She Saved Their Songs

Johanna L. Spector (1915–2008) was a renowned ethnomusicologist who captured the traditional cantillation and folk tunes of Jewish immigrant groups soon after they arrived in the newly formed State of Israel — before exposure to foreign melodies influenced each group’s native music. Spector’s papers, tapes and film footage, archived at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, are now being processed, and parts of the collection will be released starting this summer.

Born in Latvia, Spector became a scholar and professor of ethnomusicology at the Seminary, the first woman elevated to full professorial rank there; for many years she was the only female teacher on staff. A survivor of Nazi work camps, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1947 and pledged to use her musical training “to do something for the Jews.” She was determined to build on the ground-breaking work of ethnomusicologist Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, who studied Jewish music from around the world. 

Finishing a Ph.D in Jewish Studies in 1950, by 1951, Spector was a research fellow in Israel. She would head out at all hours, carrying her heavy equipment, to record music in synagogues and homes. A gregarious personality, she gained access to events and to people that would otherwise have been closed to a single woman. Her initial work in Israel put her in contact with the communities and music of Persians, Tunisians, Mesopotamians, Kurds, Urfalish, Syrians, Baghdadi, Moroccans, Yemenites, Ethiopians, Greeks, Azerbaijanians, Egyptians and Armenians. She also recorded Samaritans, a Jewish sect within Israel, and developed a life-long friendship with the High Priest of the Samaritan people. In 1962, while lecturing on her work, she also made connections which introduced her to Jewish communities in India, which later led to many more years of research.

In the late 1960s, Spector moved into documentary filmmaking. She made seven films, three of which won awards at major festivals. More information on Spector is available at