An Introduction to “Conversations: Words and Music from the American Jewish Experience”

By Jeremiah Lockwood

“Conversations” aims to open a dialogue about the persistence of memory and change in Jewish music and the use of the sounds of the past to address keenly felt needs in the present.

After the plague God spoke to Moses and to Elazar the son of Aaron the priest saying, Take a census of the whole community of the children of Israel…(Numbers 26:1-2)

As chief author of Conversations and research fellow with the Lowell Milken Center, I will present regular updates on my research. My posts will focus on three main areas:

1. The Kwartin Project

Zawel Kwartin was one of the first international stars of Jewish music and a paradigmatic figure in the immigrant era of cantorial gramophone recording stars. I am currently translating Cantor Zawel Kwartin’s Yiddish language autobiography, Mayn Lebn (My Life), and Conversations will feature regular updates from that project. Through translation and commentary on the texts I hope to approach questions about khazones that have gone largely unexplored: What were the material and social conditions that went into the production of the cantorial “golden age” and the pop culture phenomenon of star cantors? And, how did the star cantors reflect the Jewish sonic past on record and in what ways did they construct an image of the past that later generations came to accept as a reality?

2. The Malavskys: A Family Portrait

The Malavsky Family Choir, led by Cantor Samuel Malavsky (1894-1983) and featuring the outstanding vocal soloist Goldie Malavsky (1923-1995) was a standout act in the fertile scene of mid-20th century Jewish American pop culture. While straddling the line between liturgy and borscht-belt entertainment, the Malavskys found a space in which to challenge normative gender ideologies that regulated who could claim authority as a ritual leader by staging ritual events in non-synagogue spaces. The Milken Archive of Jewish Music has recently acquired a family scrapbook and a cache of recordings. I will be curating excerpts from the Malavsky scrap book and recordings and offering commentary and context. Through a discussion of these artefacts, I will explore the questions: How did Jewish Americans use music, and especially sacred music, to create spaces in which “outsiders” could become authorities? And, how did changing attitudes towards gender and sexuality in the early 20th century inform the sound and culture of cantorial music?

3. Dispatches from Brooklyn

These posts will offer regular updates from the multiple worlds of Jewish music in Brooklyn, NY, where I live. Sites of research will include cantorial lessons with elder cantors in unregulated, non-institutional spaces; the klezmer scene; and the world of Chassidic music. Through these ethnographic sketches I hope to open conversations about the persistence of memory and change in Jewish music and the use of the sounds of the past to address keenly felt needs in the present.

Over the course of this upcoming academic year, Conversations will offer a kind of musical census. Through reports from the world of present-day artists and stories culled from the archive, Conversations will illuminate the lineages and help imagine the futures of American Jewish music. We look forward with excitement to this undertaking and the multiple conversations we hope it will inspire.