Joy, Catharsis & Song: In Conversation with Jeremiah Lockwood

Jeremiah .jpg
Writer, and Because Jewish co-founder, Alana Ain sat down with Jeremiah Lockwood, our High Holiday Music Director, whose career began with years of apprenticeship to the legendary Piedmont Blues musician Carolina Slim. Jeremiah also trained under his grandfather Cantor Jacob Konigsberg. This Fall will mark the sixth year of Rabbi Dan's collaboration with Jeremiah for the High Holidays. They talked about channeling prayer and energy through music, joy and catharsis through song, as well as Spirituals in the synagogue. Jeremiah also gives a sneak peak towards his summer class offering with Jewlia Eisenberg, a partnership of Because Jewish and LABA at the 14th St Y.

Alana Ain: The first time that I heard you perform was a decade ago, and I recall being struck, truly gobsmacked by your presence and your sound, which was unlike anything else I’d ever seen / heard. I had a visceral reaction, which is what so many members of our community describe when they experience your music at our High Holidays. Your rendition of the liturgy has allowed an entryway to many people who otherwise haven’t found that point of connection. Can you tell me a little bit about your interactions with these songs / prayers, and how you experience a connection point through music?

Jeremiah Lockwood: First off, thank you for the kind words and the incredible support you and Dan and the Because Jewish community have given me over the last six years. It's an honor getting to do this kind of work, to channel the prayer energy of a group of people. I try to make my performances speak as truthfully as I can about the history of Jewish sound, the feeling of the collective that is there in the room on the holy days and about the joy and catharsis of music. Cantorial music is a very personal passion for me because it relates to sounds that I grew up with in my family and my family's aesthetic of Jewish prayer music. The cantorial trade tends to be unsentimental about prayer, not overly focused on the language around what prayer means or about questions of the existence of the divine. My grandfather used to say to me that people waste their time talking about whether or not God exists; instead they should ask whether or not they feel the Presence. To me that statement sums up a lot of what is great about cantorial sound. It is music that seeks to channel internal experience and awareness into the outwards space of community. That process, taking what is inside, your personal history, your lineage, everything you have managed to learn, and injecting that into the moment of performance is what guides me and gives me a goal that I can work on and strive towards.

A: It’s been exciting to watch this collaboration develop with musician Jewlia Eisenberg. She’s done extensive teaching and song-leading in communal settings. How has she influenced your experience / ideas about communal participation?  Is there something that might reassure a participant taking your class, who might be shy to sing out loud with accomplished musicians?

J: Since I moved out to California to study (pursuing a PhD in Education and Jewish Studies) at Stanford, working with Jewlia Eisenberg has been the focus of music making for me. She is a really inspiring person, a brilliant scholar of Jewish music, an innovative composer and bandleader and virtuoso singer, and is also someone who brings a wonderful freeing vibe to any space. She is really into getting audiences to participate at shows and leading teaching sessions on music and Jewish texts. We've been developing different kinds of programs in addition to playing shows--programs where we study texts together with participants and teach songs and also do group improvisation and composing. It's new for me and a really fun way to communicate that shifts the whole top-down structure of performance in a way that I find inspiring. The workshops are legitimating for everybody involved. No one has to be perfect because the group as a whole sounds great. And, in the text study, no one has to have the "answer," because that's not the point of Jewish study. We discover more questions and learn specialized forms of knowledge while we are doing it.

A: I know that in addition to “traditional” music that you perform (and plan to teach) some gospel or more “American” music, like Leonard Cohen, for example. Can you talk a bit about this, what you consider “Jewish Music” and how that might surprise / challenge some of the assumptions people have when they hear that term?

J: For me, one of the things that is great about Jewish music is that it is not overly concerned with propriety and sanctimony; it will borrow voraciously from whatever source will feed the experience at hand. For example, it is well known that cantorial music borrows heavily from urban elite culture in Christian Europe: opera, art song, and Church music. But out in the small cities and countryside of Eastern Europe the Chassidim were also borrowing intensely from the non-Jewish culture they lived amongst and interacted with. The glories of nigunim draw heavily from Slavic, Roma and Hungarian folk melodies. In my work with The Sway Machinery I make interpretations of the cantorial cannon that draw heavily on Blues and African Diaspora musics because that is the sound of my life as a NY'er. Previously I was a bit skittish about drawing on Gospel music in my presentation of Jewish liturgy because that didn't fit with the cultural orientation around Jewishness that I grew up with, but I have opened up to the idea of using Spirituals in the synagogue largely through my work with Jewlia who does that a lot and to great effect in her work as a bal tefila (prayer leader).

A: It's striking to read your description of the Kol Nidre as one of the oldest in the cantorial music canon, (dating to the Middle Ages) but also bearing the mark of 'modern' European classical music influence. You refer, in the description of the album that you recorded last year, the "beautiful shape-shifting of the cantorial music tradition." I think that this fusion - and your re-imaging of it - is precisely what draws people in.  Can you describe something specific about the High Holiday music that resonates and is powerful for you?  

J: I love the fact that the most ancient Jewish melodies we know of are so idiosyncratic, so hard to pin down as belonging to "East" or "West" culturally and that they express so much emotion with such economy. Kol Nidre has some kinship with Gregorian Chant, and with Arabic music and with 19th century German Romanticism. It is such a whirlwind, such a naked depiction of time and memory. I don't want to flatten any of the contradictions that stand out in our tradition. I want all the voices to speak. This quality of the High Holidays liturgy as a kind of anthology that allows very diverse realms of Jewish experience to speak to share the same page, that is what I love most about it. And also, of course, the opportunity to commune with the memory of my grandfather, for whom the High Holidays were quite literally the center of his year.

A: Is there anything else you'd like to add about what people can expect and look forward to this July with you and Jewlia?

J: Everybody who reads this, sign up for the classes! We are starting to build something here that is going to blossom over the years, a new stance in regard to how we pray together and, hopefully, in how we think about who controls knowledge in the prayer experience. But even more important, it's going to be some serious fun and stimulation and joy, something we are in short supply of!

Ask the Rebbetzin: Illness and Consciousness of Mortality

Dear Rebbetzin,

Though still relatively young, I've run into some pretty serious health problems these last couple of years. What's hardest, strangely enough, is simply the consciousness of mortality these things bring. It blunts the great vitality I would certainly otherwise feel. I go around now as if always holding my breath. How should one keep to the great center at a time like this?

Zed


Dear Zed,

For the past ten days, I have been tumbling over words in response to your question and retracting them before I even set them down. I want to say the right thing, and I’m not sure there is a right thing to say. 

You’ve hit the mother lode here: living life fully with the knowledge that we will all - one day - die. 

I feel that I need to begin by saying that I am not a doctor or social worker and that the only license I have is in poetry.  I will try to respond, to the best of my ability, with what I believe is true in my heart.

First, I am so sorry that you have been struggling with health problems; I hope that you are allowing others to help you.  You should not bear illness alone.  Allowing others to be close in big and small ways is something that I have witnessed lift people during these times.

There is something, however, that you must face alone, and that is death.  You do not know when this will be, and it is a false sense of knowing to think that it is more imminent for you than for someone who has not had your recent health struggles.  We do not know.  None of us. We are all, as the poet Rilke said, living the questions.

A few years back, when I was suffering a serious panic around sleep, it was the knowledge of, as you put it, the consciousness of mortality that spread through my body - a physical pain - like dry-ice in my chest, leaving me wired and awake.  I had just had my first child, a daughter, and that sort of separation from her felt unbearable.  I had never before been so aware of the consciousness of mortality, and I did not like it. Not at all.

When well-intentioned people would ask, nonchalantly, “How’d you sleep?” I’d want to re-frame the question and pose it back,  “How does anyone sleep, Ever?’

Why weren’t people discussing this all the time?  How to submit to that unknown each night?  This collective letting go that was happening all around me, towards something that - at the time - felt so much like death? 

Eventually, I was able to construct rituals to help me face these necessary separations.  And to take in the words of poets and philosophers and artists who grapple with these same questions.  Art and humor are a couple of ways that we sublimate fear of dying. (Just think about almost every Woody Allen movie.)

A friend once described the love she received in her children's early lives - their small bodies slung over her shoulder, sleeping with a fist curled around her neck - as being paid in advance.  I think about this every morning when my children wake me with their warm bodies. Thank you God, thank you, thank you is the first prayer I make every day.

I have experienced days that I did not know how I would live through; I know that I will experience pain and loss again.

I breathe in as much grace and love as I can each morning. 

Exhale, Zed.  Going through life with one's breath held is no real way to live.
The great center is constantly shifting; the only thing I have learned to do is surrender. 

You are alive; this is vital.

Sincerely,
Alana