazali’s inability to speak was juxtaposed, in his written account, by these loud sounds calling others to prayer even as he remained in silent contemplation. Hearing a contemporary rendition of a sound mentioned in a text (while being careful not to conflate the two) can help us appreciate the message embedded within the passage in a more meaningful and full sense.
(b) We listened to contemporary liturgical recordings first composed in antiquity and the medieval period, to hear how these texts continue to be read, studied, recited and sung as living traditions. When we read rabbinic passages, for example, we watched the Yeshiva University Museum’s video installation of talmudic study in yeshivot across the world. When we analyzed texts and objects related to the Relic of the True Cross, the legends associated with its discovery in the fourth century, and its recovery by Heraclius in the seventh century, we listened to hymns about the True Cross sung in contemporary Greek monasteries on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. When we studied Muhammad’s Night Journey in the Qur’an and Hadith traditions, we listened to different recitations of Surat al-Isra. When we learned about the Crusades and their memory in medieval Europe, we listened to Hildegard of Bingen’s “O Jerusalem” chants. The goal of incorporating these sounds into our class meetings was not about recovering how the texts sounded or were used in their original historical contexts (we do that in other ways in our analysis of the sources) but rather about critically engaging with the reception of these sources by later readers and practitioners and understanding their enduring impact on the development of contemporary traditions.
(c) Paying attention to diverse sounds helped us theorize larger course themes, such as sacred space, ritual, religious collaboration and conflict. For example, when we studied the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we watched three video clips. The first, created by National Geographic, was a brief view into the 2016 renovation of Jesus’ tomb, in which scientists, conservationists, and ecclesial figures from the various Christian denominations within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre worked and spoke together to ensure the safe completion of the project. My students commented on how the video’s sounds emphasized the collaborative dimension of the conservation efforts. The second was a news clip of a brawl within the church that erupted when some found their access to a part of the church jeopardized, capturing the tension that arises when different denominations share the same sacred space. The third clip depicted the ceremony of the Holy Fire and the height of ritual excitement on the day preceding Orthodox Easter. These clips, each of which contained different sounds – of meticulous collaboration, agitated frustration and shouting, and ritualized excitement – allowed my students to think through the ways in which a shared space can simultaneously bring people of different backgrounds or theologies together, cause tension between them, and serve as the venue for inspiring rituals, violence, and conservation efforts. Drawing on the work of Abigail Wood about the sounds at the Western Wall plaza in contemporary Jerusalem (“The Cantor and the Muezzin’s Duet: Contested Soundscapes at Jerusalem’s Western Wall,” Contemporary Judaism 35 (2015): 55-72), we might also have watched clips of soulful prayer at the Wailing Wall, the loud clashes between police and Women of the Wall, violent encounters between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque, and so on, further to theorize the ways in which a space shared by two or more religious communities – in this case the Western Wall-Temple Mount Plaza / Haram al-Sharif – can also become a site for continuous negotiation between coexistence and conflict.
Creating Sound: Project Podcast
For their final course project, each student or group of students produced a podcast about one aspect of Jerusalem’s history. A podcast uses sound (voices, music, sound effects) to tell a story, and this assignment, which we titled Project Podcast, encouraged students to think about the aural dimensions that might be harnessed in our historical work and that is so often lost because sounds from the past are difficult to preserve. The assignment deliberately asked students to use their own voices to animate the historical voices and sounds we studied together over the course of the semester and to use sound as a vehicle through which to share their insights. The process of creating a podcast also challenged students to think creatively about how to tell compelling stories; how to make complex historical ideas and sources accessible and exciting for a broader audience; and how to use a new technology to explore ancient texts. In the end, our class collaboratively produced a podcast series devoted to exploring different dimensions of the city of Jerusalem and the many religious communities, texts, and traditions that emerged from and about the city.
Students were free to choose any topic or historical moment related to Jerusalem to explore in their podcast. In order to emphasize the collaborative dimension of the assignment, we brainstormed possible topics in class and students were thus able to find partners or form groups with those interested in similar questions and themes. This exercise also helped us diversify topics and avoid replication. Some students chose to work alone, while others worked in groups of 2, 3, or 4. My teaching assistant, who is also a documentary filmmaker, taught them to use podcast software (we used Audacity, which is free), editing techniques, sound adjustment, and recording at the Digital Media Lab on campus, with the help of the lab’s director. Each podcast was required to run between 8-16 minutes. Along with the audio file, students were asked to submit a written copy of their script, with proper citation for all sources and sound clips; a bibliography; and a 2-3-page written statement in which each student individually described their creative process, the questions that motivated them in their research and recording, the sources they drew upon to create their podcast, the goals they attempted to accomplish, and any challenges they faced along the way. In the planning phases, I worked together with a colleague in Information Technology / Digital Humanities to figure out various technical aspects of the project, including how to help students find relevant sounds online, making sure to comply with copyright laws, and figuring out where best to host/store the podcasts. We decided to upload the podcasts to our course’s Google Drive Folder, to which all the students in the course have access but that could not be viewed by those beyond the course. This way, they could hear what their classmates had produced but not worry that the file would be searchable or accessible online. In our last week of class, we listened to the podcast series together, which allowed us to review the history we learned over the preceding months, draw exciting connections between sources and themes, and pose new questions to ponder as we wrapped up our semester of conversations.
Three of the podcasts centered on the topic of pilgrimage. In the first, a group of students created a dialogue between four pilgrims – al-Ghazali, Judah ha-Levi, a Russian abbot, and Margery Kempe – who meet in the heavenly Jerusalem. There, they describe their motivations for traveling to Jerusalem, their experiences of the city and its holy sites, and the composition of their texts. Not only did they give voice to each figure, using language from each of their writings, but they also incorporated the sounds of Margery’s weeping, the opening and closing of gates, the sounds of the muezzin and of Crusader hymns to weave together their dialogue, which they could not have incorporated into a traditional writing assignment. The second podcast was produced by a single student, who analyzed scholarship about medieval pilgrimage though a feminist lens. Are scholarly conclusions about women’s mobility based on accounts of and by women travelers or on assumptions about women’s travel gleaned from prescriptive texts written by men who worried about increased women’s movement? The podcast was as meticulous in its historiographical analysis as a research paper would have been, but hearing a young woman reflect on these questions gave the study an added sense of urgency and relevance. In a third podcast, a student offered a personal reflection on his relationship to the symbol of the cross. He interwove the legend of Helen’s finding of the True Cross with his own journey both to discover the historicity of – or, in his words, the “truth” about – the original cross and to locate the nearest relic of the True Cross so that he could encounter the ancient artifact for himself. By the end, he describes crossing the Hudson River and climbing up the hill to the Cloisters Museum in Fort Washington. When he finally encounters the gallery’s reliquary cross, he has gained a new understanding of the role that relics play and the purposes they serve for Christian worshippers, whether or not they contain the wood of the actual cross from Jesus’ crucifixion. When we listened to these three podcast – the first focused on a close analysis of primary sources, the second engaged with a historiographical tradition, the third centered on a personal narrative – we came more fully to appreciate each student’s unique voice and contribution to the work we did together throughout the semester as well as to pay closer attention to the voices of the ancient and medieval composers of our texts and the scholars who study them.
There were many other sophisticated podcasts. One podcast was presented as a recording of a tour of Herodian Jerusalem by two Roman generals. As they approached the city, they discussed the political climate of first-century Jerusalem and the history of the preceding decades, they remarked on the architectural styles and building materials they noticed on their walk, and they mentioned their military plans and contingency strategies should there be any future uprisings or revolts. The recording resembled what we might hear on the radio when two American soldiers report from Iraq or Afghanistan about new developments on the ground in the region. Their animated voices in a conversation about military strategy and infrastructure analysis interspersed with humor and banter gave a modernized spin to the writings of Josephus. In another podcast, students created a radio call-in show in which they discussed the rituals and traditions associated with commemoration of the Jewish Temple’s destruction during the Ninth of Av. In yet another podcast, two women recorded a conversation about the implication (for the past and for today) of Jerusalem’s portrayal as a woman (a mother, a bride, a widow, a violated princess) in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim apocalyptic literature. Others focused on the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock as two buildings in continued conversation with one another; the centrality of Jerusalem in the development of Palestinian identity and nationalism; and the stakes of moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, frequently mentioned as a possibility by the current American administration at that time.
In all of these podcasts, students did not only experiment with their own voices. They also deliberately incorporated additional sounds to help craft their narratives and make their arguments, acutely aware, by the end of the semester, that sound can be a powerful tool through which to understand the ancient and medieval past as well as to tell stories about that past.
I was surprised by how beneficial it was for students to work in groups. Some students found the technological aspects overwhelming while others in their group had previous experience podcasting or recording; some students were very interested in the historical material and eager to do additional research while their groupmates were intimidated by databases and library catalogues. By working together in groups, students were able to each use their strengths to teach and motivate one another. It is far less scary to edit audio – or venture into the stacks – together with someone who has done so before. In the future, those students who were initially weary about the podcast technology will be the ones assisting their less experienced colleagues as they use the software for the first time, and others will approach research papers in subsequent semesters with more confidence because they had been guided through the process by a fellow student this semester. Working together also emphasized to my students that scholarship can (and should) often be a collaborative process, and that crowd-sourcing can generate creativity, a value that our young students easily embrace. I was also pleased to see friendships, and eventually a community, develop between my students.
As with all new endeavors, there are aspects of this podcast assignment that I will consider changing next time I teach this course. Some of the students who began by working on their own struggled with the project; when I noticed that they needed extra help, I found ways of pairing them up with classmates with overlapping interests, and almost immediately I saw their excitement and productivity soar. I have thought about whether it would be beneficial to require students to work with partners or in groups. Some of the students this past semester, however, produced podcasts that told their personal stories in ways that would have been far more difficult or impossible to do as a larger group. Moreover, I valued being able to empower my students to choose for themselves what story to tell, how to tell it, and with whom. In order to foster additional collaboration, then, I might host an “Editing Workshop” one evening, where we could all help each other edit the podcasts, ask for feedback on drafts, and troubleshoot. This would allow those working alone to benefit from their classmates’ wisdom, and for further relationships to develop.
Over the course of the semester, students submitted proposals, outlines, and two drafts of scripts. This allowed me to guide them through the process on an intellectual level, point them to additional sources and scholarship, and work with them on their writing. My teaching assistant similarly guided them through the technological side of the project. To improve the quality of each podcast, I should also have requested that students submit a first draft of their podcast, and then I could have provided feedback for improving the content, sound quality, and other aspects that only emerged in this final stage. This would have been especially important to do if we chose to share our podcasts with a broader audience.
We devoted the last couple class meetings of the semester to listening to the podcasts. The students appreciated hearing one another’s work and discussing the process and product together thereafter. We did not share the podcasts beyond our classroom community, in part because I did not know what to expect from this assignment. I considered, though, hosting a celebratory event, perhaps a podcast festival, in which others at the university could come and listen to the podcasts as a performance, followed by a discussion. This might work well for a seminar with a small number of podcasts, or if each podcast was limited to five or six minutes. Another idea would be to create a podcast installation in a public space on campus, where students and other members of the university could stop by to listen to a single or several podcasts without hearing them all. This could feature an opening reception in which students could create a program introducing their work and discussing the big themes of their podcasts, and then guests would be able to visit the installation in the following weeks at their leisure, as they might an art exhibit. In order to do so, we would need to contemplate a visual dimension for exhibiting the podcasts, which could comprise the second half of the assignment as a class-wide project. These two ideas would facilitate sharing the podcasts with others, but still in a limited setting, as an on-campus performance or installation.
It is also possible to create an online installation on a public website, to which everyone would have access. I am more hesitant about this option than I am about the others because I am not sure that it is appropriate to require work produced for a course to be made public in this way (I would worry that students might not want their work publically accessible at some point in the future, that doing so would put too much pressure than necessary on students, and that they would be more hesitatnt to take intellectual and creative risks), but I also see the value in encouraging students to hold themselves accountable for their work and for finding generous ways of sharing what they have learned with others. This question might best be posed to the students themselves, as a conversation about their own interests for the project and about the benefits and risks of sharing material online, conversations in which students should anyways be engaged. Doing so would also model collaborative decision-making, often absent in college courses where the instructor controls the forms and standards for assessment. For the purposes of this essay, I asked one group of students to share their podcast with you, which they were excited to do. It is available above.
Sound was not the central topic of this course, nor the primary mode of analysis – it was one of several. But I had never before used sound so prominently and deliberately in my pedagogy, and by the end of the semester I was surprised by how effective a pedagogical dimension sound had been in my classroom. I hope that these reflections are helpful to others who might wish to incorporate sound more fully into their courses.
Dr. Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an Assistant Professor in Fordham University's Theology Department.
“Four Pilgrims Walk into the Heavenly Jerusalem: al-Ghazali, Judah ha-Levi, a Russian Abbot, and Margery Kempe in Conversation,” produced by Fatimah Almah, Emma Fingleton, Danna Khawam, and Jiyoon Seo (April 2017, Fordham University).
Works quoted and consulted
GhazzaÌliÌ, Richard Joseph. McCarthy, David B. Burrell, and William A. Graham. Al-GhazaÌliÌ's Path to Sufism and His Deliverance from Error: An Annotated Translation of Al-Munqidh Min Al-dalâ»al. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2000.
GhazzaÌliÌ, and A. L. Tibawi. Tract on Dogmatic Theology. London: Luzac, 1965.
Goodman, Anthony. Margery Kempe and Her World. Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Halevi, Judah. The Selected Poem. Trans. and annotated, Hillel Halkin. Nextbook, 2011.
Rosenzweig, Franz. Ninety-Two Poems and Hymns of Yehuda Halevi. Trans. T. Kovach, E. Jospe, G. G. Schmidt; Ed. R. A. Cohen. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Kempe, Margery and Lynn Staley. The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism. New York: Norton., c2001., 2001.
The Pilgrimage of the Russian Abbot Daniel in the Holy Land. 1106‑1107 A.D., tr. Madame de Khitrovo, ann. C. W. Wilson. London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1895.
Woman wailing - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONb28aPRmBI
Gate opening - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZG5q0X1cqI
Market place - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9I3ez6zkyUY
Teleportation - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXGukRzqZbc
Kyrie elieson - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aah_ITLw3R