EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION: AMERICAN JEWS AND MUSIC.
While each article emerges out of its own critical matrix, this special issue was conceived in light of a broader Jewish cultural studies perspective shared by the initiating editors, Jonathan Freedman and myself. Unfortunately, Jonathan was unable to see our project through to its publication because of serious health issues, and so for me what appears here has both scholarly and personal meaning. I had looked forward to working with Jonathan in order to continue our discussion from a few years back about a place from my past whose cultural functions and social meanings help illuminate the theoretical framework for this issue, one that Jonathan articulated in his own way in Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity.
The place we'd talked about was the shipping room of my father's Jewish bookstore, which my friends and I used as a substitute garage for our garage band. I remember loading in our equipment through the back door, moving quickly so the neighbors down the block on South Elm Drive in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of LA. wouldn't see us, and setting up our amps, drums, and guitars among boxes of Basic Judaism, Reading Hebrew, When a Jew Celebrates, A Maimonides Reader, The New Bantam-Megiddo Hebrew & English Dictionary, and To Be a Jew. We were all Jews too, of one stripe or another, and inevitably someone would swipe a kippah from a recent delivery and perch it on his head as we launched into Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" or The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." At the time, this seemed to us a naturally funny paradox: Jews who rock? And then we'd look at each other and laugh because we were the joke.
Obviously, our middle-class and predominantly secular musical influences were pretty limited; otherwise we'd have realized we were hardly original in our mockingly hybrid sense of musical selves. But what I see now is how that shipping room was a social space full of things, as Bruno Latour would call the objects around us and in our hands, that enabled our little gathering of ethno-musical debate and interpretation to assemble itself. These things offered us a number of ways in which to revise and reconnect the personal with the collective, facts with concerns, actors with networks. Didn't the textbooks we'd thumb through with mock incomprehension set the scene for our own attempts to learn by copying? The kippot on our heads, worn with a wink, were as much a costume as the bowling shirts and black jeans we bought at Jetrag over on Melrose, but wasn't the juxtaposition just as much a declaration of our mutually perplexing affiliations as it was of knowing irony? Even our song selections suggested the kinds of choices the shipping room offered for a gendered Jewish self-understanding: How was our performance of masculinity shaped as much by our ambivalence toward Jewish musical performance as it was by our youthful admiration for a bare-chested Iggy Pop and the bespectacled Elvis Costello? While there were no other Others in that room, the dynamic in it still recalls Josh Kun's convincing take on music, Jewishness, and Los Angeles: "What if the art of being Jewish is not 'sounding' Jewish but remaking what 'Jewish' sounds like, reperforming and reimagining secular Jewish identity through the musical masks of the city's multiracial population?... Music seeps through, it's effect on its audiences and its makers impossible to predict. It can root and reroot, but it can also transport and transform" (Kun 2013, 82).
It certainly transformed my father's shipping room, which I see as one of the many material assembly places for the objects, discourses, and emotional investments circulating among the networks of "American/Jewish/music." In Klezmer America, Jonathan acknowledges this type of network thinking, but provides another, equally expressive vocabulary with which to explain both that room and the theoretical starting point for this collection:
When we place the Jew and all things associated with that figure into such culturally powerful if resolutely multiple conceptual contexts, the things we "know" about all of these categories become less certain--and this allows us to know, or at least guess, other things about them as well. Think of this process... as a series of swirling Venn diagrams in which the conceptual circles rotate into each other's gravitational field, creating as they go new centers of meaning, which in turn swirl into new, and different circles of significance. Or think of it... as a kind of postmodern mystic writing pad in which new and previous inscriptions combine to make an intricate, if constantly shifting, lacework of designs. (Freedman 2008, 16)
Klezmer, as an artistic form and disposition, is Jonathan's organizing trope for tracing these designs, and is itself an illustration of "the Jewish/modernity complex" (Freedman 2008, 17), that mash-up of a people with time and place. In a masterful reading of klezmer in the United States as the journey of an inherently innovating musical and social assemblage, Jonathan shows how the same spirit of assimilative experimentalism that suffuses American jazz (he tracks it from the 1920s through the turn of the twenty-first century) is evident too in the virtuosity and compositions of Jewish and non-Jewish practitioners of klezmer. Their creative work both parallels the development of, and improvises on the African American and Central and Latin American diasporic music that revoiced jazz idioms over the course of the modern recording era.
Jonathan sees this paralleling and improvising--agreeing with others to just riff along, playing call and response with your instruments, and not letting the progression resolve back to the root--as stoking the hybridity of Jewish cultures. Klezmer thus becomes for him a resonant way to talk about, for example, Tony Kushner's innovative conjoining of Jewish and gay identity in Angels in America. It's similarly polyphonic and elaborative, a performance that Jonathan calls "queer diasporism," "a vision of identity that rejects origin, nationhood, cultural reproduction in favor of a vision that embraces cultural syncretism, wandering, exile without any sense of the moral imperative of returning to origins" (Freedman 2008, 90). Jonathan's expansive, multiplex, and formally diverse exploration of "the klezmering of America" thereby supplies the rationale for editing this special issue on music in a literature-focused journal, for it positions Jewish American musical production as central to the most pressing questions and problematics of contemporary U.S. and Jewish American cultural studies, whatever the discipline. This is witnessed by the three general matters that contributors addressed: the hybrid performances of racialized sounds, the syncretic displays of gender and sexuality in musical theater, and the roles that pedagogy and the academy play in helping to focus critical attention on aesthetic process rather than aesthetic value.
The first set of articles specifically engage current scholarly discussions about how to hear and understand the racialized products assembled by and under American/Jewish/music. Much has been written over the last decade about the ways that Jewish American artists have spoken for, to, about, and through ethnic and racialized others, with various critics worrying the baggage of social, political, and ethical implications that accompany such talk. Some, like Dean Franco, take note "of the proximity, contiguity, ventriloquism, and ultimate empathy that obtains between Jews and other minority groups, in view of a wider field of domestic and international concerns for race, rights, and recognition" (Franco 2012, 8). Others, like Jennifer Glaser, are "interested in historicizing this preoccupation with racial ventriloquism and transracial identification so that it is not merely part and parcel of a larger monolithic notion of the wandering Jew but a species of secular Jewish aesthetics and an intervention into the conventional narrative of postwar American literature" (Glaser 2016, 6). Most examine the ventriloquism of other Others, and analyses of these performances build on or argue with two strong readings: Michael Rogin's about Jewish uses of blackface to whiten up Jewish immigrant identity and musical sounds, and Karen Brodkin's about American Jews becoming white as a consequence of the social organization of race, class, and gender in the United States, wherein belonging is defined in contradistinction to blackness.
But what should we make of the proximity, contiguity, ventriloquism, and ultimate empathy that obtains between Jews and contemporary white cultures? How should we read those hybrid sounds? These are questions that Aaron Klaus's opening article, "Nefesh Mountain, 'Jewgrass,' and the Building of an American Jewish Experience," implicidy raises. Klaus explores the parallel developments he sees embodied in Nefesh Mountain between music from the Appalachian Mountains and that of progressive American Judaism. In both, the spiritual longing for a return to home engenders the fabrication of a musical home, and "Jewgrass" is an improvisation "symbolically linking the Jewish and American experiences to stake a new claim to belonging in American society." Tracing the development of Jewish bluegrass beginning with the incorporation of bluegrass idioms in, unsurprisingly, klezmer performances, and considering the influence of Debbie Friedman's innovative setting of "Jewish liturgical texts to the melodies and instrumentation" of American folk songs, Klaus argues that the intersection of a Bible-soaked Americana with Judaism in Nefesh Mountain's music reflects a mutually constitutive and creative interpretation of exile and homecoming. Drawing on Sidra Ezrahi's study of the subject, Klaus's article shows how the longing for return and its perpetual delay in the lyrics of both traditional and Jewish bluegrass creates a rich site of investigation into a hybrid Jewish American cultural production whose "reclaiming of cultural space" deserves our attention in light of the current political climate.
Leonard Stein's "Jewish Flow: Performing Identity in Hip-Hop Music" returns us to more familiar ground, surveying the current range of Jewish identities in hip-hop, but with particular and welcome attention to how the minority status of Jewish rappers in hip-hop escapes simple categorization as a subject of whiteness. Stein locates and interrogates examples of the Jewish rapper as stereotyped Other, as serious Jewish representation, as comedic other, and as Black convert to Orthodox Judaism. Stein also focuses his analyses on the music video, an essential aspect of hip-hop performance and culture, but also a way to reflect on the corporeal and spatial dimensions of musical performance--that an artist's voice "speaks" from a racialized and gendered self, one whose bodily presence is subject to the material, communal, and cultural conditions of time and place. Doing so enables him to show, in rounded context and within a musical genre generated, shaped, and predominantly represented by African-American culture, "a range of creative responses by Jewish rappers seeking to express their identities within a racial discourse that distinguishes them as not merely white and not presumably black."
The second set of articles engage current scholarly discussions about how to hear and understand the convergence of Jewishness, gender, and sexuality in products assembled by and under American/Jewish/music. The performances examined in these articles take place in musical theater, a genre that, as Andrea Most points out offers, "an array of techniques for defining community, encoding otherness, playing roles, and defining the boundaries of the self" (Most 2004, 3). In "Singing the Jewish Mother On and Off the Yiddish Stage," D. A. Geller explores a less studied aspect of this culturally mobile and seemingly well-known role, which allows her to revisit critical explanations of its complex workings. Noting the dearth of studies about the Jewish mother figure in Yiddish theater during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, Geller examines that figure "within the substantial repertory of commercially published Yiddish songs that were first performed for Jewish immigrant audiences in the early twentieth century." These Jewish mother songs "reveal a surprisingly complex response to the ongoing anxiety of assimilation," in which the Jewish mother is not always a lightning rod for or projection of negative feelings about Jewish immigrant identity. Indeed, the persistence of "My Yiddishe Marne" in American popular song testifies to the still useful cultural work the Jewish mother figure performs in reaffirming Jewish femininity, in offering "a means of acculturation into the dominant white culture or the dominant (Ashkenazic) Jewish subculture," and in constructing a loud yet proud expression of secular Jewish otherness.
Alex Badue's article, "Performing Gender, Sexuality, and Jewishness in the Songs of William Finn's Musical Falsettoland (1990)," looks at the cultural work performed by roles fashioned amid the confluence of Jewish and gay identities. Set during the first year of the AIDS epidemic, Finn's musical is a less frequently analyzed example of "the intersection of queer Jewish--and Jewish queer--expression on various kinds of American stages," to use Alisa Solomon's description (Solomon 2016, 548). Those venues have "been an overdetermined space for displaying and deconstructing these terms" because of anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric about the Jew's and the homosexual's "propensity for acting," for masquerading and dissembling about their identities (Solomon 2016, 548). Badue's approach to such vexing issues of theatrical self-construction is to show how, over the course of the musical, the comedic function of Finn's Jewish characters displaces anxiety about social and cultural assimilation--about blending in--from Jewish to gay identity. Finn's queering of Jewish humor thus helps to dramatize and deconstruct middle-class patriarchal and heterosexual gender dynamics. It refashions the meaning of family and renegotiates the performance of Jewishness on the American stage, turning attention away from how others on and off stage interpret these performances as stereotype or masquerade "to how his Jewish characters see themselves, from psychopathic to nervous wrecks to unlikely lovers."
The third and final set of articles engages a growing scholarly discussion about the cultural functions of pedagogy and the role of Jewish Studies programs in fostering new musical works and critical discourse about them. This is an especially important matter, I believe, because it focuses renewed attention on teaching and learning in Jewish Studies that, despite the sometimes passionate arguments about the purposes of Jewish Studies in the academy, is too often treated as peripheral to scholarly research. Pedagogy also helps shape the products assembled by and under American/Jewish/music, so if the way those products are circulated and consumed within the academy contributes to their cultural elevation, or demotion, how are the academy's spaces and professional practices implicated in the relation between American Jews and music?
Jeremiah Lockwood's "A Cantorial Lesson: The Lineage of a Learning Encounter," models an apt kind of study to answer this question. His combining of personal narrative with ethnography puts the investigator in dialogue with the object of investigation, 103-year-old cantor Julius Blackman of San Francisco, California. By taking a lesson with the cantor, Lockwood experiences through both mind and body, space and place, a particular kind of "transmission of cantorial knowledge" that takes into account "interpersonal dynamics," the "teacher's voice," and the teacher's "anecdotes and ideas." These provide important contexts for understanding the lesson's desired form of cantorial performance and its connections to the history of twentieth-century cantonal education in America. Through analysis of his lesson, Lockwood shows how the dyadic nature of it, familiar to us in the academy as the "traditional" one-on-one tutorial, is not traditional but historically contingent and socially constructed, as are other aspects of the lesson that hybridize a mastery of musical scores with interpretive improvisation and the inculcation of musical skills with communal responsibilities. The result is "a cantorial sound and a cantorial attitude" that's "specific to the midcentury American synagogue milieu" and reflective of "the shifting cultural landscape of the American synagogue."
Judah M. Cohen gets the last word in this matter and for this issue because his article persuasively argues for approaching the study of Jewish music "as a dynamic study of institutional initiatives," which is to say another type of experiential study, but on a larger scale: experimenting with and reflecting on the ways that educational and cultural institutions provide the material, financial, and ideological scaffolding for assembling and supporting Jewish musical productions. In "Artistic Control and Partnership: Jewish Studies Programs and the Incubation of New Musical Works," Cohen uses his own experiences at Indiana University as a case study in the creation of academic-artistic partnerships that ask artists onto campus as more than just entertainers or convenient cultural prooftexts, but rather to "open a meaningful conversation about the nature of creativity, the work,' and the very field of 'Jewish music.'" His thorough examination of the origins, experiences, and outcomes of three long-term artist residencies sponsored by his Jewish Studies program makes clear the opportunities as well as the complexities that accompany the commitment to incubating (as opposed to commissioning) new musical works. Cohen acknowledges that universities and Jewish Studies programs are not neutral actors; they have socially elite status, reflect specific ideological interests and organizational values, and partner with mission-driven donors and philanthropies with their own sometimes competing interests and values. Nevertheless, the collaborations, discussions, and teaching-learning these residencies instigated on his campus and in Bloomington helped shift scholarly and audience conversation "toward process rather than unwieldy external expectations of aesthetically 'great' work." Cohen's innovative approach, with its emphasis on the problematics of performance and consumption, is an appealing and useful strategy for inciting new student interest in Jewish music and Jewish Studies. It also and very importantly offers a smart way to scrutinize, with greater self-awareness, the effects that our scholarly practices and locations have on American/Jewish/music.
It's in this spirit of self-awareness that I want to thank the contributors for dedicating their expertise to this topic, David Imhoof for his excellent advice, and Ben Schreier for provoking and cajoling this issue into print. And I should make one more acknowledgment, too. It occurred to me that I'd never asked my father whether he knew that my friends and I were playing music and partying in his shipping room at night.
"Absolutely I did," he said, "Why not? You needed a place to rehearse, and the neighbors didn't complain."
Here's to the neighbors, then. May they always be that kind.
LAURENCE ROTH is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English, Co-Chair of the Department of English & Creative Writing, and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Susquehanna University. He is the author of Inspecting Jews: American Jewish Detective Stories (Rutgers University Press, 2004) and numerous essays on American Jewish popular literature. He coedited, with Nadia Valman, The Rout-ledge Companion to Contemporary Jewish Cultures (Routledge, 2015) and is also editor of Modern Language Studies, the scholarly journal of the Northeast Modern Language Association.
Cohen, Judah M. 2015. "Music." In The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Jewish Cultures. Ed. Laurence Roth and Nadia Valman, 3-46. London: Routledge.
Franco, Dean J. 2012. Race, Rights, and Recognition: Jewish American Literature since 1969. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Freedman, Jonathan. 2008. Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press.
Glaser, Jennifer. 2016. Borrowed Voices: Writing and Racial Ventriloquism in the Jewish American Imagination. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Kun, Josh. 2013. "White Christmases And Hanukkah Mambos: Jews And The Making Of Popular Music In LA." In Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic. Ed. Karen Wilson, 75-90. Los Angeles: Autry National Center of the American West, in association with University of California Press.
Most, Andrea. 2004. Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Solomon, Alisa. 2016. "Performance: Queerly Jewish/Jewishly Queer in the American Theater." In The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature. Ed. Hana Wirth-Nesher, 547-65. New York: Cambridge University Press.
LAURENCE ROTH SUSQUEHANNA UNIVERSITY
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|Publication:||Studies in American Jewish Literature|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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