Announcing the Philadelphia Sher Project

After a long hiatus while I finished up my semester (my second-last at Penn!) I’m back at eartotheground.

On Sunday, I had the privilege of playing in my synagogue’s klezmer band for the début performance of the Philadelphia sher at our annual Chanukah party.  The sher is a traditional Eastern European/Ashkenazi Jewish social dance in 2/4 time for four couples, with an accompanying set of tunes. Eastern European Jews who came to the United States brought it with them, and by the early twentieth century, Philadelphia had its own characteristic sher medley, as did New York and other major cities.

The sher was hugely popular at weddings and other social events and quickly became beloved by the Philadelphia Jewish community and beyond, eventually becoming the preeminent American sher medley. Unfortunately, widespread performance of the sher died out by the 1960s due to the pressures of Israeli music and dance, assimilation and suburbanization. It is kept alive in klezmer circles at events like KlezKamp, but not often performed at everyday parties and events.

Over the last few months, the Simcha Band, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann and the Religious Life Committee of Kol Tzedek, and I put together a grant application to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Kehillah of Center City to fund an exciting community-based project built around the sher–and we received $2200 from them for this project and a concurrent prayer leader training program!

Sherri Cohen, the Simcha Band’s trombonist, and I have been taking lessons with the eminent klezmer trumpeter Susan Watts, whose family has deep roots in Philadelphia’s Jewish music scene, and learning the sher.  Naomi Segal, a member of Kol Tzedek, re-learned the sher (which she danced as a kid growing up in Philly) and taught it to the congregation on Sunday.  People had a great time dancing it and the band (featuring Susan and her mom, fantastic drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts) certainly had a great time playing it.

Right now we’re recruiting volunteers from Kol Tzedek, the Philly Jewish community, and beyond to help with this project.  Community members can get involved in any number of ways:

  • Coming to Kol Tzedek events where we will be performing the sher (TBA here, or if you get in touch with me)
  • Learning how to perform it with the Simcha Band
  • Volunteering to learn the dance and teach it to others in the area
  • Getting involved in the historical and archival research on the sher and on klezmer in Philly that I’ll be conducting beginning next month
  • Conducting oral interviews about Philly’s Jewish music scene with members of the Philly Jewish community
  • Designing the final web archive, where we will be storing educational materials, video, audio, sheet music and historical and ethnographic information about the sher

By April, we hope to have:

  • Published (online and in hard copy) the sher music, recordings, performance notes, video of events at which it was performed, instructional video, and a history/ethnography of the Philadelphia sher.
  • Performed and taught the Philadelphia sher medley at area Jewish events and simchas, along with a short historical presentation.
  • Established a foothold for the Philly sher as a meaningful, living, breathing part of Philadelphia Jewish life, and self-sustaining methods for its transmission to future generations of musicians, dancers and partygoers.

There might also be a documentary film somewhere in there, depending on how things go.  Stay tuned for the launch of the official Philadelphia Sher Project blog within the next week or so, with photos, video and audio of this year’s Chanukah festivities!  Drop me an email or comment here if you want to get involved with this project at any level.

XXL ranks Jewish street cred; some Jews not happy about it

As you may have heard, hip hop magazine XXL put up a blog post ranking members of the hip hop community with numbers of stars of David per their Jewish street cred.  Some regrettable stereotypes find their way into the article (pickles, money, business skills), but I interpreted it as a tongue-in-cheek rundown of the visibility of Judaism in the hip hop world lately (what with Drake, Russell Simmons’ PSA, and all that jazz).

Others didn’t find it quite so funny.  Carly Silver over at New Voices, a magazine for young Jews, got pretty upset about this (h/t Emma Morgenstern), worrying over XXL‘s use of stars of David as rankings, saying that they’re holy symbols (huh?) and believing that this ranking implies that the magazine is worrying about the role of Jews in hip hop.

I’m not trying to downplay tensions between African-Americans and Jews, and the fact that hip hop has historically been a site of tension and negotiation between black people and white people at times.  And I’m not trying to downplay the fact that many Jews are sensitive to their historical status as an endangered minority.  But let’s take a step back.

First, despite the fact that Silver interprets XXL‘s ascription of Jewishness to certain hip-hip figures as a sign that the magazine doesn’t think they have street cred, Jewishness has long been a way for white people to be more accepted in African-American musical communities.  While Ashkenazi Jews are firmly in the “white” column of America’s racial binary today, this only became true 50-60 years ago–much later than other ethnic groups that we would commonly consider white.  Before that, Jews were for the most part considered nonwhite or “not-quite-white.”  Because of this, Jews generally had an easier time negotiating African-American musical styles, primarily jazz at that point (or musical styles that played on the most pernicious stereotypes of African-Americans, such as blackface).

While Ashkenazi Jews are no longer considered nonwhite in the same way, this engagement with African-American music hasn’t stopped, and many of the social interactions are similar.  Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys, for example, were given a degree of credibility within the early hip hop community in NYC partly because they were Jewish–not the same degree of credibility that black artists had, but more than non-Jewish white artists (or producers, in Rubin’s case).

In a musical culture that’s widely discussed as “black,” Jewish people–and white people more generally–stick out and are considered novelties (despite the fact that “white” people, especially Jews, have been involved with “black” music since the age of minstrel shows, generally on the business end, sometimes respectfully and fairly and oftentimes not).

While I can’t say that XXL‘s commentary was the most tastefully-done article I’ve ever seen, it doesn’t surprise me that the recent high visibility of Jews in hip hop was considered interesting to write about.  And I wouldn’t worry too much about the stereotypes.  While they’re slightly tacky, they’re pretty consistent with the way a lot of publications do rankings and lists.  A lil’ bit racist/(hetero)sexist/classist across the board?  Yeah, probably.  Specifically anti-Semitic?  Probably not.

Kosher punk

heeb’n’vegan posted a review of several Jewish punk concerts back in August and I am now finally getting around to discussing it.

This trend isn’t surprising to me at all, besides the fact that it’s surfacing in the late 2000′s as opposed to the 80′s or 90′s (but I could be wrong, seeing as I was but a wee child back in that day and was primarily listening to Paul Simon, Mahalia Jackson and Raffi on LP and cassette tape, and not Jewish music).

I’m writing a chapter for my thesis right now on why explicitly-Jewish hip hop makes sense in the context of the klezmer revival (and why the klezmer revival makes sense in the context of the folk movement of the mid-20th century).  There have been two broad trends in Jewish-American music in the 20th and 21st centuries (basically since mass numbers of Ashkenazi Jews came to the US): 1) less-observant Jews making music that is a hybrid between whatever music they were making before, i.e. traditional secular music from their home in Europe, and American popular styles; and 2) Orthodox Jews (mainly since the 60′s) making kosherized versions of popular styles so that the kids don’t go off the derech–i.e., regular pop music has lyrics that the Orthodox community considers objectionable, so they make music that sounds just like regular pop music, but has “Torah-approved” lyrics.

This seems to be primarily an example of the latter.  The band Moshiach Oi! (Messiah Hey!, more or less) has songs like “I Wanna Learn Torah” and “Shabbos,” which have straight-up Orthodox lyrics and straight-up punk aesthetics.  Their song “Am Yisroel Chai” (the people Israel live, which is the title of a folk song that they reinterpreted) has lyrics that to my mind showcase the worse side of Orthodox ideology:

We stand for life, they stand for war

We stand for peace, they stand for more

We stand for G-d, they stand for death

We’ll scream “Am Yisroel Chai!” with our last breath

Right, because all the goyim clearly have no morals.  Moving on.

The band CAN!!CAN seems to be doing a bit better, viewing the use of punk as within the evolving, innovative aspect of Jewish tradition–and using punk to welcome people who might be otherwise alienated from the Jewish community back in.  I won’t argue with that.

Jewish punk seems to be in the stage Jewish hip hop was in back in the 80′s: some Jewish musicians are playing non-overtly-Jewish punk, and there are some Jewish punk bands that are overtly Jewish, often parody mainstream punk bands (like the band Shabbos Bloody Shabbos) and don’t incorporate Jewish aesthetics, though their lyrics are almost exclusively “Jewish.”

Back in the 80′s, we saw hip hop bands like 2 Live Jews making songs with titles like “Kosher as We Wanna Be” and “Wash This Way” (a takeoff on “Walk This Way” referencing netilat yadayim).

Now we have much better-sounding stuff from Jews exploring Jewish identity while using hip hop and traditional Jewish music (however that’s defined) as a more fluent vernacular:

Give Jewish punk 10 years and I expect great things.

Yikes: Amy Winehouse raps about being Jewish

You guys, I love Amy Winehouse, I love Judaism, and I love rap…but this makes me cry a little inside.

Tablet‘s description:

More saliently, it includes the following flow from Ms. Winehouse: “Oh, snap, I never knew, I never knew that, well, I’m a Jew/Well a Jew makin’/Anyway, if you can smoke bacon/Then I reckon that, um…”—at which point she changes the subject to the drumming prowess of her friend Zalon. If we’re following the logic correctly, what should fill in the lacuna at the end of that line is that, if you can smoke bacon, you can smoke crack. And if you’re a Jew who smokes bacon—really, what can’t you smoke?

On the upside, the guy playing drums and singing (Zalon?) is actually pretty good.

Tuesday links: L’shanah tovah!

This week, more from the Times–an uplifting story for Rosh Hashanah and another article about World War Two music.

Tuesday links

Nothing like a little racism…

…to get the High Holidays off to a great start, right?  (The answer is “Wrong,” fyi.)

Apparently Tel Aviv’s religious council is warning that shofars made in China may be smeared with pig fat (which is a little pas comme il faut, but not technically un-kosher, I believe, unless you’re snacking on your shofar–correct me if I’m wrong) and that one shouldn’t purchase shofars made in Morocco, because, according to a rabbi on the council,

It’s disrespectful bringing a shofar prepared by an Arab on Shabbat into a synagogue.

Right, I guess I forgot that “love thy neighbor” doesn’t apply during the month of Elul…

Quick hit: Jewish/Latin@ fusion music

It’s everywhere!

“It’s something that I’m fond of calling post-ethnic pyrotechnics,” [Hoodio member Abraham] Velez says. “It’s just a willful, over-the-top way of overstating the mashup of cultures that we observe, that we have in our own lives … that we see all around us.”

  • Tablet checks out “Juban” music.  This is what I call eclecticism:

And there you have it: a New York-based Cuban-American who was raised Catholic and developed a taste for Jewish music and culture while living in Florida, and a former rock bassist whose grandfather emigrated to Canada from Poland, are united by their shared interest in an obscure Jewish cocktail pianist.

  • And now Spinner‘s taking it on vis-à-vis an upcoming (August 23) Lincoln Center concert:

“It’s more like ‘rarefied,’ ” [musician Arturo O'Farrill] says. “More like the rarefied kind of experiments that could only happen in those circumstances. There’s a novel effect to it, but that can also mean ‘rare.’ These are the things I thrill in — Tibetan singers doing hip-hop, things like that. To me that’s the wonderment of that you’re allowed to take generous heapings of others’ wonderment and mix it into yours. It’s really amazing.”

Take a listen–there are some audio links in each article.

Quick hit: Bob Dylan’s Xmas album

Bob Dylan (who was born Jewish but went through a Jesus phase back in the day and is now apparently going through a Chabad phase among others) has decided to record a Christmas album.  I know there’s a long tradition of Jewish folks writing/performing Christmas tunes, but this is kind of beyond Irving Berlin.

These days, Jews, for the most part, don’t have to apologize for being Jews the way they did in Berlin’s day.  We don’t have to assimilate as musicians by writing Christmas songs, or recording them, for that matter.  So why is Dylan doing this?  My money is on shock value, novelty, pure aesthetic enjoyment, or hopes of making lots of money.  We’ll see.

More questionable Jewish hip hop

The Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av starts tonight, so no new posts until tomorrow night at the earliest.  Please note, I think this track is pretty kitschy and awful, but it’s an interesting addition to the religious hip hop discussion.  I now present hip hop for Tisha B’Av:

Sorry about the lack of posts lately–I’ve been teaching at a music camp in South Jersey this week (really cute pics of my students to come, from the Inquirer).  Next week eartotheground will be back on the normal schedule.

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