Honoring Jewlia Eisenberg at the CJM

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Monday September 26, 2022
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Jewlia Eisenberg (photo: Maarten van Dijk)
Jewlia Eisenberg (photo: Maarten van Dijk)

During her short life, Jewlia Eisenberg accomplished quite a lot. She was a singer, songwriter, musician, and an activist of renown. Her activism often found its way into her music, such as when she touched upon Bosnian genocide in "Sarajevo Blues." She was very connected to her Jewish heritage, as the spelling of her first name reveals.

Eisenberg passed on March 11, 2021 of a lingering illness she had lived with for years. On Sunday October 2, the Contemporary Jewish Museum will pay homage to her life and legacy with a two-part event titled "Fierce as Death: Queer as the Song of Songs."

The afternoon will first offer an indoor experience as artist Seth Eisen presents immersive ritual installations inspired by Eisenberg's connection to faith, roots, power and deep, soul-filling beauty. The installations will be on display from 12pm to 2pm. This will be followed by an outdoor concert from 2:30pm to 4:30pm in Jesse Square Plaza in front of the CJM. Co-produced by Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, the concert will feature musicians from across the U.S. performing Eisenberg's music.

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Eisen referred to Eisenberg as "a dear friend and collaborator." Eisenberg had composed music for two of Eisen's shows. "Homo File" was a work about Samuel Steward, the author, tattoo artist and 'sexual outlaw.' Eisenberg also composed music for Eisen's "Out of Site: SoMa," a dramatic walking tour of the South of Market neighborhood.

According to Eisen, Eisenberg grew up in Brooklyn, New York in a radical activist environment in which social justice was a central tenet.

"The Jewish thing came later," Eisen said. "It was a discovery she made on her own in wanting to connect with her ancestors. She was a music lover, a musicologist. She did a lot of study of music of the world and through her studies she came back to her own roots. Being out as a queer person and being out as a Jew was a radical act for her."

event producer Seth Eisen  

Radical out dyke
Eisenberg often aligned herself with radical causes. She was an activist for Palestinian rights, for Black Lives Matter, and for labor. Labor and union songs became part of her canon throughout her career, according to Eisen.

"She was very involved in being a radical out dyke and was often seen in the Dykes on Bikes march, sometimes leading," he said. "So she was pretty radical and out there. When the Occupy movement was happening, she was front and center. She was very loud and outspoken about justice for all people."

According to Eisen, Eisenberg suffered from a rare genetic disease that plagued her for around fifteen years.

"She was not a 'poor me' type of person," Eisen said. "She had a sense that she may not live, and she really made the most of it. In her final year, she was working on an album even after a month-long coma at UCSF where her immune system shut down and her lungs were not operating without support. When she recovered from that, she recorded her posthumous album, 'The Ginzburg Geography.'"

Eisen describes Eisenberg's work as experimental and radical.

"In addition to her songs about labor, she performed songs about freedom and justice," he said. "Her last album is about the Ginzburgs, a couple who were separated during the Holocaust. They wrote these love letters to each other, so she's basically giving voice to some of that."

Eisenberg was also very interested in seeking and finding the women's voices that were missing from Jewish history, and would often do research to find their writings or recordings. She would even search for ancient music.

"She was well known for being a researcher in rare music, especially in music of women of the Jewish Diaspora who were not well recognized," Eisen said.

Eisen promises that the four installations he created will be a lot more than just pictures on a wall. There will be videos that have been created and are inspired by Eisenberg's life and work, as well as videos inspired by the ancient Hebrew poem, "The Song of Songs," and her queer take on it. A dance piece choreographed to Eisenberg's music that was commissioned for the museum when it first opened. Attendees will also have a chance to look through Eisenberg's archives.

"The experience that people will have as you go into the museum between noon and 2pm; you'll be able to go into these different rooms that will give you a flavor of Jewlia's life and work through her archives, and then through projects that I've instigated related to both 'The Song of Songs' and her legacy," said Eisen.

The concert will follow at 2:30. The music is being produced by Marika Hughes and will feature musical direction by Dan Cantrell.

"Jewlia was a master of reconstructing, reshaping and reconnecting cosmopolitan past to the contemporary," Eisen said, "kind of gaining a more inclusive perspective of where women and queer people and people who are outsiders are centered. So I think that her legacy was very much about her work in giving voice to the voiceless; people whose histories were made obscure or invisible or forgotten."

'Fierce as Death: Queer as The Song of Songs,' Sunday October 2, 12pm-4:30pm at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St. www.thecjm.org

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