In ancient Babylon, Jewish women would visit the local shaman, whisper to him their deepest wishes, and then have those wishes inscribed on a clay bowl and buried beneath their homes.
More than 15 centuries later, Oakland-based composer Jewlia Eisenberg has brought those inscriptions back into the light and set them to music.
The Bowls Project, Eisenberg’s sensory musical experience, makes its official premiere at this year’s Jewish Music Festival on July 11 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens.
Years in the making, the Bowls Project is more than just music. Key to the performance is a custom-built, 40-foot concrete dome, where vocalist Eisenberg and her band, Charming Hostess, will perform.
Eisenberg, her fellow musicians and a team of construction workers commandeered a spacious steel warehouse in Oakland –– the same place where many Burning Man pieces are forged –– to finish the acoustically pristine dome in time for the festival opening.
Musicians usually don’t wear hard hats to work. But during the dome’s construction, clarinetist Jason Ditzian has been one of the exceptions.
Ditzian plays with the Charming Hostess ensemble and has been working on the Bowls Project alongside Eisenberg, becoming a de facto scholar of the ancient amulets.
During their time of exile in Babylon (present-day Iraq) around 1,500 years ago, Jews practiced their religion in ways quite different from today. This may have been the period when the sages began composing the Talmud, but the average Babylonian Jews routinely used these so-called magic or demon bowls.
Back then, says Ditzian, “it was a common practice of all the people there to go to your bowl shaman, to whom you tell your hopes and dreams. The shaman would write them down in Aramaic, then you would bury the bowl.”
Many bowls have since been unearthed by archaeologists, inscribed with incantations, wishes and prayers, very often written by women.
Eisenberg, a lay scholar of the subject, took excerpts from those long-silent Jewish voices and set them to music, with some tunes based on traditional Iraqi Jewish melodies. “This doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says Ditzian. “You have here the first voices of [Jewish] women.”
Those voices, as expressed in the bowl inscriptions, do not mention anything about rabbis, synagogues or High Holy Day services. Instead, as Ditzian notes, Judaism at the time was “porous,” borrowing from the local shamanistic religions of Babylon.
“One song we do is ‘Bird of Rivers,’” says Ditzian of the Bowls Project music. “The lyric goes: ‘O Great Bird of Rivers, I implore you’ — the point being that the average Jew today would not be praying to the bird of rivers. Everyone then was spirit sharing.”
The Bowls Project has been given a few test runs prior to the festival, but this is the first performance to fully integrate Eisenberg’s broad interactive vision.
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts worked with Eisenberg to curate the project. Inside the dome, audience members will also have the chance to engage in “secret sharing,” or recording their own hopes and dreams, which will be integrated into the soundscape.
For the July 11 performance, Charming Hostess will be augmented by a string quartet and Pakistani-born multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily.
Ditzian, who lives in San Francisco, will play clarinet in the performance, but he’s on double-duty for the Jewish Music Festival that day. His other band, Kugelplex, will take the main stage for a set as well.
As for the dome, Eisenberg and Ditzian were pleasantly surprised by how quickly the Yerba Buena brain trust jumped at the idea of erecting the giant structure.
Designed by architect Michael Ramage, the dome will stay put near the corner of Mission and Third streets for several months, so people can enjoy Eisenberg’s holistic vision long after the music festival ends.
“She’s a monster,” Ditzian says of his colleague. “Jewlia has degrees in music and history from Cal. She works with top scholars in each field. Nobody else identified these bowls as being the only source of first-person women accounts within talmudic history. At the end of the day she’s a unique and powerful voice.”
The Bowls Project with Jewlia Eisenberg and Charming Hostess premieres at 12 p.m. July 11 at the Jewish Music Festival at Yerba Buena Gardens. Information: www.jewishmusicfestival.org.