clare burson

silver and ash

jew-y/ jew-ier/ jew-iest

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.

fair enough.


1 Comment»

  Jack Zaientz wrote @

Hi Clare, you touch on some pretty tricky and ultimately unanswerable questions here. Questions that I think about almost daily. I write a blog on Jewish music (Teruah Jewish Music) that has an expressed goal of having as few preconceptions about what “Jewish music” is as possible. The questions about whether your a Jewish artist or an artist who is Jewish and whether to create Jewish music you need to adopt specific subject matter or musical motifs is unanswerable because there isn’t and can’t be any solid definition of what Jewish music is. There are too many overlapping definitions of Jewish identify in play. But you know that already. Just like I’m your aware that some versions of Jewish identify will never accept what your doing as Jewish music and some wouldn’t have any idea what Jewish music was if they heard it.

From my perspective, the question becomes one of artistic impulse and of public identity. To what degree does your own sense of your Judaism, be it a religious sense or a cultural sense, inform your creative impulse writing and performing the material. And to what degree do you want to share or acknowledge that sense of Judaism with your audience.

The idea of an American Jew writing music from the heart that touches on family issues, but who isn’t inclined to share the Jewish aspects of the impulse, isn’t a new one. The history of pop music is filled with them. It seems that what you’re doing thats interesting is, while keeping the explicitly Jewish bits of your impulse out of your lyrics, asking the audience to accept the impulse and output as Jewish anyway. Personally, that works for me. My definition of Jewish music is pretty much predicated on the artist saying that the music is Jewish. So to me, you’re Jewish music (or, at least, this project is Jewish music project).

But I find your project perplexing. I don’t see the boundaries that you’re pushing. Asking to the Jewish community to accept songs without the word shabbos as Jewish seems a much smaller artistic accomplishment than getting the larger American community to accept songs with the word shabbos as being American. Our radio airwaves are littered with songs with explicit and implicit Christian imagery but precious little with Jewish imagery. You seem like the just the kind of artist who could help change that.

But that’s not your goal and that’s fine. I’m looking forward to hearing the new album when it’s released and hope it helps you answer the questions your asking (even if I think they’re mostly unanswerable). If you have any tracks you’d like to get out into the community early let me know. I’ve written about both Sway Machinery and Hebrew School a number of times but haven’t written more than a side mention about you yet. Mostly I’ve been waiting for some track from the new project to become available.


Jack Zaientz
Musical Schadchen
Teruah Jewish Music

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