i debuted the first 6 songs of this series at a show last week at the museum of jewish heritage in downtown New York.
the show was my first billed specifically as a jewish singer-songwriter.
the press release from the museum read as follows:
‘this eclectic line-up of brooklyn-based musicians will showcase a new generation of female Jewish artists.’
one blog promoting the event referred to the three performers on the bill as ‘brooklyn jewesses.’
seth kugel recommended our show as a cool jewish culture event in his new york times article from may 18th, loosen your borscht belt and raise your highbrows .
my initial reaction to all of this was that yes, i’m jewish, and yes, i’m a singer-songwriter. i am happy to be both, privately and publicly. a jewish organization is funding the writing, recording and performance of this collection of songs. and these songs certainly explore jewish stories and themes.
or do they?
when i applied for the six points fellowship (for the record, this is an incredibly unusual grant, both in the art world and the jewish world – a sizable chunk of change to be dispersed among 12 individual artists over the course of 2 years), what most captivated me was not the prospect of creating a body of work around the stories of my grandmothers. suprisingly to me, that idea did not really surface until well into the funding period. what excited me most was pushing the envelope in terms what is considered to be ‘jewish’ music.
was it possible to be taken seriously as a jewish artist if i wasn’t playing klezmer, singing in yiddish, hebrew, or ladino, or referencing jewish texts? could my work be considered jewish if i continued to make the music i had been making for years (something akin to ambient americana without the twang – with a few torch songs thrown in for good measure) but wrote songs about shabbes dinners at my grandparents’ with fried chicken, my grandfather’s hebrew pronounced in his thick southern accent, the complexities of interfaith relationships, or, the emotional and psychological tremors of the holocaust filtered down through the generations. in telling these stories, i wouldn’t use the words ‘hebrew’ or ‘prayer’ or ‘shabbes’ or ‘holocaust.’ from my perspective, the experiences expressed in my songs, without these ‘jewish’ signifiers, could be just as easily understood as those of non-jews. i liked that. and still do. i was and still am excited to play with the particulars of my jewish experience as a way to approach the broader human experience.
it seems seth kugel (from the nyt) and i are on the same page – at least in terms of questioning what defines jewish culture as such. in his article, he writes, ‘Jewish arts in New York City. What, exactly, does that mean? A 19th-century Austrian menorah? D.J.’s from Tel Aviv playing Prospect Park in Brooklyn? Jackie Mason cracking up an Off Broadway crowd with jokes that would not be funny — and would be offensive — from the mouth of anyone else?
‘Yes, yes, and for better or for worse, yes. The large, ancient and ever-changing Jewish population of New York defies definition, from secular to Orthodox, from the Upper West Side to Borough Park, from Ashkenazi to Sephardic to adopted Asian, from the mayor’s office to newly arrived immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The art scene is hardly less diverse.’
seth is not alone in embracing the diversity of ‘jewishness.’ he is joined by the movers and shakers behind the six points fellowship (the jewish federation, jdub records, the foundation for jewish culture, and avoda arts), reboot, and heeb magazine, to name a few. my father is actually involved in a group that is looking specifically at the diversity of diaspora jewish identity as a way to understand the place of israel in the world.
which somehow brings us back to the show at the museum of jewish heritage.
there were two other jewesses on the bill – each currently making names for themselves within the jewish world with more explicitly ‘jewish’ content.
after the show (which was a lot of fun, despite the somber nature of performing in a ‘living memorial to the holocaust’), i started thinking about why someone previously unacquainted with any of the performers would come to a show billed as a ‘showcase [of] a new generation of female jewish artists.’ which descriptor/s would draw them in? female, artist, or jewish? what is the relationship between these different identities? specifically, what is the difference between a jewish artist and an artist who is jewish? does it come down to whether art is in service of one’s religion/ culture or whether the religion/ culture is the experience informing the art? or can we even draw such categorical divides?
i am certain that there was at least one person in the audience who was disappointed with my songs. even within the context of my family’s ‘jewish’ journey from eastern europe to the united states, the jewishness expressed in my work is decidedly cultural, secular, and not spiritual.