Friday, December 8, 2023

Khanike 2023 - A Few Last Minute Listings and a New Music Video!

It's khanike/xanike/hanukah/chanuka and we all need a little more light (and a little more joy.) 

I've put together some very last minute Klez-Yiddish listings for the next few days, mostly in NYC and environs, but a few beyond, too. Also, make sure to check out the awesome new video from the ever-brilliant Frank London. (Make sure to read to the end...)

Saturday December 9 

3-8 pm, L’chaim to Light: A Hanukkah Celebration. Wine tastings, food, music. Sideways Bar Ellenville (Hudson valley)

7:30 pm, Lauren Brody (accordion) and Pete Rushefsky (tsimbl) at Old Broadway Synagogue, 15 Old Broadway (at 125th Street)

6 pm Eleonore Weill and Friends: a “deviant tribute” to Chet Baker at Barbes and then another show at 11 pm at Jalopy as part of Roots and Ruckus

Sunday December 10 

1:00pm (online) Workers Circle Yiddish Khanike Party: with music, skits, and songs to sing along

Monday December 11

7:30 pm Michael Winograd & the Honorable Mentshn, with special guest Sasha Lurje at Flatbush Jewish Center, Brooklyn.

Tuesday December 12

9:00 pm  Branches of Light: The Sway Machinery's Holiday Ball (Jeremiah Lockwood), with Kohenet Shamira and Eleonore Weill. At NuBlu, tickets here

BONUS Sunday December 17

1:00 pm  We Are Here: A Yiddish Meet and Greet, with performers Miryem-Khaye Seigel and Zisl Slepovitch. At the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center, 3301 Bainbridge Avenue, Bronx. More details here.

8:00 pm Isle of Klezbos release party for "Yiddish Silver Screen," at Joe's Pub. More details here.

ON TOUR: Throughout the 8 days of khanike, Michael Winograd & the Honorable Mentshn will be on tour in cities up and down the East Coast including New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Check for more details on his website ...

I'm very excited to share the first video from Frank London's new Klezmer Brass All Stars album, a new khanike banger: GREEKZ (Yevonim)


Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Announcing My New Fall Course on Ashkenazi Folk Magic and Ritual

Between Heaven and Earth: Yiddish Women's Folklore, Rituals, & Magic

I'm so happy to share that this fall I'll be teaching my first class for the Yiddish Book Center. I've created a brand new course on the Ashkenazi folk magic and ritual of women++. (While the folk magic and ritual domain was one where women played significant leadership roles, it did not exclude men.) We'll be covering plague weddings, feldmestn (grave and cemetery measuring), candle magic, the indispensable art of evil eye removal, protections for pregnancy and childbirth, Ashkenazi herbalism, divination, and more. 

We'll talk about why some magical practices have persisted for hundreds of years, despite the disapproval of the rabbis, while others have almost completely disappeared. And we'll explore the role (or lack thereof) of folk magic and folk religion in American Judaism.

The course will take place over four consecutive Wednesdays in October and November, starting right after the High Holidays. Click here to register or find more information.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Remembering Theo Bikel and the American Folk Music Revival

July 21 is the eighth yortsayt of Theodore Bikel, at least according to the western calendar. He passed in 2015, at the age of 91. Bikel led the kind of outsized life which is almost impossible to sum up. His Wikipedia page lists his many careers as “actor, folk singer, musician, composer, unionist, and political activist.” But those many careers overlapped and reinforced each other, with the sum of the parts adding up to a whole which was extraordinary. 

He acted on Broadway, in the movies, and on television. He fought on behalf of American civil rights and for Soviet Jews. He created the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway, was the president of the Actor’s Equity union, and appeared as Worf’s adoptive Jewish father on "Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Theo Bikel was a giant, not just on the stage, but on the world stage

In remembering Bikel today, I want to focus on just one slice of his astoundingly diverse body of work: his career as a folk musician. Even his folk music oeuvre is too great to summarize here. He started recording “folk music” albums in 1955, putting out 18 albums for the Elektra label alone. Jewish material was just one part of his global repertoire. 

In 1958 he recorded “Theodore Bikel sings Jewish Folks Songs”


 In 1965, he recorded “Theodore Bikel Sings Yiddish Theater and Folk Songs” for Elektra


In 1959, he was one of the co-founders of the Newport Folk Festival, along with Pete Seeger. Seeger was another long lived, American cultural giant, as a musician, activist and co-founder of the folk revival magazine, Sing Out! in 1950. I recently spent some time wandering through the pages of Sing Out’s early issues, now available digitally on You can read my latest GOLDEN CITY column about it, here.

Of course, Theo Bikel was a frequent presence in the pages of Sing Out! in those years. In April 1960, he was on Broadway in “The Sound of Music” when he appeared on the cover of the magazine. 

A note on the inside cover describes Bikel as having “achieved an enviable reputation and popularity.”  At that time, Bikel was as close as the magazine would come to huge mainstream crossover potential (and advertiser appeal, too.

Inside the magazine you find “A Backstage Chat” with Bikel, as well as reprints of songs from his repertoire. 

In the Summer 1961 issue, to take another example, you could find his name in an “industry roundup” column, noting that he had just signed on with talent impresario Sol Hurok

You’d also see him name checked in one of the many Yiddish folk songs the magazine published, here, Di mezinke oysgegebnThe editors note that a recording of the song can be found on Bikel’s album, “Jewish Folk Songs.”

 And finally, he is at the center of this two-page advertising spread:

One page is selling the Goya model guitar. Facing that is the upcoming Grossinger’s First Annual Folk Music and Guitar Festival, September 1961. Bikel meant big business for Sing Out!

Yet, the magazine didn’t pull punches where there was criticism to be made. In the April-May issue of 1961, Ruth Rubin, the groundbreaking folklorist and regular contributor to Sing Out!, published a long and rather devastating review of Bikel’s new song collection, “Folksongs and Footnotes” (the same book advertised as a premium giveaway with the Goya sponsored Grossinger Folk Fest.)  

First off, she says, many of these cannot even be considered folksongs, but for Bikel's choice to falsify their authorship.

From Rubin's review of Bikel's collection, "Folksongs and Footnotes."

Bikel, she says, has rushed in "where angels fear to tread..." 

Nor can he spot, she says, the difference between an earnest folk song and obvious satire

It’s pretty clear that a negative review in Sing Out! had approximately zero effect on Bikel’s career. The magazine needed a popular draw like Bikel far more than he needed them, that’s for sure.

And at a time when many assimilating Jews were embarrassed of Yiddish, or thought it too provincial, Bikel’s mix-and-match strategy of combining songs from many traditions, while not appealing to folklore purists, placed Yiddish on equal footing with other global cultures. 

In June 1960, Bikel released “From Bondage to Freedom: Songs of Many Lands, of Tyrants and Slaves, of Free Men and Liberty,” for Elektra records. Yiddish songs like “Di shvue” (the Bundist anthem) “Un du akerst” (so you plow) appear alongside “Les guitares de l’exil” and “Scots Wha Hae.” 

In her April-May 1961 review of Bikel’s songbook, Bikel’s version of “Un du akerst is another target for Rubin’s ire. She dings him for his “limited knowledge” of even the “basic facts” about the song. 

What basic facts are those? It was Rubin who tracked down the history of the text, back to an 1864 German song later adapted into Yiddish by Chaim Zhitlowsky. Rubin published her findings in her own songbook, “A Treasury of Jewish Folksong” (1950).

I can imagine Rubin’s irritation that, firstly, Bikel’s book, with a no doubt quite significant mass commercial audience, would introduce factual errors about the song. Secondly, it demonstrated that Bikel was unfamiliar with the important folkloristic work she had already published ten years previously. 

For Rubin, this isn't just sloppiness, it's "chutspe." 


If you’re my age (or older), you probably grew up with at least a few of Bikel’s records in your house, maybe you even had some of the Yiddish ones. In addition to his many brilliant contributions to American (and world) culture, Bikel's records were a crucial vehicle for bringing global folksong into American homes. Even today, his version of “Un du akerst” feels fresh and stirring (if not a bit overly macho.)


Ruth Rubin’s criticisms remind me of arguments which persist today in the Yiddish world. Is it better to maintain the Yiddishist’s focus on accuracy and purist respect for the totality of Yiddish culture? Or should we be open to more popular/populist interest in Yiddish, even if it means accepting a certain amount of errors, misapprehensions and, at times, insulting Yinglish misconceptions about the language and culture? 

Though I tend to fall on the side of the humorless Yiddishist, when it comes to the life’s work left by Theo Bikel, I must disagree with the most esteemed Ruth Rubin. I am grateful to Bikel, his work, and his lifelong commitment to Yiddish culture. Even the mistakes. All of us would be incalculably poorer without it. Koved zayn ondenk.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Everything Returns - Upcoming Event with Black Ox Orkestar, April 20

I'm very happy to announce that I'll be in conversation with Montreal's Black Ox Orkestar on Thursday, April 20. Last year, the band returned to the (virtual) recording studio and concert stage, after a 15 year hiatus. Their new album, "Everything Returns," is gorgeous and moody, with a sound wrapped in Leonard Cohen-esque colors. In an age of disappointing reboots, "Everything Returns" is exactly the album fans were waiting for.

Make sure you register now 

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Many Faces of the Dybbuk

There’s still a few days left to put the spook in Spooktober. My latest Golden City column is up now and in this one, I look at just a few of the many incarnations of the dybbuk. 


Of course, there’s the 1938 Polish produced, Yiddish-language film adaptation of Sh. Ansky's play, der dybbuk. But there’s also a 1960 made for TV, English-language adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet! I had a vague understanding that Lumet came from a Yiddish theater background, but it’s much juicier than that. Sidney was a child actor in the Yiddish theater in New York. He got his start there thanks to his dad, one-time Vilne Troupe member and then New York Yiddish actor, Baruch Lumet. You can read all about that over at the Digital Yiddish Theater Project.


There have been many, many productions and adaptations of Ansky’s dybbuk play, the two I just mentioned are the tip of the dybbuk iceberg. Traditional dybbuk lore has also done its own share of “inspiring” stories. I don’t know how I missed Psi Factor when it was airing in the late 90s, but this bit of forgotten Dan Ackroyd paranormal silliness will appeal to anyone who loves spotting Toronto locations. And in the first season of the show, the Psi Factor cops took on a dybbuk.




Dybbuks aren't just for grown ups! On this episode of Rugrats, the Yiddish-accented grandfather tells a scary story about a dybbuk, which he says is a kind of monster.



Thank God I wasn’t born a dybbuk

One of my absolute favorite YouTubers is Justin Sledge, the man behind the Esoterica channel. Sledge is an academic specializing in Western Occultism and Esotericism. It's really fascinating material presented in a down to earth, accessible format. This week he focused on, what else? the origin of the dybbuk in Jewish philosophy. 




As Sledge explains, the concept of a dybbuk, a dead human spirit possessing the body of a living person, only came about relatively late, within 16thcentury Spanish kabbalah. It took a number of philosophical developments to finally get there. 


Before that, Judaism, Islam and Christianity had beliefs around possession by malevolent spirits, though not the spirits of formerly living people. Jews in the ancient world were well known for their association with spirit exorcisms. Many of the miracles of Jesus, as Sledge reminds us, were exorcisms! However, after the rise of Christianity and its “embrace” of possession and exorcism, the rabbis lost interest in possession and exorcism. It would take a thousand years, and the rise of kabbalah, for spirit possession to come back to an influential place in Jewish philosophy and theology.


Finally, as I discussed in my column, there has been a bit of a dybbuk renaissance in cinema in the last ten years or so. Unfortunately, the catalyst for most of that “dybbuk revival” is down to what I would call an urban legend, the dybbuk box. (I go a bit more in depth on this “haunted wine box” in the column.) The important thing here is that the dybbuk box urban legend is not a Jewish story, but another take on the modern craze for haunted objects, wherein "Jewish culture" (or an approximation of such) lends a slightly different form to the elements of the genre.  But the story is not actually Jewish.

In addition to the movies I covered in the column, the “dybbuk box” pops up elsewhere, as in this 2019 short film, about two couples camping in the desert. One of them accidentally open a “dybbuk box,” unleashing a murderous spirit. If you thought violent possession couldn’t be dull, you haven’t been looking in the right places. 



It irritates me when artists (loosely defined) extract Jewish culture and distort it for their own uses. I’m tempted to say that those people are getting dybbuks “wrong.” But if you’re a modern, scientifically minded person who doesn’t believe in a literal reality of spirit possession -  and I am -  it seems sort of… silly to say that they’re getting the facts about a ghost story wrong. 


To go back to Justin Sledge, we can see that the concept of the dybbuk is in fact a historical, contingent phenomenon. If the Jewish world can go from being full of spirit possession experts to a thousand years of No Possession, Please and then on to a kabalistic explosion of possession and dybukim, we understand better that these kinds of supernatural stories change with the times, reflecting the concerns and conditions of the people who tell them. Who am I to say that modern “dybbuk boxes” are stupid, offensive and just plain wrong?


So I won’t say that. But I will say that the “dybbuk box” conceit is one that allows anyone to profit off a fresh angle on a supernatural story (something rare in Hollywood) while marginalizing the Jews who would have otherwise been central to such a story. And at the risk of opening a box full of angry dybbuks, I will indeed call bullshit on any story which exorcises the Jews out of their own myths. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Holocaust & the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye (Book Talk with Barry Trachtenberg)

I'm happy to say that the video is now available for the book talk I did with author Barry Trachtenberg for his latest, The Holocaust & the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye.

The Algemeyne Entsiklopedye (General Encyclopedia) was a 16-volume set published between 1930 and 1966, with Yiddish and English volumes, some on Jewish topics and others for general knowledge. But that dry description really can't capture the many twists and turns the project took over three decades.

I had a fantastic time chatting with Barry for a book talk sponsored by the Congress for Jewish Culture. I hope you'll give it a watch. He is a wonderful historian and a really engaging speaker.

(And while you're watching the video, make sure you subscribe to the Congress for Jewish Culture YouTube page.)

The men who launched the Algemeyne project hoped:
" add a sophisticated Yiddish language encyclopedia to the already blossoming global genre of Jewish encyclopedias in world languages. The Entsiklopedye’s central tension lay between those who felt the goal should be to offer world knowledge for Yiddish readers, and those who urged the Entsiklopedye to educate Jews about their own history. It was a tension that would linger across the Entsiklopedye’s many twists and turns.

For more on the wild history of Yiddish reference books, see my May column, Encyclopedic Knowledge.

Who By Fire, Who By Knight of Swords

New at Rokhl's Golden CityJeremiah Lockwood and the revival of traditional cantorial music

...With one holy tune, one can relay the content of entire bookshelves, for the language of melody is concise. 
-Shneur Zalman of Liady (first rebbe of Chabad), quoted in Avrom Rekhtman's memoir of the Ansky ethnographic expedition.

Cantors, khazones, and nigunim were central to the work of the Ansky expedition, carried out in the heart of Hasidic Ashkenaz. In contrast with the s
cholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, who found the redemption of Jewishness in books and other texts, the Ansky expedition privileged the sensory and sensual, ephemeral and ghostly traces of what they perceived to be a disappearing, pre-modern existence. 

And how do you capture a Yiddish ghost? Not with a proton pack, khas v'sholem, but with an Edison wax cylinder phonograph. The expedition made 500 such recordings (in addition to collecting 1,000 melodies and 1500 folk songs.) 
Rekhtman's memoir of the expedition notes many funny and fascinating (and at times, disturbing) encounters between the expedition team and shtetl residents, mediated by this spooky new piece of technology.

A hundred years later, Jewish modernity is still being shaped in the encounter between Jewish researchers and their Hasidic neighbors. I recently caught up with Jeremiah Lockwood to learn more about his research in modern khazones. As we talked, bright lines of connection emerged between the work of the Ansky expedition team and Jeremiah's own work recording the rebel cantors of contemporary Hasidic Williamsburg. 

That new record is called "Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today." But 
"Hidden Melodies Reveled" - the name of his upcoming Rosh Hashanah concert event with Because Jewish - resonates just as much with the work he's been doing with these Hasidic cantors.


What I discovered in our conversation is that in 2022, Hasidic Williamsburg is not some romantic source of "authentic" Yiddishkayt to be "collected" by objective scientists. Rather, it is a community that, in some surprising ways, is just as alienated from its own past as a child of 1980s Jewish American suburbia, such as myself. 

The "hidden melodies" in this case are the recordings of Golden Age khazones, made a hundred years ago by men who prized improvisation and artistry. In order to access this tradition, the Hasidic artists whom Jeremiah recorded had to do their own kind of salvage ethnography. Indeed, one of the cantors got into this repertoire after finding a cassette tape of Golden Age khazones underneath a washing machine! ...

Last November I wrote about how taking a new name was a key act of self-creation for modern Yiddish speaking Jews. I asked Jeremiah to speak to the history of cantors and name changes:

...many cantors took new names when they performed for non-Jewish audiences, at the opera, for example, or even in vaudeville. “Name changes,” he said, “reflect the polyglossia of modern Jewish life. Jews weren’t satisfied with just code switching, they had to change the very substance of their beings. They’re like Jacob wrestling the angel and receiving a new name. It’s the angel of history now, instead of the angel of the Lord.” Lockwood pointed me to the cantor Pierre Pinchik as a particularly vivid example.

Pinchik was born Pinchas Segal somewhere around 1900 in Russia. He went from the Hasidic yeshiva world to the Kyiv conservatory....

...after he had immigrated to the United States, he released an album called Two Sides of Pinchik (1962). The cover features two pictures of him, one, in his cantorial garb, the other, in his incarnation as a suave artist of the world. This duality is also reflected in his song choices. One side of the album is liturgical and the other is traditional Yiddish songs.

There’s something intriguing in the Two Sides concept. Though he has changed his name to the continental-sounding “Pierre,” Pinchik is not hiding anything, but rather, he’s putting his various selves into conversation, perhaps even inviting us to imagine many sides to Pierre Pinchik. ...

I'll conclude by going to back to Shneur Zalman: "the language of melody is concise." 

I recently had a friendly argument with Jeremiah about whether you needed to understand the words of a song to enjoy it. He came down pretty firmly on the "don't need the words" side, a take which, I'll admit, scandalized me, as a writer of words. But it also reminded me that in approaching khazones, it's ok to not worry about the meaning so much and to simply let yourself listen once in a while.

Read more about Jeremiah's work over at Rokhl's Golden City...

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Listening Parties & Posthumous Release of The Ginzburg Geography


Save the Date:  Listening Parties & Posthumous Release of
The Ginzburg Geography

Come to hear new songs, sing-along with her bandmates, listen to friends and collaborators discuss the new CD and watch recordings of Jewlia Eisenberg as she speaks about her music.  

East Coast | West Coast Listening Parties & Streaming Options:

May 20, Friday 8 p.m.
Venue tbd, East Bay, California, 
with: Jason Ditzian, Cynthia Taylor, Laura Inserra, AnMarie Rodgers

May 22, Sunday 4 p.m.
Barbès, Park Slope, Brooklyn 
with: Blake Eskin, Marika Hughes, Jill Slater, Jeremiah Lockwood

With The Ginzburg Geography, Charming Hostess explores sense of place in the lives of Natalia and Leone Ginzburg, Italian writers famous for their intellectual brilliance and resistance to Mussolini’s fascist state. This album is a musical map of the Ginzburgs, with original scores set to their work. It evokes the Ginzburg's lives in Turin, Abruzzo, and Rome—cities that sustained them emotionally, spiritually, and politically. The sonic palette of The Ginzburg Geography draws from Italian regional traditions, anti-fascist songs, and Italian Jewish liturgy.
The album and installation addresses ideas that Jewlia dedicated her life to exploring, "resistance and what sustains people in severely oppressive situations"-- as relevant today as it was for the Ginzburgs during WWII. Getting the album produced was the one thing Jewlia was most steadfast to complete after her 30-day induced coma and intubation.  When she did recover in early 2020, the induced paralysis left her unable to wiggle her fingers and toes.  She learned to walk and sing again vowing that now more than ever she needed to get her anti-fascist album, The Ginzburg Geography out into the world. While Eisenberg was able to record vocals and oversee the majority of the band tracks before her passing, the album was ultimately completed by guitarist/producer Max Baloian and Eisenberg’s longtime collaborator, cellist/vocalist Marika Hughes.

Much, much, much more about Jewlia and her work at the Charming Hostess website



Monday, March 14, 2022

On the first yortsayt of Jewlia Eisenberg, a reflection on Sarajevo Blues

We’re coming up on the 30thanniversary of the opening of the Bosnian war, which began, more or less, at the beginning of April 1992, and ended three years later, with heavy intervention from NATO forces.  

Despite an estimated 100,000 casualties (though that number could be much higher), the war seems to have faded from public memory. Last week, during a visit to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in London, Prince William appeared to give voice to this perception. During his public remarks at the event, the Duke of Cambridge observed that “it’s very alien to see this in Europe…”  The “this” presumably being war, now being waged with genocidal fervor by Vladimir Putin against the people of Ukraine. 


Prince William was ten years old --not to mention a European monarch in waiting-- when the Bosnian war began. That he apparently has no historical consciousness of what has been called the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of World War II," and which happened in his living memory, made him the rightful target of media criticism.

In addition to the human casualties, the Bosnian war was marked by systematic rape, ethnic cleansing, and the resulting displacement of 2.2 million people. And yet, as William’s remarks show, those of us not directly touched by it have mostly allowed it to slip from memory. Certainly, World War Two is far further from us in time, and yet remains much, much more present in public memory.


Today, accessibility of digital video and ubiquity of social media combine to make the war in Ukraine uniquely consumable in all its angles, across every platform. Even if there is (god willing) a quick and peaceful resolution, it’s unlikely that Putin’s war against Ukraine could be forgotten in the same way as the Bosnian war. Think about the little girl singing “Let it Go” from a bomb shelter or the plucky babushka downing a Russian drone with a jar of pickled tomatoes. They have both become characters in the global war discourse- images easily adaptable to hopeful Facebook posts and late-night comedy monologues; eagerly consumed by a pandemic-weary world looking for distraction.


And it’s true, the emergence of such wartime “characters” has been a powerful way to elicit material support for those under siege. But our attention comes at a steep cost: their human peril reframed as our entertainment. And as important as it is to rally global support for Ukraine’s government in its fight against Russian aggression, it feels almost impossible to do so without also turning the war into just another piece of content, a kind of spectator sport, with attention grabbing characters, and clearly delineated teams to cheer (or boo) from the safety of thousands of miles of distance. 


It seems to me that the ethical implications of our present-day war-media synergy have gone mostly uninterrogated. Perhaps it is too soon to reflect productively on events still unfolding. But that doesn’t mean no one is speaking to our current moment. Since the war began, my thoughts have turned again and again to my friend, the forever unclassifiable Jewlia Eisenberg. From the “forgotten” Bosnian war to Ukraine, her 2004 album Sarajevo Blues feels more relevant than ever.   

March 11 was Jewlia’s first yortsayt. You can read the tribute I wrote right after her passing last year. For a beautifully detailed examination of her multifarious oeuvre, especially her scholarship, you can read this recent piece, by her close collaborator, Jeremiah Lockwood. 

With her band Charming Hostess, Jewlia put out Sarajevo Blues in 2004, based on the book of the same name by Bosnian journalist-poet, Semezdin Mehmedinovic. The texts collected in Sarajevo Blues reflect his experience living through the years long siege of Sarajevo.  

Like all of Jewlia's work, her musical adaptation of Sarajevo Blues sits at the intersection of music and translation. With Sarajevo Blues, she adds another, very simple question to her musical methodology: what is my relationship to the news? In the liner notes to Sarajevo Blues she says: 

“We all know that simply watching news is not doing anything about what you see. We want to know what’s going on, but human experience in a place where “news” is happening is reduced to the most sensationalistic elements—pain, terror, despair. Watching or even reading the news, one can become complicit in a kind of war-profiteering—the experience of suffering people is appropriated and used to sell cars. Orphans and refugees become icons, divorced from the people they represent, metaphors for other things.”


Going further, she declares her intent to explore “other ways of being with the news, ways that focus on real human experience, on particularity and wholeness.”  


Take the song “Death is a Job.” The lyrics describe the dark irony of life under siege, where a person can find themselves dodging both sniper bullets and war photographers. Jewlia puts the text to a disarmingly upbeat a capella setting, propelling us across that intersection, along with the narrator, who has come to see war photographers as just another enemy faction:   


They’re doing their job, in deep cover

If a bullet hit me they got a shot worth so much more than my life

That I’m not sure who to hate

The sniper or the monkey with a Nikon

For the chetniks, I’m just a simple target

But those others only confirm my utter helplessness

And even take advantage of it…  


War time journalism has the potential to bring our attention to the atrocious human cost of war. But as a practice, war journalism necessarily obscures its own complicity in the events which give it purpose.       


Here Jewlia raises the very questions which seem to me so urgent, and so unaskable, in these heated days of war. In the liner notes, she says that Sarajevo Blues was an extension of her previous work, now “morphed into questions about the possibility of encountering another person’s experience without trivialization or appropriation. What comes of delving into events characterized by vicious nationalism, opportunistic fascists, fleeing refugees, concentration camps, mass slaughter and do-nothing bystanders? … Is it possible, or even desirable, to create emotional connections to brutal events that most Americans (b’ezrat ha-Shem) will never experience?”


Sarajevo Blues doesn’t pretend to retrospectively educate Americans on the complex of identities which powered both the Bosnian and Kosovo wars. Nor does it prospectively presume to teach us any grand lesson about the meaning of war. Today, it speaks to us from a place of humanizing paradox. It is both an act of resistance against the historical erasure of a specific war, and at the same time, an assertion of the dignity of human frailty; a song sung against totalizing ideologies and political statements; a testimony to the capacity of music(s) to translate the human experience in ways so compelling that we cannot help but pay attention. In other words, it is alive with everything that made Jewlia the extraordinary artist she was, and always will be.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Jewlia Eisenberg and the Sphere of the Endless

 Jewish Currents, July-August 2006

The Sphere of the Endless

[New York City, summer 2006. In which your faithful columnist heads to Joe's Pub to hear the music of Jewlia Eisenberg]


Charming Hostess is a delightfully indescribable enterprise, more an ongoing project than a band. Though the members of the group haven’t changed much over the years, it is mainly the brainchild of Jewlia Eisenberg. Eisenberg takes unusual, provocative texts and sets them to her own eclectic brand of Jewish fusion music, mostly exploring different traditions of a cappellasinging. Imagine the love letters of Walter Benjamin set to transmogrified doo-wop. 

On her newest album, Sarajevo Blues, Eisenberg uses the translated poems of a contemporary Bosnian poet named Semezdin Mehmedinovic. The resulting piece is astonishing in its beauty and its relevance, especially in the way it humanizes the inhumanity of war. Our war in Iraq has been so tightly, criminally managed, leaving us shielded from the death that is being doled out in defense of “our freedom.” What is needed to mobilize opposition, even more than comprehensive, popular reporting about this war, is empathy. Poetry, at its best, can awaken that empathy in us. Sarajevo Blues moved me in a way that a week’s worth of New York Times editorials could not. 

When I listen to Jewlia Eisenberg, I am always struck by how she manages to take disparate texts, marry them to odd, haunting music, and express her humanity in an immediate way — and make it all work. She sings in many Jewish languages —Yiddish, Ladino, German, English, Hebrew —and references many musical traditions. Where I would normally pounce on such a khutspedik exemplar of cultural appropriation, I could only crane my neck around the amourous French throng and clap like mad. 

Ma nishtana . . . What makes her promiscuous appropriation different than others? Usually I hate performers paying tribute to “Our Jewish Heritage” with a song in Yiddish, a song in Ladino and maybe a Hava Nagila encore, doing justice to none and making kitsch out of all. Eisenberg, however, never tries to pass off her pieces as anything “authentic,” except authentically her own. 

Her exploration of Jewish music, themes and texts is always specific, and motivated, dare I say, by a solid grasp of her own rootlessness. She sees herself in these disparate forms because she appreciates the disparate elements in herself. As she wrote in her liner notes for Sarajevo Blues

“As described by Sem [the Bosnian poet], Sarajevo sounds very cool; a pluralistic place [that] included not just the South Slavic ethnic and language groups, but also Sufis, Sephardic Jews and Franciscans. For many years, Sarajevo successfully rejected the limits of nationalism and militarism, and instead embraced connectedness.” 

She goes on to observe that out of this connectedness came a wartime, urban culture of magazines, poetry and films that served not merely to inform the outside world about what was going on, but to nourish the people of Sarajevo by reaffirming their community and connectedness in the face of nationalism. 

The tension between nationalism and connectedness can also be expressed as the tension between what Shimon Rawidowicz (1897-1957) called the “spheres of the end and the endless.” The sphere of the end, as he described it, is the world of the immediate: of results, solutions and exclusions. The sphere of the endless is the world of the spirit: of the expansion of possibilities, of learning and creativity. 

Nationalism belongs to the sphere of the end, and by its nature excludes — usually violently — other possibilities of connection to others. As Rawidowicz (author of Israel, the Ever-Dying People and Other Essays and a long-time philosopher at Brandeis University) explained it, the meaning of Jewish redemption changed from the time of the Prophets to the time of the Second Temple’s destruction, after which:

“the heavy yoke of galut [exile] made the dream of redemption on the one hand more urgent and burning than in the days of the Prophets, and on the other, more radical, theoretical and utopian. . . . For various social and political reasons, the vision of redemption became more national than before, narrower and more restricted, but also more concrete and bloodier, because redemption [goel], by its very nature, is blood-drenched. The root gimel-aleph-lamedis related to blood . . . Redemption, then, is initially linked with blood, the blood of the individual, of the family, and of the tribe. Later, an abstract, spiritual meaning developed from the word or concept goelgeulah, redemption as national liberation, redemption of the people. But ultimately, redemption is bloody, it costs blood.”

Nationalism comes at a great price. Despite this price, however, the “sphere of the end,” as Rawidowicz points out, is seductive to all peoples, and especially to Jews. It’s not surprising that with the suffering of millennia upon us, Jews long for an end, either through self-redemption or self-annihilation (assimilation). But Rawidowicz warns against blind faith in the redemptive power of force: “Man does not live by force alone, and certainly not a nation. Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘Zion shall be redeemed by justice’ was not just a catch phrase . . . Justice is, on a deeper level, one of the symbols of the endless, the infinite.” 

Two weeks after being charmed by Charming Hostess and their Francophile audience, I stood on the sidelines of the “Salute to Israel Day” parade and thought about the collision of Rawidowicz’s spheres in Jewish life. Also on the sidelines were anti-occupation protesters (and a few anti-anti-occupation protesters) and the laughable Neturei Karta waving their Palestinian flags. Suddenly I was seized with the desire to lead my own Salute to Golus Day parade all the way back uptown— away from the sphere of flag-waving sameness to the sphere of the endless in my surprisingly diverse Jewish neighborhood. 

Judaism and the Jewish people are often criticized for tribalism, and for focusing on law over spirit. Yet Jews have always roamed widely, both geographically and spiritually-intellectually. One of the keys to our survival has been our unique status as an international nation, a scattered people that embraced many kinds of Jewishness, many languages, many nationalities, many traditions. And the truth is that we still do. But no one’s going to organize a parade to celebrate that. 

“The people of the endless in its true depth,” wrote Rawidowicz, “are essentially the backbone of the Jewish people . . . they are often the great hidden ones of the generation who protect the house of Israel from external and internal fires. They are the personification of stiffneckedness; in them, it reaches its fullest and highest expression; even if they are not the wings of Israel, they are its head and its heart, its hands and its feet.” 

Jewlia Eisenberg’s creative, integrative, connected music was, for me, a small taste of the endless that sustains us. And in these times, with the demands of multiple nationalisms upon us, we need her, and people like her, more than ever.