Mandel Maven's Nest Lilith Watch:
Guide to Jewish Women in Popular Music
-From the exhibit Jewface: Yiddish Dialect Songs Of Tin Pan Alley, at YIVO, [Words by Bert Hanlon and Ben Ryan, music by Violinsky and Ira Schuster. Collection of Jody Rosen.] “A foxtrot about a Jewish vamp singer named Rose Cohen who gets all the guys.”
The Lilith Watch: Critical Guide to Jewish Women on TV and in the Flicks Reviews and commentary
Jewish women are making cool pop music. Previously in LILITH Magazine I covered Jewish women such as Jill Sobule; Brenda Kahn; Patti Rothberg; and Sleater-Kinney, the first band members willing to publicly talk about going into band therapy.
While I was writing about Sleater-Kinney in the moment, David Meir Grossman looked back, using a term I never heard then, in The Forward, 1/21/2015, upon the release of their new album No Cities to Love: “Along the way, Brownstein and Weiss moved the forefront of the so-called Cool Jew movement, a period in the mid-2000s that featured Heeb Magazine and JDub Records. Although never directly affiliated with Cool Jew, Sleater-Kinney offered up an image of Jewish women who were forceful in their demands without apology. It’s easy to see their influence in bands like the (late) Hasidic Bulletproof Stockings, which brought to New York a concept which the original Riot Grrls had considered but later deemed too radical: A show where no men were allowed.” (Riot Grrls are covered in The Punk Singer, that I briefly reviewed at 2013 Doc NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs)
Band member Carrie Brownstein music blogged for NPR for 3 years, then moved on to the hit TV satire Portlandia that so far has had no Jewish women characters, or even references, though as described by Eli Sanders in “Bridgetown” in Tablet Magazine, 10/19/2011, about the Portland Jewish community: “Everyone looked great, the picture of relaxed, locavore health, a reminder of the well-known joke from the television series Portlandia—starring Carrie Brownstein, perhaps one of the city’s best-known Jews—about how progressive, affordable Portland is ‘the city where young people go to retire’.” (updated 4/8/2016)
Also included in that doc was the band The Runaways. While I saw the very fictionalized 2010 film, and had read about them, I hadn’t realized that original bassist Jackie Fox (neé Fuchs) was Jewish. So her, now a UCLA Phi Beta Kappa/Harvard Law grad lawyer, coming out as a 16-year-old rape victim in 1975 to Jason Cherkis in Huffington Post, July 2015, must be noted, both about the vulnerability of young women in the music biz and the issue of female bystanders. (7/10/2015)
How sad Amy Winehouse never got the kind of therapy she needed in order to collaborate with producer Mick Ronson on his hoped-for Hanukkah album. To mark the opening of the exhibition Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait at the Jewish Museum in London July 3 – September 30, 2013 and her family’s catharsis through the Amy Winehouse Foundation, in The Observer, 6/22/2013, “Growing up with my sister Amy Winehouse”, by Elisabeth Day her brother commented: “’The aim, says Alex, is to portray his sister ‘as a normal person and us as a normal family’ and to show how Amy was influenced by an ingrained Jewish identity. Their parents, Mitch and Janis, who divorced when Alex was 13 and Amy was nine, brought them up with an appreciation of the faith's rituals and rites of passage. . . . He found the hardest part was having to sit shiva, the week-long mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives after burial. ‘You can't shave, you can't change your clothes. You do prayers. I was sitting in a chair and people came to pay their respects and you're not supposed to say anything back. At my age, that shouldn't be happening. That's something that happens when old people die. People sitting shiva should be in their 70s and 80s, they shouldn't be 31 years old and certainly not a 31-year-old who is sitting shiva for his 27-year-old sister… I can't really describe it, it's a horrible feeling.’. . .As adults, neither of the siblings was particularly religious, but they felt culturally Jewish – Amy was famously meant to have cooked chicken soup for her bodyguards. ‘She made it once for me,’ says Alex, screwing up his face in distaste. ‘It was awful.’" The exhibition traveled to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, along with ”You Know I’m No Good, of Bay Area contemporary artists interpreting her work. Both exhibitions run from July 23 to November 1, 2015. (updated 7/23/2015)
Amy (review forthcoming) The documentary commissioned by Universal Records and directed by Asif Kapadia certainly does not have the family’s same approval, and they have objected to it. Her father admits that an affair took him away from her, and her parents’ separation is cited as the beginning point of her previously not disclosed bulimia. Her father is shown as a come-lately leech to her success and damaging to her health, even while promoting his own reality show. Her mother is not seen as much, but seems to be close and affectionate, albeit ineffectual. About her eating disorder, for example, she’s only heard making excuses: “I didn’t think deeply about it. I didn’t think much about it.” Amy’s Jewishness is only mentioned when early music business people first dismissed her as "like a classic North London Jewish girl with lots of attitude.” [I heard it as “typical” but the NPR critic seems to have heard “classic” – was part of that sense because she was already on anti-depression meds?] There is paparazzi footage of sad men wearing kippot leaving her funeral. In those early home videos she does look the most like a lovely Jewish girl, with thick brown hair and eyebrows, big nose and big mouth in voice and brassiness (“gobby” is the Brit slang friends use). Key to the success of the film is such previously unseen material provided by and tearful interviews with her oldest BFFs Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, but neither of them mention her as Jewish, let alone saying if they are. While the emphasis on her talent is on her revealing, emotionally autobiographical lyrics-writing, as well as her big voice, that part of her recedes as she falls in love with one Bad Boy after another and gets caught up in drinking, drugs, and broader cultural influences. My colleague Paula Schwartz, for her 7/1/2015 piece in Movie Maker, supplemented for me on Facebook when I commented about the missing sense of her Jewish identity: “I specifically asked the director why he didn't reference it more in the film and he said Amy wasn't a religious person and she joked about being Jewish. I disagree with the director about how much Judaism impacted her life but the movie is over two hours long as it is. Maybe because he's not Jewish is another reason he didn't think it was so important to her identity. The fact is she made chicken soup for her friends and definitely thought of herself as Jewish.” (updated 7/4/2015)
Jill Sobule -- She specifically included Jews, with an inclusionary “me”, in her pro-immigrant song: “When They Say They Want Our America Back, What The Fuck Does That Mean?” and she calls up her mother Elaine to rap a maternal if-it-weren’t-for-me verse on her ”Big Shoes” song, as I saw her do at the 2013 Clearwater Festival).
On 12/15/2014, she blogged: “When I was on Atlantic Records, they asked me to record a Christmas themed song for a holiday compilation. I wrote and recorded the "now classic" ”Jesus Was a Dreidel Spinner": “The folks at Atlantic said they couldn't use it. It was too "Jewey" and it might upset some Christians. Of course, the decision members were all Jewish. Here it is! I did, however, end up recording a version of Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas to the Family" which is a way better song, but does not include any mention of dreidels or Maccabees. I have played the song live many times with Harry Shearer singing fake Hebrew in the solo section.”
She is branching out in her career:
in movies: Mind the Gap
Yentl, which premiered at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, FL in 2012, she added songs to the play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, in a version that’s more a transgender coming out. When I interviewed her at the 2013 Clearwater Festival, where she performed one song from the show, she said they were working on bringing it to Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater.
Prozak & The Platypus, which premiered at the Summer Play Festival on Theater Row in 2004:
I think there were more friends of book author Elise Thoron than Sobule fans. I was disappointed that it turned out that Sobule only did the music, not the lyrics, which Thoron did -- I do think Sobule's lyrics would have been a bit cleverer, but I can understand that the author couldn't get all Cole Porter-y in a blasting rock 'n' roll format.
But a bonus was that the lead guitarist and music director was James Mastro. Also in the smokin' band were Roger Butterly (he has his own "rock opera" opening in September), Jagoda who last worked in theater in one of my all time favorites Tooth of Crime, Matthew Lindsay on bass. The band did seem to have fans there as quite a number of us stayed on after the bows as the band played on a bit. Theo Kogan of Lunachicks did some back-up singing and appeared now and then on stage.
This is not a musical per se, but a play with musical interludes, as the main character is a teenager who has an alternate life in a punk rock band, sung very effectively by Karen DiConcetto, who used to be in a Brit girls pop duo. She uses rock music as an outlet for her feelings, as she gradually disintegrates, losing touch with reality. As very dear, close friends of mine have been through the overwhelming grief and pain caused by children and parents with manic depression leading to suicide, I thought this play and the music very sensitively portrayed the trauma involved. Rock music proves to be a very good medium to communicate the victim's feelings. (Shades of Tommy?)
In parallel to A Beautiful Mind, here the imaginary friend is a platypus that her father the scientist is studying. The platypus was absolutely marvelously played by David Deblinger -- if he's not in fact Australian (and I couldn't tell from his bio) he did a terrific Aussie accent (as this platypus lives in Brisbane). He reminded me of the charm of Paul Sills in the original Story Theatre.
While it was a bit disconcerting for me to see a scientist character named Dr. Mandel, as that's also my dad, Dan Kremer was very good as the serious, grief-stricken father who does love his daughter, though the role is a bit underwritten as he unbends.
Lynne McCollough as the post doc in the lab had almost too many tics, but I have met shy folks just like that character.
I was surprised that quite a few people didn't come back after the intermission. Maybe they were just there on their lunch hour?
In 2009, she released Jill Sobule Sings Prozak and the Platypus on CD. (updated 12/15/2014)
Expanding from Janis Ian's "Tattoo" (on 1993's Breaking Silence), singer/songwriter Clare Burson's Silver And Ash (2010) is a complete album of songs about the Holocaust from the point-of-view of her great-grandparents.
Other songwriting women who reflect their Jewish heritage in contemporary ways are:
Kletter (twin) sisters, Dana and Karen. On a WFUV interview, 10/25/1998, they described their mother as a very Central European Jewish woman, and how her beauty was key to her survival. “We’re close like other survivor families. There’s a clinginess, even if we don’t all get along. . .We only all get along around the piano. . . As long as I was playing guitar, we got along fine.” Both are now more involved in academic careers, Dana as a creative writing teacher at Stanford University, and a writer, and Karen as a medieval historian at Methodist University. (updated 11/30/2014)
Dayna Kurtz atypically expressed a Jewish New Yorker's take on 9/11 and its aftermath in her song "Day of Atonement, 2004" (scroll down on Another Black Feather)
Mirah (who has discussed her Jewish creative expression)
Uppity Blues Women has already been profiled in LILITH Magazine)
Alicia Jo Rabins' Girls In Trouble
Ann Rabson (4/12/1945 - 1/30/2013) (also known for her work with Saffire the Uppity Blues Women)
Rutstein sisters (known as Sonia and Disappear Fear)
She posted a photo on Instagram December 2014: “1 of my most prized possessions is my grandmother's #menorah. I never met her but knowing she used this w/ her family makes me pretty varklempt!”
In November 2015, she released the single “Hanukkah in the Village”. She posted an Instagram photo in planning her lyric video: “Getting the family menorah collection out for a surprise project”:
Jenny Scheinman (who explained her Jewish music involvement).
Also acknowledging their heritage, in Brooklyn, are the Orthodox Bulletproof Stockings, who I discovered through their eponymous short film as at 2013 DOC NYC. (Their kickstarter campaign, that I contributed to, was promoted by Regina Spektor to her fans) and secular The Shondes. While, the band broke-up in April 2016, in June Perl Wolfe announced a new, re-formed band with two of her fellow bandmates Elisheva Maister and Dana Pestun. (updated 6/19/2016)
With Israeli and European influences are:
Anat Cohen - jazz clarinet from Israel to world music
Maya Isacowitz - a singer/songwriter from Israel breaking into the U.S. market.
Regina Spektor. (In “Singer Recalls Kindness of Strangers: Fellow Jews Helped to Smooth Her Family's Transition to the Bronx” by Kerry Wills, in The Wall Street Journal, 11/19/2013, she recalled a piano donated to her through the auspices of her Riverdale, NY, Jewish community.) For Valentine’s Day 2017, she posted on FaceBook: “Happy Valentines Day!!! Jack and I wore our I am an Immigrant T-shirts! This Valentine is for my mom and dad- thank you for making me an immigrant! Lucky and proud to have come here with you! Thank you dear mama and papa for being so brave and loving. For coming to a place where you didn't speak the language and didn't have jobs or money. Thank you for starting all over again. For taking me as a child out of an oppressive environment and bringing me to a country with a history of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. For bringing me to The Bronx which is a diverse and wonderful place to grow up. For always putting education first. For always putting the kids first. For valuing and sharing your love of music, poetry, and all the arts with me. Thank you for reading books to me, and for helping me keep the Russian language so I can read the great literature and listen to the incredible music in the original tongue. Thank you for encouraging me to follow my dreams. Thank you for showing me tolerance and respect for all cultures and religions. Thank you for being my parents! Happy Valentines! #ToImmigrantsWithLove”
Keren Ann (Zeidel). (One of my Best Albums of 2004 was her Not Going Anywhere)
Crossing over from acting careers are:
From Broadway and acting (and singing) on Glee to pop star is Idina Menzel. She made the cover of Billboard, on 3/24/2014, what with the Frozen soundtrack #1 on the charts for weeks, and her “Let It Go” performances with orchestra on the Oscars [no longer available online] and toy instruments with Jimmy Fallon & The Roots on The Tonight Show.
Mare Winningham, who converted to Judaism early in the 2000's.
In Latin music:
Brenda K. Starr.
In pop music:
Haim -- Grammy-nominated sisters who talk a lot about their Jewish identity. They got additional PR in October 2015 for performing “Hava Nagila” at multi-hyphenate-actor James Franco’s somewhat faux bat mitzvah party, for charity, while he was lifted on a chair and guests danced the hora around him.
In March 2016, JTA listed their Twitter account as #9 “Guest Stars” in “participants in the Jewish-Israel discussion who have the most followers overall”, the only Jewish women musicians listed as influential Twitterers at all. So now I’m “following” them. (updated 3/27/2016)
In Israel: (very incomplete!)
A-WA: “These singing sisters are wildly popular in Yemen. And they’re Israeli Jews” – in The Washington Post, 12/31/2015, by Ruth Eglash, on A-Wa neglected to mention the work of the late Ofra Haza which very similarly adapted traditional Yemeni folk songs for contemporary dancing, including the music video of "Habib Galbi (Love of My Heart)” and the acoustic "Yemenite Rain Song”.
Neta Elkayam: I first saw this Mizrahi singer adapting Moroccan Jewish songs in the documentary A Magical Substance Flows into Me, and am now following her on Facebook.
John Legend’s “You & I”, as noted by Elissa Goldstein in Jewcy, 7/11/2014, featured “A bat mitzvah girl wearing a kippah and a tallit takes a selfie with her father and grandfather” in a music video “celebrates the beauty of women of all ages, sizes, colors, and sexual orientations. . .” (updated 7/13/2014)
Drake’s “You & the 6"”, hip hop tribute to his Jewish-Canadian mother Sandi Sher Graham on If You're Reading This It's Too Late, as noted by Lindsey Weber in Vulture, 2/16/2015.
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Did I miss any Jewish women in popular music lately? Comments, corrections, additions, questions welcome! Contact Nora Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Other sources on Jews and popular culture are in Jewish sites and Tablet Magazine and Jewcy.