Johanna Spector

1915 – 2008

by Marsha Bryan Edelman

The only one of her immediate family to survive the Nazi holocaust, Johanna Spector decided in the aftermath of World War II to devote herself to the study of Jewish music. Since then, her ethnomusicological studies have documented the culture of some of the most exotic of Jewish communities.

Johanna Spector was born on March 23, 1915, to timber merchant Jacob Chayim and his wife Anna (Meyer) Lichtenberg. Johanna and her older brother, Naum, enjoyed an upper-class childhood in Libau, Latvia. She was educated at home by private tutors, who included Hebrew in her studies. She married Robert Spector in 1939; he was killed by the Germans in December 1941. Her brother and parents were also killed. After surviving the war years in a series of concentration camps, Spector immigrated to the United States in 1947 and earned her doctorate from Hebrew Union College in 1950. She later earned a master’s degree at Columbia University in 1960. Spector served as a faculty member of the Rubin Academy of Music and as a research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1951 to 1953, but returned to the United States and became a naturalized citizen in 1954. In that same year, she became a member of the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and she served as founder and director of the ethnomusicology department of the Seminary College of Jewish Music from 1962 through 1985. Spector was promoted to associate professor of musicology in 1966 and to professor in 1970. She was named professor emeritus in 1985.

Spector is a highly regarded ethnomusicologist who holds memberships in a wide variety of professional associations: the American Anthropological Association; the American Musicological Society; the International Folk Music Council; the African Musican Society; the Society for Ethnomusicology, in which she served as New York City chapter secretary-treasurer from 1960 to 1964; and the Asian Music Society, in which she served as president from 1974 to 1978 and vice president since 1964. She founded the Society for the Preservation of Samaritan Culture in 1971.

Spector is the author of several books as well as a vast number of contributions to encyclopedias and professional journals, but her most recent professional activity has been as producer of documentary films. Her earliest film The Samaritans (1971) was followed by Middle Eastern Music (1973), About the Jews of India: Cochin (1976), The Shanwar Telis or Bene Israel of India (1978), About the Jews of Yemen, A Vanishing Culture (1986), and Two Thousand Years of Freedom and Honor: The Cochin Jews of India (1992). Spector has also gathered a collection of over ten thousand recordings of religious and folk music from the various communities she has studied.

Johanna Spector has helped hundreds of students to understand the ancient cultures of non-Western Jewish communities. Her writings, recordings and film projects have documented the music of those now-shrinking communities for posterity. While interest in and performance of the music of Western communities has predominated throughout the twentieth century, Johanna Spector’s pioneering studies of Eastern Jewish musical traditions have shed light on a long-neglected but fascinating segment of the Jewish world.

Johanna Spector died on January 14, 2008.


About the Jews of India: Cochin (1976); About the Jews of Yemen: A Vanishing Culture (1986); Middle Eastern Music (1973); The Samaritans: The People of the Sacred Mountain. Motion picture directed by Dan Wolman. (1971); The Shanwar Telis or Bene Israel of India (1979); Two Thousand Years of Freedom and Honor: The Cochin Jews of India (1992).


EJ; Nulman, Macy. Concise Encyclopedia of Jewish Music (1975); Rosenblatt, Judith Turk, ed. Who’s Who in World Jewry: A Biographical Dictionary of Outstanding Jews (1987); Who’s Who in America (1994).


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I am amazed by the strange and wondrous ways in which the dots that are human lives connect. I did not know anything about Johanna Spector earlier. C.V. Raman won the Nobel prize for Physics in 1930. He was the first non-white/Asian to win the prize. He wrote a newspaper article on the books that influenced him. Among those was Ì¢‰âÒThe Sensations of Tone - A Physiological Basis for the Theory of MusicÌ¢‰âÂå by Hermann Helmholtz, one of RamanÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s heroes. In 2015 I found a scanned copy of RamanÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s article and ordered a used copy of Ì¢‰âÒThe Sensations of ToneÌ¢‰âÂå. When I got the book in the mail, on the front page was written in faded black ink: Ì¢‰âÒJohanna Spector, New York, August 1954Ì¢‰âÂå. I wanted to know who the previous owner of my book was and a quick Google search brought me here. Like Dr. Spector, I emigrated to the US. I grew up in Kerala, the state in India that harbored the jews of Cochin who were the subject of her studies. I still have family in Cochin. It seems strangely appropriate that her copy of that book came to be mine.

Dr. Spector's archives are currently being processed at the Jewish Theological Seminary Library. The library received a Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, through a program administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to process the collection. The collection consists of papers, recordings, photos and other items related to Spector's career as an ethnomusicologist focusing on Jewish communities of the East.

We post interesting finds from the collection and event announcements on our blog: http://jts-spectorarchives.tum... and twitter:

Please contact us through the blog or twitter with any questions or to share your memories. We'd love to hear from Dr. Spector's former colleagues and students!

I am sitting on a train in Finland, responding to an email from a Brooklyn musician who studied at Jewish Theological Seminary and who has devoted herself to music about the women in the old testament. In this snowly world, thoughts of Dr. Spector, the brilliant daughter of the timber merchant of Libau, flow. She connected the ancient and contemporary worlds of Jewish music and non Jewish music, inspiring many of my compositions. Currently, I am trying to find the reference she made to the three note (likely) hydraulic organ in the old temple, an organ audible across the Jordan river. Dr. Spector invited me to her class in Jewish music history and shared her knowledge with me as fast and far as I wished to go. Though we lost touch, in learning now of her passing in 2008, she is and will be very alive for me.

I was a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NY and studied in Dr. Spector's department for four years. She was a generous and open woman, always sharing her vast knowledge of Jewish Music with her students. Many people walked through her doors while I was there. As classes were quite small, we became a mini family. There were numerous times that she invited my husband and me to dinner at the rooftop cafe in the building where she lived. Later on, I became her assistant, making a small dent in an attempt to organize her vast collection of recordings. I was with her when she began to make films. She saw the value in keeping up with the times, and became an avid film-maker. She attended my wedding and my first son came to school one time and sat on her desk, which delighted her no end. She is very much missed by the JTS community. Her memory will inspire many people for years to come. With respect and love, Janet Fox Goldman

Ich habe einen Liedertext von Johanna Spector aus dem Jahr 1943. Das ist wohl die GroÌāümutter von Regina Spektor. Dazu habe ich ein Bild gemalt. Text und Bild wÌÄå_rde ich Ihnen gerne zusenden. Geben Sie mir bitte Ihre E-mail-Adress. Ihr Josef Mudde van Duren

Ich habe einen Liedertext von Johanna Spector aus dem Jahr 1943. Das ist wohl die GroÌāümutter von Regina Spektor. Dazu habe ich ein Bild gemalt. Text und Bild wÌÄå_rde ich Ihnen gerne zusenden. Geben Sie mir bitte Ihre E-mail-Adress. Ihr Josef Mudde van Duren

Johanna Spector.
Courtesy of the Archive of June Light Goldberg

How to cite this page

Edelman, Marsha Bryan. "Johanna Spector." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 14, 2021) <>.


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