Conversations: Dispatches from Brooklyn

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Conversations: Words and Music from the American Jewish Experience
Art by Jacob Lockwood

Ira Temple and the Williamsburg Senior Center

by Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience

Working with elder Chassidic women, musician and activist Ira Temple encountered transcendent possibilities and complicating limitations in attempting to construct a community centered on female musical desires and homosocial flourishing.

Ira Temple has been an active participant in the New York klezmer scene for the past decade, notably as the co-leader of Tsibele, a band that combined historically informed performance with a politic that drew on the Yiddish socialist heritage. The band’s political concept included consciousness raising about the importance of music created by female, non-binary, and trans musicians. Among Temple’s achievements as a member of Tsibele, they are credited with popularizing the Yiddish phrase Mir velen zey iberleben (We will outlive them) as a slogan of resistance in leftist activist circles, calling upon anti-fascist Jewish legacies to signify solidarity and resilience in opposition to racial, gender and economic injustice.

From the years 2015 to 2019, Ira led a music series for elder Satmar Chassidic women at the Williamsburg Senior Center, performing and leading sing-alongs with elder Chassidic women and producing concerts. Temple described their experiences with the elder ladies to me recently over coffee in the Ditmas neighborhood of Brooklyn, near where they live. This long-term project could constitute the ethnographic fieldwork for scholarly articles or a monograph, although Temple does not seem to be interested in pursuing such a project at the moment. In the brief space of this blog, I will introduce some of the achievements and problems that Temple encountered and hint at both the transcendent possibilities that inhered in this community that crossed bounds of identity, and the limits encountered in attempting to construct a space for utopian fantasies centered on female musical desires and homosocial flourishing.

Temple’s work with elder Chassidic women provides a window into the musical life of an overlooked Jewish population. As a prerequisite for entrance into the space, Temple needed to conform to the specific concept of gender presentation that is the norm in Chassidic female spaces, including specific rules around modesty and body-covering. At the time, this was possible in part because Temple was going by a different name and adapted their habitual manner of dress in a gesture of respect to create a terrain of comfort in the space. 

In 2019, after the concert season ended, Temple went public with a gender transition and today presents as trans and gender expansive. The Williamsburg Senior Center music series went on hiatus during the pandemic, but its future is just as tied to Temple’s gender identity as it is to the evolving public health situation. Gender rules in the Chassidic community demand that women can only sing in front of other women. A strict interpretation of a Talmudic dictum that suggests women’s voices are overly erotic prevails in right-Orthodox Judaism, placing limits on women’s performance opportunities and prayer leading. Temple’s music series, especially the sing-along component, was predicated on the all-female identity of leadership and participants. The elder Chassidic women Temple worked with are explicitly unwilling to sing in front of men. As a trans person, it is unclear what role Temple could hold facilitating singing for Chassidic women.

In 2015, Temple was approached by a professional acquaintance in the Jewish music scene and asked to lead a Yiddish sing-along session with elder Chassidic women. Despite not yet having begun to study Yiddish seriously and having musical experience almost exclusively focused on klezmer, not Yiddish song, Temple agreed, thinking the offer would probably lead nowhere. A few weeks later, the phone rang, and Temple was asked to begin the next day. They negotiated, and Temple received an extra two days to prepare. Soon Temple was asked to take on a demanding schedule of two events a week at the Senior Center, presenting a program that had inherited the pre-existing title, “Golden Voices of Jewish Song.”

A community music grant from the city of New York stipulated that the series had to run from April to June. In an example of bureaucratic insensitivity to culturally specific practices, this grant failed to take into consideration that this period usually coincides with the seven weeks between the Passover and Shavuos holidays, a period of semi-mourning referred to as the Sefirah when instrumental music is forbidden. During the first weeks of the music series each year of the program, Temple could not program any concerts. Instead, they had to put together a program of material for leading singing sessions with the ladies. Temple describes a period of intense activity, using social media and personal contacts to crowdsource and generate a list of songs they could use in these sessions that might be familiar to the elder Chassidic women. This entailed having to do extensive research and learn new material each week.

Temple’s sources for learning material crossed a broad section of the Jewish music world, with tips and resources coming from members of diverse Jewish music communities. One source was Yanky Lemmer, a well-known cantor and Belz Chassid who has both an extensive knowledge of early 20th century Jewish recorded music and an insider’s sensitivity to the tastes of Chassidic people. He recorded the song Ven Yiddishe Kinder (When Jewish Children) for Temple as a Facebook voice memo after Temple reached out to him for help finding a song the women requested. The song’s sentimental childhood theme deeply appealed to the women at the Center. Another source of knowledge was Josh Waletzky, an educator and singer in the Yiddish song revitalization community, who suggested that Temple explore the songs of Mordecai Gebirtig (1877-1942). Temple said that the women responded strongly to Gebirtig’s understanding of how “to take a song that took themes from Jewish life and make them touching.”

Cultivating material for the sing-alongs entailed not only learning Yiddish songs but discovering what aspects of the Yiddish song repertoire would be appreciated and considered religiously acceptable within the social structure of the Chassidic community and the generationally specific tastes of elder within that community. The women were mostly Holocaust survivors born in small towns in Hungary. There were a few women who were from Budapest and other urban centers, and Temple described them as having a certain cosmopolitan sensibility that was recognizable and relatable; Temple’s grandmother was born in Budapest. The women spoke Yiddish and English, and some spoke Hungarian.

The Senior Center also functioned as a health center, where younger women came to exercise, and housed a boys cheder (religious elementary school) in an adjoining space. Temple recalled having to negotiate with the fitness instructor at the beginning of each sing-along session to turn off the loud Israeli-pop music being piped in on the PA system. The elder women gathered at the Center for a variety of social purposes, to play Bingo, pray and socialize. Temple’s music sessions were part of an ecosystem of social experiences that the women shared. Temple entered this space as an outsider and at first encountered skepticism from the staff and the women themselves. The time and effort Temple put into discovering what music the women would respond to and be willing to sing served to gradually woo the community. Over time Temple developed strong rapport with the women, with some members of the group becoming their special boosters who sang along with gusto.

This female-led music series was a unique offering at the Center, but not without precedent in the Satmar community. Many of the elder women also participated in a daily call-in line on weekday mornings at 8:30 am. On these mass conference calls, Chassidic women listen to a female prayer leader singing and giving drashas (homiletic sermons). On Friday mornings, in honor of the coming Sabbath, the call-in line features guest star Feygie Ehrlich, the daughter of Yom Tov Ehrlich, a beloved icon of ultra-Orthodox popular music. According to Temple, the call-in line offered an ethos of self-help and encouraged women to take inspiration from signs of God’s goodness. Temple summarized the message as, “Someone spills something. We have to clean it up. How are we going to get through the day? You have to comport yourself with strength drawn from HaShem (Hebrew, God).” These themes of women’s resilience and solidarity resonated with Temple.

The contemporary Chassidic community generally takes a chastising tone towards Yiddish folk and pop music from before the Holocaust, citing its presumed irreligiosity, especially in the many love songs that dominate in this repertoire. However, Temple found that for women of the Holocaust-surviving generation vestiges of the pre-World War Two Jewish pop culture retained its hold as a nostalgic and beloved music form. Some tolerance for this older repertoire holds in the community and young Chassidic girls learn certain old folk/pop songs such as Oyfn pripitchek, [2] or the nostalgic Yiddish theater song Belz, [3] specifically so that they can entertain elder women of the community. The elders were aware of the ethical questions around this body of older songs. Temple describes how the women loved and were deeply moved by the tear-drenched ballad Papirosen,[4] that describes the life of an impoverished orphan who sells cigarettes on the streets to keep himself from starvation.

The women were unsure whether or not it was permissible to luxuriate in the sadness of the song, in contrast to the stress placed on happiness and satisfaction with life in Chassidic theology. Temple defended the song, emphasizing how it had been used to raise funds for refugees during the Holocaust period. Temple’s positive ethical interpretation of the song created a line of defense for a world view that makes room for emotional complexity, subtly asserting that aesthetic desires are compatible with an ethical life. Over the course of their five years as song leader, Temple compiled material into a book they self-published, titled Simkhas Hakhayim (The Joy of Life).

Conversations: Dispatches from Brooklyn, Simkhas Hakhayim
Simkhas Hakhayim

The book contains lyrics, and in some cases sheet music, for songs that Temple sang with the ladies at the Center, drawn from a range of sources and stylistic idioms. Looking at the song selections, one encounters a unique form of reportage drawn from Temple’s superbly researched ethnography on the aesthetics and conceptions of musical tradition among elder Chassidic women. The songs range from “standards” such as the aforementioned Oyfn Pripetchik and Yiddish theater warhorses like A Yiddishe Mama, to paraliturgical songs in Yiddish including Gales Vi Lang Bistu (Exile, how long will you remain) and Vos Vet Zayn as Meshiakh Vet Kumen (What Will It Be Like When the Messiah Comes). Also popular with the elders was the work of Yom Tov Ehrlich, one of the most recognizable musicians in the Satmar community. [5] Even among extreme conservatives, Ehrlich’s songs are considered “kosher.” [6] Many of the women in the sing-along cohort mentioned that Ehrlich had sung at their daughter’s weddings.

Working across genres, Temple was able to locate a shared set of material that the women recognized and could sing along with. Temple noted that in terms of song repertoire and musical knowledge “it was rare that any of the ladies could sing more than a line at a time from any one song” and in general were not capable of singing any of the songs without direct scaffolding from the song leader. The musical knowledge of the elder Chassidic women in the group was marked by a great degree of loss. This may have been to some extent a product of old age, but also reflects the ideological changes towards music that have placed stringent limits on the musical lives of American Chassidic Jews in the post-Holocaust era. Songs that the women learned in their youth were no longer an accepted part of Chassidic culture. Some of the women would confide in Temple about their listening habits in Europe before they entered the more restrictive space of the American Chassidic community. They recalled their love of symphonic orchestral music they had listened to in their youth. Temple reflected that they served as a “secret space” into which the elders could confide their aesthetic desires.

As I noted at the beginning of this essay, Temple’s work as a creative artist is associated with a leftist Yiddishist philosophy. In addition to being a musician, Temple is also an activist and organizer, active in JFREJ (Jews For Racial and Economic Justice). Temple told me that friends in activist circles would comment negatively on Chassidic Jews and assumed that the treatment of women in a non-liberal religious community would be alienating for a non-Chassidic Jewish feminist and leftist. Rather than seeing only unfettered patriarchy, Temple’s assessment of the scene at the Senior Center focused on the productive and joyful intergenerational social experience and the shared values of a non-Zionist, Yiddish speaking, all-female community. “People would say, ‘Oh, you’re working with deeply oppressed people.’ My answer was, I’m having the time of my life.” In their work at the Center, Temple felt, at moments, that their work was unfettered by the demands of masculinity and hierarchies of gender. Temple resisted the idea that Chassidic women’s lives are uniquely fettered by gender ideology, commenting “If I could leave the patriarchy I would. It exists here, it exists there.” Paradoxically, the stringent rules of gender in the Chassidic milieu can lead to the existence of spaces in which women control their own experience, female desires are given priority, and homosociality can flourish.

After the Shavuos holiday and the end of the Sefirah period, Temple would program concerts in the music making sessions, frequently collaborating with guest artists. The performers were all female; the line-up included well known Jewish musicians including Judith Berkson, Basya Schechter, and Laura Melnicoff. One expectation of performing on the series was the requirement that the artists comport themselves in accordance with the Satmar Chassidic conception of modesty, requiring long skirts and wrist-length sleeves. Rather than being viewed purely as an imposition, some of the guest artists used these sartorial rules as the basis for playful fashion experimentation. Temple gleefully recounted the exuberantly Chassidic-inspired outfit worn by veteran theater performer Jenny Romaine during her performance at the Center, whose clothes prompted one of the elders to comment, “You look like you came here from heymish (Yiddish, traditionally religious) town.” Each concert would end with dancing. Temple described the excitement in the Center when a performer loaded drums into the building; word spread around the neighborhood about the band coming and many additional women joined the audience for a dance party.

Despite these moments of barrier-breaking and joy, the Chassidic rules of male dominance remained a force and presence. On one occasion when Temple was presenting a special concert with klezmer musicians Eléonore Weill and Deborah Strauss, the cheder boys in the adjoining room were also having a performance assembly. This presented a problem because the relatives of the boys in the audience included adult men who are forbidden from hearing women’s voices. The staff at the Center kept asking the women to play more quietly and finally canceled the performance. In a direct competition of the needs of males and females, it was unambiguous who would be required to accommodate. The modicum of respect due to the age of the elder women made no difference in this situation. Although the elder ladies did not explicitly complain about the underlying problems of this gender dynamic, Temple commented, “I could see they were angry. It was moving to me to see they were upset.” Temple considered the elder ladies’ upset feelings about the canceled concert to indicate an aliveness to the value of their homosocial music community. In the ladies’ response to a direct example of patriarchal interference, Temple saw an affirmation of the community’s connection and the power of music to build collectivity and articulate hidden needs.

For Temple, the experience of leading the music program at the Senior Center was transformative. They highlighted the value of singing in Yiddish for native speakers who could differentiate between different emotional registers in the music. The ladies’ sensitivity to lyrics is not achievable among most audiences in the klezmer revitalization scene, where Yiddish proficiency is rare or non-existent. In addition to the pedagogical power of song leading for this Yiddish-speaking community, Temple made connections to the lineages of the music through the embodied responses to songs of the audience. Yiddish song served as both nostalgia and productive site of fantasy, activating memory and history, and creating community across generations.

The Covid epidemic has paused all city-sponsored events in senior centers. When and if such programming begins again, Temple will be faced with decisions about their own willingness to take on the gender rules of the Center. Regardless of the future of “Golden Voices of Yiddish Song,” the series registers as a success in terms of its longevity as a public music series, but also and, more crucially, in the ways in which the series foregrounded women’s experiences and elder voices. Temple’s work makes visible histories of change in ultra-Orthodox Jewish music through the perspective of women in the community. Chassidic women’s listening habits have changed over the course of the 20th century as a result of communal rules regulating expressive culture and limits that have been placed by rabbinic authorities on stylistic diversity, directly contributing to new ways of listening and responding to the emotional content of music. Temple’s program created a space in which the emotional work of women’s listening was closely considered, cultivating a politic of listening and memory that took account of women’s desires and honored the cultural specificity of Chassidic women’s lifeways. These desires and cultural perspectives were a front and center feature of the musical system of Yiddish song presented in the series, not a side-thought or a “problem” to be worked around.

Temple, in terms of talent, temperament and willingness to learn, was uniquely positioned to create this communal experience. Temple has an understanding of Yiddish culture as having a revolutionary potential to foster non-conformity and anti-institutional activism. This revolutionary orientation is made the more remarkable by Temple’s willingness to extend the umbrella of Yiddish activism to include elder Chassidic women, crossing a rarely breached chasm of identity conflict in the Jewish world.

NOTES

1. See Rokhl Kafrissen, “World of Our Stickers,” Tablet, August 13, 2021 (https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/community/articles/world-of-our-stickers-yiddish-swag).

2. See “Oyfn Pripetchik.” (https://web.nli.org.il/sites/nli/english/music/daily_song/pages/deralephbet.aspx)

3. See “’Mein Shtetle Belz’ [My Little Town of Bălţi].” (https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/communities/balti/mein_shtetle_belz.asp)

4. See “Papirosen.” (https://web.nli.org.il/sites/nli/english/music/daily_song/pages/papirosn.aspx)

5. See “Williamsburg’s Poet Laureate: Yom Tov Ehrlich,” The Brooklyn Rail, December 2008. (https://brooklynrail.org/2008/12/local/willamsburgs-poet-laureate-yom-tov-ehrlich)

6. Yoel Kohn, a cantor who was raised in the Satmar community, said that Yom Tov Ehrlich was the only recorded music other than cantorial records of liturgy that were allowed in his house when he was growing up (interview with the author).

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