Writing on Water

The Sounds of Jewish Prayer
$27.95 / €23.95 / £19.95
Publication date: 
288 pages with numerous black-and-white photos

Writing on Water grasps the phenomenon of sound in prayer, that is, a meaning in sounds and soundscapes, and a musical essence in the act of praying.

The impetus for the book arose from the author’s fieldwork among traditional Jews during the era of communism in Budapest and Prague. In that period the Jewish religion and Jewishness in general were supressed and rituals became semi-secret and turned inward. The book is a witness to these communities and their rituals, but it goes beyond documentation. The uniqueness of the sounds of the rituals compelled the author to try to comprehend how melodies and soundscapes became the sustaining/protective environment, as well as the vehicle, for the expression of a world-orientation—in a situation where open discourse was inconceivable.

The book is based on extensive interviews, musical recordings, photographs and scholarly analyses. It is unique in its choice of communities, its wealth of original documents, and its novel interpretation of sound.

Writing on Water is creative non-fiction. The presentation is evocative and poetic, but at the same time it transmits knowledge. The book can aid research and serve in courses in philosophy, religion, music, ethnomusicology, anthropology, aesthetics, Jewish studies, folklore, oral history, and performance studies. It is also a work of art and literature.

"Frigyesi’s work at recovering song and prayer has a wistful character, and conveys irreparable loss in the wake of the war and the Communist era in Hungary. She describes her visits to near-abandoned synagogues, where she sneaks a look at upper balconies and hidden study rooms that are no longer used. Yet her portrait of changing Jewish life in central Europe is so richly conveyed that it feels like a gift, a discovery of things unappreciated and unseen."
"Although the text is full of 'thick descriptions' of music practices and original interpretations of the elusive soundscapes of the secret and semi-secret traditional Budapest Jewish shuls (prayer rooms), the outcome is a multi-faceted reflexive narrative – a very poetic and contemplative ethnographic memoir. The book reveals a social world, hidden or publicly unspoken of, where sound, orality, and melodic flexibility are of crucial cultural value as religious ideals. The author describes her initial exploration and eventual immersion in this world characterised by silent sounds, indirect references and clues. The fascinating textual mosaic of the book is thoughtfully intertwined with the author’s enigmatic black-and-white photographs. As such, the book is a sort of a play of different types of unrivaled verbal and visual representations. I have to admit that for me, personally, it represents the single most important title on Jewish music I have ever read, and a... more
"Writing on Water tells the story of the formational moments of the author's academic career in Jewish music when she started field research in clandestine Orthodox prayer houses in Communist Budapest, interviewing and recording prayer leaders, almost all of whom were Holocaust survivors. This book is one of a kind in two ways: it is the only ethnography of Jewish prayer in Communist Budapest, opening a small window into the sounds of an oppressed minority community that was hidden from public view and that no longer exists in this form. But it is also remarkable in its evocative, reflexive writing style and the use of poetry and image to convey a sonic atmosphere."
"This is a very special book. It is a poetic, autoethnographic, and ethnographic memoir of research done first in the late 1970s and then in the 1990s among elderly and religiously observant Jews in Budapest (and a little bit in Prague). The research focused on the traditional liturgical music of these congregations, and then later, on the life histories of these elderly Jews. Although the research was conducted in the field of musicology, this is not a musicological study in the traditional sense by any means. Indeed, much of the eloquent reflection here is on precisely why the author found it impossible to do a comprehensive, "objective" musicological study of the old-fashioned sort. In doing so, she offers a very lucid (and to me, utterly convincing and recognizable) meditation on the fragmentation of memory and on the forms of spiritual identity or of being-in-the-world that are represented by the musical forms that were the ostensible topic of her research.... more
"Writing on Water is a book about experience, about using the physical phenomenon of musical sound and the act of chanting to form an emotional and spiritual connection with something larger than oneself. It is as much about the setting, the history, the memories both detailed and unspoken, the fragmented echo of a murdered and suppressed way of life, as it is about musical aspects of Hungarian Jewish prayer chant. It is a book that blends poetry and evocative black-and-white photographs with accounts of ethnographic encounters, and it should be treated like the multi-faceted sensory experience that it describes. The rewards that Writing on Water has to offer may come more easily to the reader who allows him- or herself to sit back, relax, and sink into the book’s narrative."
"Auf faszinierende Weise wird das methodische Grundproblem ethnologischer und ethnomusikalischer Forschung ins Zentrum gestellt: das komplexe, selbstinvolvierende und dynamische Beziehungsgeflecht zwischen der Forscherin und ihrem Forschungsgegenstand. Kann man sich mit Singen befassen, ohne selbst zum Resonanzboden der Töne, Geräusche und Lautgebilde zu werden, die man erforscht? Und kann man sich mit dem Gebet beschäftigen, ohne selbst ins Beten hineingezogen zu werden? Denn das teilen Gesänge und Gebete: Wer sich in der Beschäftigung mit ihnen nicht selbst zur Disposition stellt, wird nichts Wesentliches verstehen. Doch wie lässt sich die Nähe gewinnen, ohne die man nicht erfahren kann, was man nicht kennt? Und wie kann man die Distanz wahren, ohne die man nicht zu verstehen vermag, was man erfährt? Frigyesi verdeckt nicht durch vorgespielte Neutralität die existenziellen Abgründe, in die sie ihre Forschungen geführt haben, sondern zeigt an ihrer eigenen Geschichte auf, was es... more