“THE WANDERING MUSE”— Jewish Identity and Music

“THEWANDERING MUSE” Jewish Identity and Music Amos Lassen “The Wandering Muse” is such a wonderful title for this documentary for as the Jewish people have wandered around the world so has Jewish music. Director Tamás Wormser followed Jewish music for seven years as it is all over the globe and he saw that like identity, Jewish music is in a state of flux. His film is a series of encounters with Jewish musicians from around the world and he shares them with us by giving us seats to watch the creative minds and magic of making music that reflects who we are. If you have ever wondered if these is a stereotypical Jewish music, be prepared for a variety of answers to that question especially when we consider that a stereotype is nothing more than a commonly held lie that is based on some kind of fact. Wormser set out to change the stereotype of what is considered Jewish music.
He asked himself the question of ‘What is Jewish?’ He determined that “it is not just a religion, just a people, just a culture; it’s all these things and none of them at the same time.” He had a very strong Jewish identity in his native Hungary. My grandfathers died the Holocaust is the camps, one of my grandmothers was killed the last day of the war when the Hungarian Nazis lined up Jews from the ghetto and shot them into the Danube. It is natural that he gravitated toward music since the soul of a people is carried in its music.
I was hardly prepared for how I would be affected by the film. We see and hear Jewish music but we all see and hear varieties of the Jewish experience and, in effect, the music and the religious aspects of Judaism go hand-in-hand. I felt as if I was having some kind of revelation here. Here is Jewish expression in music, words and in the lifestyle of wandering musicians and included among these are Jews who are peripherally committed to their faith and those who are intensely devout. We meet eleven different musicians of the Diaspora and we are with them at them concerts, in their homes, synagogues and other venues on four continents. They express their Jewish identity through their music. Wormser’s family was Jewish but not religious but he wanted his kids to understand something about being Jewish. He understood that there are many definitions and endless explanations of “Jewish” and so he decided to investigate the concept of “Jewish” by exploring Jewish music and speaking with its wandering musicians.
In Tangiers, Morocco, we watch as  a synagogue is opened and that had not been done so for forty years. Musician Vanessa Paloma finds the name plaque of one of her ancestors going back four generations on the back of a wooden bench. I was stunned by the physical beautyof the synagogue. In Borough Park, New York we hear Shura Lipovsky singing a Chassidic song and see swaying Jews dressed in their streimels. In Uganda we see and hear a group of native Africans singing and dancing to the Hebrew words, “Am Yisrael Chai” (“the people of Israel live!”) with the sound of African drums. The members of the village want to enter the rabbinate and are led by an orthodox American rabbi.
Returning to the States, we hear the klezmer/hiphop fusion sound of musician “SoCalled” aka Josh Dolgin, who has an extensive collection of old vinyl recordings of Jewish singers from which he seeks to adapt Jewish melodies to create appealing new songs. He shares that his songs gave him a reason to identify as Jewish. At a summer retreat for Russian immigrants, we find the songs and philosophical thoughts of Psoy Korolenko (Pavel Lion), who did not know that he was Jewish until he was ten years old. Vanessa Paloma gives us a wonderful song in “Judeo-Spanish” and “Judeo-Arabic.” In doing so she recreates what once was. We feel the sense of soul and lament of the wandering Jew and understand that every Jew believes in a sincere and just humanity and this is what our music represents. In a bar in Argentina, two friends play tango-infused klezmer. At a party in Montreal, an artist mixes hip-hop and jazz with cantorial singing in a multilingual presentation. In a Berlin apartment, an American and a Russian friend harmonize in a rendition of an anti-Zionist song from the 1920’s. Among the musicians featured are Basya Schechter, César Lerner, Daniel Kahn, Rabbi Enosh Keki Mainah, Jeremiah Lockwood, Shura Lipovsky, Marcelo Moguilevsky, Moses Walyombe, Psoy Korolenko AKA Pavel Lion, Vanessa Paloma and Socalled AKA Josh Dolgin.
Music unites us giving us emotional ease and shelter. Chaim Nachman Bialik once wrote the lyrics to what was to become one of his most loved songs, “Take me under your wing and be mother to all my doubts and worries.” Music for us is a shelter of peace, a Sukkat Shalom.

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