In Celebration of the Life of Jewlia Eisenberg

7 min read
Jewlia Eisenberg

By Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience

One year since the loss of musician Jewlia Eisenberg, her musical legacy continues to grow.

When musician and public intellectual Jewlia Eisenberg passed into the next world on March 11, 2021, she left behind a revered musical legacy. Her work was presented across a three decades-long career on multiple albums as a solo artist and as leader of the band Charming Hostess. Her music was recognized for its transcendence of boundaries of genre, a revolutionary stance in regard to the pursuit of justice, and a joyful approach to sharing knowledge through performance that was both rigorous and inclusive. The albums unfurl a compositional style that found its sustaining focus in song cycles that blurred the lines between musical creativity and archival research. Jewlia had a remarkable talent for discovering lineages for her own radical sonic approaches and politic in a surprising and refreshing array of sources. Mythological-historical sources she drew from included submerged histories of Jewish women’s spiritual life in Babylon in late antiquity, the dialectical materialism of the unsung Latvian author and educator Asja Lacis, the plight of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, and the work of Italian anti-fascist author Natalia Ginzburg. I had the privilege to work with Jewlia closely over the last six years of her life in our duo project, Book of J.

At the time of her death, Jewlia was midstream in two major projects that continue her legacy as an archaeologist of women’s intellectual and inner lives: an album-length song cycle on Ginzburg titled “The Ginzburg Geography,” and a performance project focused on Queer readings of the Song of Songs. Jewlia’s concept for this latter project was intended to take the form of a song cycle of new music inspired by her research on musical traditions associated with Song of Songs. She also planned a public engagement component in which she would host impromptu study sessions of the Biblical love poem with strangers on the streets of San Francisco. This public community engagement concept inspired a recent performance staged by theater artist Jenny Romaine in Brooklyn, NY.

Since her death, “The Ginzburg Geography” was completed by her bandmates in Charming Hostess and will soon be released on John Zorn’s Tzadik record label. “Fierce as Death: Queer as the Song of Songs” will be the focus of a day-long memorial event to be held at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco in October of 2022.

In her work and life, Jewlia pushed at the limitations of recognized styles of personhood. She was a musician front and center, a vital musical creative force in Jewish and experimental music communities. She engaged on the highest level of achievement in the forms of work typical of an American musician of her generation: singing, playing instruments, composing, rehearsing, performing in front of audiences, making albums of recorded sound, and in later years actively embracing internet video performance. These activities only account for some of the ways in which Jewlia worked and lived. Jewlia resembled a clerical figure or an academic in many ways, but her scholarly pursuits were always rendered into musical performance, situated as the basis for community, oriented towards pleasure.

The gaze of her explorations was trained on women’s intellectual, aesthetic and mystical pursuits, and especially the work of women that has been subsumed or obscured due to their proximity to more prestigious, typically all-male, traditions. Through her choices of subject matter, Jewlia seems to suggest lineages of women’s knowledge that run between seemingly disparate terrain, connecting Babylon of late antiquity to inter-War Frankfurt and Moscow, among other points in her geography of the imagination.

One of Jewlia’s signature projects was her research into Babylonian amulet bowls. Amulet bowls, inscribed with magic formulae, the names of familiar spirits, and litanies of personal desires, were used by women in 4th – 8th century C.E. Babylonia to protect their homes and invigorate their spirit lives. On her album “The Bowls Project,” Jewlia offers an intervention into the history of Jewish life in the post-Temple period. The bowls were an important part of Jewish domestic experience that coexisted and cohabitated with the rabbinic milieu of the Babylonian Talmud. Unlike the prestige and lasting centrality that has accrued to rabbinic thought, women’s religious experiences were devalued and marginalized. Through her animation of these archival sources as the basis for new musical/liturgical creativity, Jewlia illuminated women’s religious lives and rituals, centering fragmentary evidence of cast-aside lifeways as a legitimate and powerful Jewish text.

In another conceptual maneuver that I believe is aligned with her work with the bowls, Jewlia reappraised the work of one of her heroes, philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, through the prism of his relationship with Asja Lacis (1891-1979). Lacis and Benjamin coauthored articles, wrote an extensive correspondence, and conducted a love affair. [1] Jewlia’s exposition of their story on her album “Trilectic” draws into focus the role Lacis played as a central figure in Benjamin’s Marxist awakening. In a provocative and fecund narrative device, Jewlia eschewed a stereotypical apologetic approach that might seek to segregate their affair from their intellectual engagement. Instead, the erotic relationship between Lacis and Benjamin is positioned at the center of their intellectual dialogue as a productive feature of their engagement.

Rather than seeking to separate out the personal from the public, Jewlia embraced the complexity of the multiple levels of Lacis and Benjamin’s connection. She celebrated the sexual imperatives that drew these important figures in modern European thought into each other’s sway and orbit. Jewlia embraced icons of women’s intellectual and spiritual power as fully embodied characters, putting them in dialogue with canonical male intellectual lineages without feeling the need to divorce her icons from their materiality and sexuality.

The depth of Jewlia’s research has the tendency to be overlooked or overshadowed by the quality and the pleasures of her musical gift. Many tributes to Jewlia have been written in the months since her passing praising her music, her exuberance as a performer and life force and her erudition as a performer in a diverse array of genres. As has been noted by critics, her fields of expertise as a singer included Ladino song, Balkan women’s vocal traditions, Central Asian Jewish music, piyutim, as well as “straight ahead” American styles including rock, blues and jazz. [2]

In the future, I hope to address elements of her work that have been understudied. [3] I am concerned with finding ways to discuss and report on Jewlia’s scholarship and theoretical approaches that affirm her presence and intellectual vitality. Her voice is sorely needed in conversations about women’s intellectual traditions, non-conforming sexuality as the basis for creative interventions in the interpretation of religious texts, and the role of mysticism in musical creativity. I hope to have the strength to write about these subjects that Jewlia did not live to fully report on in her own writing, although she spoke on them often and with increasing clarity in the last years of her life. For this blog post, I have a more modest goal: I have put together a playlist from performance videos, with an eye towards introducing Jewlia to the listener who is not yet familiar with her work. This list is subjective and not by any means a comprehensive overview of her music. It is meant to serve as an enticement to dive deeper in these waters.

In the song “Yedidi” from “The Bowls Project” album, Jewlia treats an incantation from an ancient magical inscription as the basis for a melody reminiscent of piyutim, a genre of Jewish devotional song. Jewlia’s work repositions a marginalized aspect of Jewish life, women’s domestic magic, as the basis for new work in an important and well-recognized form of Jewish liturgical expression. The song is both a counterfactual that imagines how Jewish culture could have developed with the wellspring of women’s voices centered, and also a new piece of liturgy that can effectively be integrated into musical spaces, sacred or secular.

Jewlia as a youth in the 1990’s in an early incarnation of Charming Hostess sings with a preternatural insouciance and confidence as she explores a world of music, touching upon prison work songs, Bulgarian women’s song traditions, Hungarian folk songs.

In this live performance of pieces from “Trilectic,” in 2006, Jewlia is joined by her frequent collaborators Cynthia Taylor and Marika Hughes. The video is cued to the song “Fortress Moscow” which dramatizes Walter Benjamin’s melancholy as he navigates alienation and desire in his relationship with Asja Lacis.

In this rehearsal video, Jewlia and I perform “Agadelkha,” her pastiche of a piyut based on a text by the medieval Spanish Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, and a Turkish pop song with a Queer subtext in its lyrics. The Sephardi setting of the piyut is a contrafacta based on Turkish vernacular sources. Jewlia’s rendition rejoins the two versions. Her treatment of Agadelkha is the basis for an article on Jewlia’s concept of Queer piyut that I am currently working on and hope to be able to share in the near future.

At this moment, a year since she is gone, Jewlia’s new album is about to be released and her fragmentary and provisional first steps towards creating a new exploration of the Song of Songs continues to garner attention and inspire new creative endeavors. It is too soon to speak about eulogizing Jewlia at a moment when her music and ideas are continuing to inspire an efflorescence of creativity. Her work is not completed.

[1] See Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, “Naples,” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York:  Schocken Books, 1978 [1925]), 163-73; Lacis & Benjamin, “Building a Children’s Theater. 2 Documents,” trans. Jack Zipes & Susan Buck-Morss, Performance 1 (1973): 22-32. For a discussion of Asja Lacis’s writings in historical context, see Susan Ingram, “The Writing of Asja Lacis,” New German Critique no. 86 (Spring – Summer, 2002), 159-177.

[2] Articulate and well informed obituaries for Jewlia Eisenberg include: Rokhl Kafrissen, “A Great Channel of Spirit,” Tablet (March 26, 2021); Andrew Gilbert, “In memoriam: Jewlia Eisenberg, a shining star in the musical Jewniverse,” J. The Jewish News of Northern California (March 16, 2021).

[3] To my knowledge, Jewlia’s work has been the subject of only one academic publication. See Jeff Janezko, “A Tale of Four Diasporas:  Case Studies on the Relevance of ‘Diaspora’ in Contemporary American Jewish Music,” in Perspectives on Jewish Music: Secular and Sacred, Jonathan Friedman, ed. (New York: Lexington Books, 2009).


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