Tuesday, August 23, 2022

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...

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