New Jewish Music & Radical Jewish Culture

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November 1, 2010
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Marion S. Jacobson

Imagine settling into cushy pillows inside a vaulted dome in the middle of downtown San Francisco. Light pours in through an opening at the top, also providing a startling glimpse of an office tower. Whispered secrets — prerecorded by anonymous confessors — echo inside the dome (you’re invited to record your own secret). A performance begins, and the band Charming Hostess is cooking along with its earthy instrumental mix of bass clarinet, cello, and harmonium, a hand-pumped organ from India. Bandleader Jewlia Eisenberg’s throaty voice rings out with an ancient Babylonian Jewish prayer for protection from demons, curses, and monsters: “If you act against this house, I will enchant you with the spell of the sea.”

All of this, the secrets, the music and the magic — based on inscriptions found on Babylonian Jewish incantation bowls from Late Antiquity — are part of Eisenberg’s latest undertaking, the Bowls Project, a song cycle and an ongoing performance-art installation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts sculpture court. Part of John Zorn’s coterie of avant-garde Jewish musicians and composers and a five-time recording artist on his redoubtable Tzadik label, Eisenberg has made her most significant contribution yet to radical Jewish culture. But what does that mean, exactly, and how does her (or any other musician’s) work express radical Jewish aesthetics? While the notion of Jews using magical spells to ward off demons is certainly “rad,” what makes it radical? And in what way is it Jewish?

In the 1990s, Jewish jazz musicians and composers in downtown New York began exploring new ways to engage Jewish heritage through experimental music. As Zorn asserts in his Radical Jewish Culture mission statement, the 100-plus Jewish artists who recorded for Tzadik are inspired by a myriad of sources — from Buddhism to Kabbalah to Ornette Coleman to avant-garde theatre and Yiddish poetry. These musicians have created music that runs the gamut from edgy improvisations to Putumayo-worthy ethnic mash-ups. Unlike most of these artists, Eisenberg uses these tools to create art that is not only sonically radical, but politically radical. And she offers a feminist critique, something that Zorn left out of the equation.

Of Eisenberg’s work so far, the Bowls Project is most deeply embedded in sexual and gender politics. In it, she explores the tradition of incantation bowls that were buried, upside-down, beneath the homes of Jews (as well as non-Jews) in Babylon (present-day Iraq) throughout the second through sixth centuries of the Common Era. Inscribed on these bowls are women’s pleas for fertility, blessings for the home, appeals to lovers, and pleas for protections from evil. The project integrates issues of gender and Jewishness as it tells stories about female desire, spirituality, and the power of magic in a world in which these practices were (and still are) seen as “not Jewish.” To talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin (a friend of Eisenberg’s who provided initial encouragement for the project), these texts open up a complex and little-understood world in which Jews, and particularly Jewish women, operated: “a world rich with demons and former pagan gods who became demons, in which the boundaries between Jews and others were not as firmly and sharply drawn.”

One of the most self-consciously radical dimensions of the project was the Friday-night Radical Ritual series Eisenberg curated, offering free presentations of the radical Japanese dance known as butoh, Jewish meditation, the sacred geometry of African braids, and — evoking the Jewish tradition of seeking sexual union between husband and wife on Shabbat — sacred orgasm. Depending on one’s perspective, her choice to present these offerings on Shabbat could be seen either as a complete subversion of tradition or as an attempt to nudge “disconnected” Jews to a point where they might consider trying on some kind of ritual observance. It’s a daring strategy worthy of the name radical — pushing Jewish culture forward by both celebrating tradition in all of its diversity and rupturing it at the same time. And here we also experience “Jewish” undermining assumptions about “traditional” Jewish culture by emphasizing a historical moment when ancient Jews were at their most cosmopolitan.

Although it’s not the key aspect of Eisenberg’s brand of radical Jewish culture, her sonic eclecticism — punk, heavy metal, and Middle Eastern folk music — reflects the kind of sensibility that inspired Judaic scholar Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg to define the Jews as “sophisticated Bedouins.” By absorbing cultural and religious Judaism into her life on her own terms, and developing some new performance strategies, Eisenberg may inspire a new generation of Jewish postmodern performance artists to consider what Jewish culture means to them and their audience. Wherever the Bowls Project goes next on tour, it has the potential to take Jewish culture in many new directions.

Jewlia Eisenberg and Charming Hostess perform “Seven Spirits” at the Bowls Project www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pi2jzeKvEEk

“Oh Barren One” www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2I3Ob9qAVM

For audio clips, interviews, texts, and information about future performances by Charming Hostess, go to www.charminghostess.com

Hear John Zorn’s “Kol Nidre” at www.milkenarchive.org/works/view/494

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Marion S. Jacobson, an ethno-musicologist and freelance writer in New York, writes on popular and world music, and Jewish culture. She is the author of a forthcoming book, Squeeze This! A Cultural Biography of the Accordion, to be published by the University of Illinois Press in 2011.

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