Conversations: A Year in Words and Music

Jeremiah Lockwood

After a year of writing weekly essays about music and American Jewish experience, the author offers some highlights.

Over the course of my Research Fellowship for the 2021-22 academic year with the Milken Center at UCLA, I have had the opportunity to report on my ongoing work in a public space, here in my blog Conversations. Working on these mini-essays and keeping up with the brisk pace of my publishing deadlines has pushed me to pursue a multi-pronged research plan of ethnography and archival explorations. I have been living Jewish music in New York City this year and attempting to bring my experiences to life on these digital pages.

I began the year with a clearly stated set of intentions about the lines of work I planned to pursue. As with many projects that are intended to unfold over time, my plans changed, in some cases for surprising reasons. My research plan at the start had three main elements:

1. The Kwartin Project: I intended to translate excerpts from Mayn Lebn, the autobiography of Zawel Kwartin (1874-1952), one of the foremost stars of the “golden age” gramophone era of cantorial stars. The Ukrainian-born Kwartin’s autobiography offers testimony about the life of cantors in late 19th and early 20th century Eastern Europe and the United States, the period of the music’s development into a mass mediated popular culture phenomenon and the emergence of cantors as stars of the Jewish record industry.

Kwartin’s Tiher Rabbi Yishmael (1928)

2. The Malavsky Family: I planned to write about the Malavsky Family Singers, the choir led by Cantor Samuel Malavsky (1894-1983) consisting of his children and featuring the soloist voice of his daughter Goldie Malavsky (1923-1995). The Malavsky’s were prominent as post-Holocaust stars of khazones (Yiddish, cantorial art music), a period often described as a time of contraction of Ashkenazi expressive culture, and notable as a forum in which Jewish women’s voices were foregrounded in sacred music, a field that was being officially defined as all male by cantorial professional associations in the same period.

Goldie Malavsky sings Tsur Israel

3. Dispatches from Brooklyn: a series of ethnographic sketches of New York-based Jewish music figures.

Perhaps the most significant outcome from my year of research had very little to do with my own work. After a few of my annotated chapter translation chapters of Kwartin’s Mayn Lebn appeared on the Milken Archive website, my project came to the attention of Hershl Hartman, elder Los Angeles-based Yiddishist and literary translator. In addition to some choice words about my skills as a translator (!), Hartman also informed me that he had already translated Mayn Lebn as a project privately commissioned by Cantor Kwartin’s descendants. Through Hershl, I got in touch with Ruth Kwartin, Zawel’s daughter-in-law, her son Bob Kwartin, and Leon Ashner, another Kwartin grandchild who is apparently the only living family member who holds personal memories of his illustrious ancestor. In addition to collecting moving memories from the family, this connection led to the Kwartin family giving permission to the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience to include their privately held translation in its online archive. This surprising turn of events has resulted in Zawel Kwartin’s remarkable and unique testimony about 20th century Jewish musical traditions being publicly available in an English translation for the first time.


My plan to write about the Malavsky family expanded into a larger vein of research about the role of women in Yiddish American Jewish liturgical music in the early 20th century, a period when women were officially marginalized as singers in most synagogue settings. Despite a variety of forms of systemic marginalization and exclusion, women forged roles as central characters in the cantorial scene. The Khazentes (Yiddish, women cantors) utilized male vocal repertoires and innovated approaches to Jewish sacred vocal production that highlighted the theatrical role of cantors as memory-keepers of European Jewish culture. My research on this subject is oriented toward upending the conventional wisdom that prevails in some contemporary Jewish liturgical music circles; that the past was male and the future female. In fact, careful attention to the archive shows that the past, too, was female. Furthermore, as I suggest across these blog posts, cantorial aesthetics defy binary gendered classifications of human vocal production.

As I described in one of my posts on the Malavsky’s, for the khazentes, media settings outside of the synagogue were the key forums in which to develop identities as arbiters of sacred sound. In the absence of a space to lead services in synagogues, radio, records, and stages, especially the Yiddish theater, were key sites of women’s performance of khazones. This latter venue was home to Freydele Oysher, a star of the Yiddish stage who was especially renowned as a performer of cantorial recitatives, a repertoire she shared in common with her brother Moisher Oysher. In an interview video held in the Oral History Project of American Jewish Music, Freydele describes a set of aesthetic guidelines related to her concept of how women’s voices could achieve the sound of cantorial voice. Her vocal concept involved utilizing the ambiguously-gendered middle register of the soprano voice to achieve the unique techniques associated with cantorial sound.

In a post discussing the work of Perele Feig, building on an interview I conducted with elder Cantor Jacob Mendelson about his personal memories of Feig, I discussed the role of competition between male and female cantorial performers in 1950s Brooklyn. And in an essay based on an interview I conducted with Gayna Sauler Kieval and Bianca Sauler Bergman, who worked professionally on radio and stage as Yiddish singers, I consider the role of economics and family in framing careers in Jewish music for women singers born into a cantorial lineage. The story of the Sauler sisters draws into focus the limits placed on Jewish women singers, in comparison to their male counterparts who could turn to the synagogue as a stable source of employment. No such institutional support existed for women until the ordination of women cantors began in 1975, more than a generation too late for the stars of the khazente phenomenon.

Perele Feig sings Yishtabach

Conducting the ethnographic research for my “Dispatches from Brooklyn” series was the most personally rewarding aspect of my work on the blog. Over the course of the year, I was fortunate to enter into conversation with New York-based artists whose lives and careers are dedicated to archival traces of historic Jewish music practices. In multiple mini-research projects, I offered analysis of musicians whose work communicates across time through their animation of sounds of the past.

My sites of research included Jewish prayer settings in digital zoom sessions and in synagogues, cantorial lessons, klezmer concerts, and interviews conducted with prominent artists working in new Jewish music. The diverse strands of my research were united by a concern with the construction of heritage and the cultivation of personal relationships with ghost presences. In all of my “Dispatches from Brooklyn” essays, I explored how the image of the past is reconstructed from archival traces, embodied through performance, and reconfigured to address needs and desires specific to our moment of crisis, change and cultural reconstruction.

Some highlights of “Dispatches” include:

–A report on the role of music in the lives of elder women in the Chassidic community, as reflected through the work of musician, activist and klezmer-revitalization figure Ira Temple. In the years immediately prior to the corona epidemic, Temple led a group singing and concert series program at the Williamsburg Senior Center. Temple’s work with elder Chassidic women offered insight into the changes in Jewish women’s musical repertoires over the course of the 20th century. The challenges Temple faced in finding a mutually rewarding set of musical material to share with the elders at the Center highlight issues of loss in women’s oral traditions among “traditional” religious Jews, and the hardening of institutional stances towards women, music and early 20th century Jewish culture in Chassidic Brooklyn.

–A discussion of the history of cantorial pedagogy as reflected in classes held by cantor and composer Judith Berkson in the first months of 2022. In my analysis of Berskon’s remarkable pedagogical approach, I discovered traces of the history of cantorial pedagogy in the 20th century. In this essay, I outline a conflict between cantorial practices focused on the development of idiomatic vocal techniques and improvisatory singing and the emphasis on creating a stable body of prayer melodies that was the focus of institutionalized cantorial education in the post-Holocaust period.

–In my last essay in the “Dispatches” series, published last week, I reflect on the year I have spent singing in the choir with Cantor Benzion Miller (b. 1945) at Young Israel Beth El Synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn. In this piece, I discuss my earlier experiences of singing in my grandfather’s choir as a young man and offer observations about the nearly lost art of long-form improvisatory cantorial prayer leading. This style of Jewish prayer music has been a touchstone in my musical life and the opportunity to work with Cantor Miller has offered me the opportunity to revisit a beloved world of feeling and sound.

I would like to take this space to offer my gratitude to Mark Kligman, the Director of the Milken Center, for offering me the opportunity and space to write about my work, and to Beth Kraemer, the Program Coordinator of the Milken Center, who has overseen the blog and offered editorial assistance. I would also like to draw attention to the superb work of guest bloggers Simone Salmon and Daniela Smolov Levy. Salmon’s essays draw on her research on Sephardi music traditions in Turkey and the United States. Her work highlights the role of contrafacta and cultural borrowing as constitutive elements of the shared multi-ethnic post-Ottoman world. Smolov Levy’s groundbreaking work on Yiddish opera was the subject of a five-part lecture series at UCLA this year. We were privileged to have her blog posts on Conversations as an exciting addition to the content offered here. Finally, I would be remiss not to draw attention to the work my son Jacob Lockwood has been doing all year creating the artwork for the Conversations blog website. Jacob is 13 years old and is starting LaGuardia High School next year in the Fine Arts department.

In conclusion, I would like to note that writing the blog posts for Conversations was only part of my work this year. I have also been building the Cantorial and Synagogue Music Archive (CSMA), a project of the Cantors Assembly Foundation, supported by the Milken Center. The CSMA aims to collect, digitize and disseminate the private archives of cantorial music held by elder cantors. As the Lead Researcher for the CSMA this year, I have worked closely with Cantor Robert Kieval, z’’l, and Cantor David Lefkowitz. Sadly, Cantor Kieval died in the midst of our work together, underscoring the urgency of preserving the collections of elder culture-bearers. Kieval held one of the most important private collections of Jewish liturgical music scores.

I am happy to announce that the CSMA website was recently launched. I encourage you to take a look! Robert Kieval’s collection makes up the bulk of the material currently held on the website, a testament to his lifelong dedication to the musical materials he gathered from his musical mentors, including Moshe Ganchoff and Charles Bloch. Although the CSMA website is still in a very early stage of development, I am, excited to see what new work and new life the music it contains will bring into the world. I will end here with a video of a recording made by Cantor Yanky Lemmer of a piece from the archive, a century-old recitative by Jacob Rappaport (1890-1943) that has not been heard in perhaps just as long. I love Yanky’s performance here; his voice, like many that I have been privileged to write about this year in Conversations, sings into the jagged ruptures of time and emerges from the encounter with the past wiser and more fully alive.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer sings Jacob Rappaport’s Magen Avos