If there’s such a thing as the alt Jewish liturgical music scene, Book of J is part of it. The Bay Area duo’s self-titled debut album, released in July, somehow ropes together delta blues, Yiddish protest songs, queer politics, black gospel and traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardic liturgical music into 12 coherent tracks.
The two singular musicians behind Book of J are Jeremiah Lockwood and Jewlia Eisenberg. Lockwood is the grandson of renowned classical cantor Jacob Konigsberg and is best known for his punk cantorial Sway Machinery albums. Eisenberg is the vocalist for impossible-to-describe-in-one-sentence Oakland band Charming Hostess and, according to a florid press release, was “raised by a pack of feral Marxists” amid the music of social justice movements.
They play Old First Church in San Francisco on Sept. 30 in a Sukkot-themed performance. Sukkot begins at sundown Sept. 23 and ends Oct. 2.
J.: You’re playing with a wild mixture of styles here. What is the glue that ties these disparate themes and influences together?
Jewlia Eisenberg: All of this music is very personal to us, stuff we grew up playing or listening to in our families. My folks are fierce organizers. Jeremiah comes from this great cantorial heritage. This music comes from all these different places and languages, but it feels like it’s all from our own lives.
Jeremiah Lockwood: We’ve got a utopian vision about our tastes in music, a cultural mixing where there’s an underlying vision of what music should achieve, musically and spiritually. Boundaries between genres break down in the momentary pleasure of creating and performance.
Eisenberg: For example, “Agadelkha” is a piyyut [Jewish liturgical poem]. The version on our album is sung in the Balkans. But the same melody was also shared with a gay, pornographic gutter song. We take it as a piyyut, but claim the erotic striving of the secular version by using the secular chorus with the rest of the religious version. What does it mean to connect that holy striving with this erotic striving? What connects all the stuff on the record is how the spiritual informs the political and how the political informs the spiritual, and looking for the erotic valence that ties together both.
Eisenberg: It’s an homage to that, yes. It’s musical biblical criticism.
Lockwood: It’s a playful way of thinking about a story with secret authors. And in this case, we are the authors, and we both have J as the start of our names.
Among young Jewish activists on the left, there’s a rising consciousness around Yiddish music, Yiddish culture and the legacy of Yiddish political activism. You both grew up with that culture. How do you feel about it becoming trendy on the Jewish left?
Lockwood: I like it. I want there to be more of it. I’ve always been interested in Yiddish language and Yiddish modernist poetry. In the last few years, I’ve hunkered down with it more heavily, in response to the political situation. We’re in an age of radicalism. The resources of language and culture are really important in resistance. The people I grew up with who spoke Yiddish, it wasn’t a political statement, it was just their identity. That kind of organic Jewish identity where language is integrated with daily life, that’s not so much a part of Jewish life in America now. I value it very highly. My doctoral thesis, which I’m working on now at Stanford, is about contemporary cantors in Hasidic communities in New York; those guys are all bilingual.
Eisenberg: Here’s a different question: Is diaspora consciousness rising among people who experience diaspora? Is it rising among different diasporas — Jews, African Americans, etc.? For me, that’s very powerful. I’m interested in giving voice to the intersection of text and diaspora consciousness. Diaspora consciousness is the most important frame of thinking in my life.
There are political and protest songs from more than one language on the album. Are they all traditional songs, or are some original?
Eisenberg: All traditional, every single thing. Leonard Cohen famously covered “The Partisan,” which is a song about the French Resistance in World War II, but it was written by Anna Marly. People know this English version from Leonard Cohen, this is his arrangement. We want to have a deep engagement with different vernaculars. Is it political or is it folk? That song was a folk song, but it became a protest anthem. A lot of these songs were written by someone at some point, but they become vernacular, traditional. When it becomes sung by enough people, it becomes folk. Why do we want to sing it? Because we’re becoming anti-fascist partisans now! That’s who we are.
Jeremiah, you studied when you were younger with the legendary African American blues guitarist Carolina Slim, but you also come from the world of traditional Ashkenazi cantorial music. Both of those are present on this album. How do they relate to each other?
Lockwood: We’re in a way getting back to the Weavers, these folk records of the late ‘40s and the ‘50s, initial interactions — often Jewish — with American folk music, much of it African American. It’s maybe due to my own autobiographical story. Black music is a part of what I know and feel comfortable with. Cantorial music is yearning and aspirational, as a lot of black music is. I spent my late childhood, early teen years immersed in it. Maybe it’s ironic, but that’s a native tongue for me, almost more than hazanus [cantorial music]. That mix is part of being an American.
This is music with a message. What do you hope people will take away from the album?
Lockwood: That mourning and loss and feelings of longing are not pointless, that those feelings can be harnessed toward imagining and creating different stories, different ways of living that are better, less hurtful, that are reparative.
Eisenberg: I hope that people feel interested in diaspora consciousness and direct anti-fascist action — and identifying that with their faith work, whatever the work is that they’re doing on their own faith.