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‘A Great Channel of Spirit’

Rokhl’s Golden City: Remembering musical visionary Jewlia Eisenberg, who died this month

Rokhl Kafrissen
March 26, 2021
Inset image: Wikipedia
Inset image: Wikipedia
Inset image: Wikipedia
Inset image: Wikipedia

As her brothers Moses and Aaron would do after her, Miriam died in the wilderness without reaching the land promised by God. The parsha simply states that “Miriam died there and was buried there, and the community was without water.” Rashi later connected the two events, Miriam’s death and the disappearance of the water, arguing that it was Miriam who had provided wells, and water, during their wandering.

Since learning of the untimely death of Jewlia Eisenberg on March 11, my mind has often returned to the figure of Miriam. Timbrel in hand, she was the prophet who sang to God, and with the women, at the Sea of Reeds. Eisenberg wasn’t just a singer or composer or teacher. She was a visionary, a kley-koydesh (religious functionary), and a kley-zemer (vessel of song). In the words of her close collaborator Jeremiah Lockwood, “She was a great channel of spirit. She moved the people around her as a tsadik, a personification of holiness.”

We all know that the Israelites were in such a hurry to finally leave Egypt that they didn’t even have time for their bread to rise. So how did they also have the presence of mind (and room in their luggage) for timbrels? In an article on Miriam’s song, Rabbi Danielle Upbin recalls that Rashi quotes a midrash on this point: “With drums and dancing: ‘The righteous women of that generation were confident that God would do miracles for them; so they brought drums with them from Egypt.’” Music was not incidental to ancient worship, but utterly central to it. Eisenberg’s work, as diverse as it was, carried in it a thread of the ancient, a certain quality which you could sense winding all the way back to those days of sex-segregated ecstatic dance and timbrel-shaking.

Though she had countless collaborators across the years, people of all genders, Eisenberg was especially interested in creating musical and spiritual spaces for women. I could easily imagine her singing for the women after the miracle of the parting of the sea. (Though I don’t think she’d be content with one single verse after so great a miracle.)

When I spoke with Lockwood, he touched on this point, describing both of them, Eisenberg and himself, as “coming from homosocial perspectives in a way. …” (Lockwood came up in the world of blues guitar music, and is now a scholar of cantorial music.) “The male homosocial world in Judaism is … connected to aesthetic and sacred practices,” which are of great value. But Eisenberg pushed him to examine how homosociality in the Jewish world has also excluded women in a deeply unjust way.

“But at the same time,” Lockwood said, “she was a participant in intellectual discourses and musical practices that had been framed as all male,” like learning Talmud, and Mizrahi piyyutim (sacred poetry) practices. “It’s complex, because she believed in the value of homosocial experience, she loved being in all-female spaces, but at the same time, she was aware of the ethical problem in the idea of the binary.”

Singer-composer Anthony Mordkhe-Tsvi Russell got to know Eisenberg when they were both living in the Bay Area in the 2010s, often learning, teaching and making Jewish music in shared spaces. In 2014 they both participated in a class on piyyutim and it was a bonding experience for them.

Though I think of Eisenberg as forward thinking, Russell has a slightly different take on her: “It also felt like she had direct access to something that was … more ancient than conventional mainstream Judaism … She was inhabiting something that was much older and much more embodied than conventional essays into Judaism and Jewish culture.”

I mentioned to him this image of Miriam in regard to Eisenberg’s legacy. Something about the disappearance of the water spoke to the grief I was feeling at that moment. “By virtue of midrash, Miriam had the ability to summon water,” Russell said. “That doesn’t mean that when she left that all water was gone … but it meant that her convenient and companionable ability to summon water was gone. It meant that in order to bring about that thing which came to her so naturally, by virtue of her company, so much more work has to be done; she did it so easily.”

I first saw Eisenberg perform at the late, great Tonic on Norfolk Street, sometime around 2002. It was a Sunday afternoon klezmer brunch and I’m pretty sure I had skipped out on, or was late to, some law school study session. The important thing was that I be on time to pray at the temple of all that was holy, Jew-y, and cool. I didn’t even know what I was going to see when I showed up that afternoon, but as soon as the music started, I was smitten.

With her band, Charming Hostess, Eisenberg played music from Trilectic, and it was like nothing I had heard before. Twenty years after its release, Trilectic still sounds as exciting and fresh as the first time I heard it. The songs slide between doo-wop and Bulgarian village music (and so much more), ornamented with hand claps and glorious harmonies. The music wasn’t just exciting, it was so damn sexy. Trilectic tells the wild story of the love affair between Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, using texts written by them and their social circle. As was so often the case with Eisenberg’s work, form and content were intertwined.

In the liner notes to Trilectic, Eisenberg writes: “I originally got into this project because I was interested in several ideas of Benjamin’s and how they relate to my music. I was intrigued by Lacis and Benjamin’s idea of ‘porosity’—a characteristic of urban social space where there is a blurring of the boundaries of public and private. I wondered if this porosity could be applied to the boundaries between people and texts over place and time. How does my private life interact with theirs in the public space of a song cycle? What is the new site formed?”

Too often, overintellectualized liner notes strain to make up for a certain lack of substance in the music. If anything, Eisenberg’s liner notes undersold the shimmering web of referents driving her music. Rather than dry, literal settings of texts, Trilectic’s songs pulse with the messiness of life and a juicy, lived connection to history.

In the note to track 12, Dream of Me, Eisenberg describes an imagined monologue by Lacis, expressing her frustration with the nebbishy Benjamin and a longing for a lover who is maybe somewhat less of a rootless cosmopolitan. Eisenberg sings over a propulsive mix of percussive breaths, whistles, and sung accompaniment:

I’m not an arcade in gay Paris. I’m neither phantasm nor fetish nor commodity …
I dreamt I had you in my bed. I dreamt you had me on all fours.
I dreamt you fucked me like John Reed, and I’m a good red—I pushed back and begged for more.
I dreamed the vanguard of the left she came so hard she had to scream—
So now close your eyes and dig the dream that I dream

Whew. You could certainly love Eisenberg’s music without engaging with the texts and concepts underneath. It was that good. But the notes took you deeper, and made you want to know more, made you want to go on this wild journey, and any other she might propose, too.

Seeing Charming Hostess and getting my hands on Trilectic almost 20 years ago made me a Jewlia Eisenberg superfan. I even bought the T-shirt that day, the one that said “Nerdy-Sexy-Commie-Girly” on the back—the closest she ever came to really branding herself and her work in the way we think of it today. Eisenberg hewed to an earnest anti-fascism in everything she did, something which doesn’t lend itself so easily to commodification, in any case.

Though Eisenberg wasn’t in New York that often, I did my best to see her whenever possible: at Tonic, at Joe’s Pub, at Barbes. That in itself would have been enough. Dayenu. But over the years Eisenberg and I became friends, something at which I still marvel. This radiant person, brimming over with talent and projects and ideas and vital life force, she wanted to spend time with me? But of course, that’s the kind of person Eisenberg was. She could have easily been full of herself. But ego trips didn’t seem to interest her. She was generous and expansive as a mode of being.

And because there’s a ghost in even the most sinister machine, as I unpack these memories, Facebook has just reminded me that on this very day, eight years ago, Eisenberg posted a message on my Facebook wall: “Radical Jewish Culture workers everywhere love [Rokhl].” To which I replied, “Choosy Jews Choose Me.” It seems like just another silly Facebook exchange with a beloved friend, but it meant a lot more to me.

Most of us have had those “this job is going to kill me” moments. In 2013, I was working at a certain white shoe law firm in midtown and the threat level had gone from figurative to dangerously literal; 2013 was a particularly difficult year, and I ended up taking a three-month (unpaid) leave of absence from my job, a desperate measure for a desperate time.

A few weeks earlier, Eisenberg had made a rare trip back to New York to play some shows. During what I’m sure was a very busy time for her, she came to have lunch with me in our fancy law firm cafeteria. On the 23rd floor, wraparound windows provided a panoramic view over midtown, the sparkling belly of Moloch, a million miles away from (what I imagined to be) Eisenberg’s trippy-hippie adopted home turf on the Oakland-Berkeley border.

In the middle of a very dark time for my mental health, that lunch with Eisenberg was like seeing the sun emerge momentarily from behind a bank of heavy clouds. When she began to tell me about the prayer services she was now leading, I secretly rolled my eyes, skeptical as I usually am about getting too into God. Forget God, let’s get to the music. But by the end of our lunch, I was ready to pack my finest white linen dress, book my ticket to the Bay Area, and follow Eisenberg to whatever God-centered place she was going.

Despite her long (and grueling) illness, an extremely rare form of autoimmune disease, Eisenberg remained astonishingly upbeat and full of joy. I thought of her a lot in the months after that 2013 lunch, holding on to her resilience like a talisman, working as hard as I could on my own.

That I didn’t ever visit her in California is one of those things I keep coming back to, that part of grief where you endlessly rehearse the things you didn’t do, the opportunities you wasted, as if that’s the magical act which could have staved off the inevitable.

But I’d rather take the time to encourage you to explore Eisenberg’s musical projects, which were so numerous, and wide ranging, that I couldn’t possibly touch on all of them here. A good place to start is the four CDs she released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. You can find tons of video clips and essays at the Charming Hostess website. Book of J, her collaboration with singer-guitarist-scholar Jeremiah Lockwood, was just taking off in the last couple of years, and you can find their exploration of queer piyyut and much more at the Book of J website.

Finally, I want to return to the theme of Pesakh, and the simple joy of singing, something that Eisenberg embodied so brilliantly. Just last year, Book of J was invited to record two Yiddish songs for the Passover Around the World virtual concert. Please take a moment and enjoy their gorgeously joyful Mu Asapru (Who Knows One) and Fir Kashes (Four Questions). If you’re celebrating, have a sweet and kosher holiday, hot a zisn un a koshern pesakh.

ALSO: On April 18, Berlin-based singer Svetlana Kundish and accordionist Patrick Farrell will present a program of their gorgeous new Yiddish songs … I’m shepping so much nakhes to see my friend, singer Anthony Russell, as well as some of my fellow 2019 YIVO summer program students, all featured at the upcoming Sidney Krum Young Artists Concert Series. On April 21, they will premiere five new compositions engaging with Yiddish folksong. Register here …On April 27, YIVO presents “The Jewish Experience in Opera.” Four contemporary composers will explore the presence of Jewish themes and languages in the history of opera. Register hereBen Holmes is one of my favorite people in the klezmer scene, and one of my favorite trumpet players. You can join him on June 3 for the album drop for his newest, called Naked Lore … If you’re vaccinated and looking for an excuse to be in Germany this summer, the Yiddish Summer Weimar festival is going ahead in person, with outdoor events and the first ever Yiddish summer camp in Germany. Mid-July through Aug. 21.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.