The Book of J Offers Radical Religion for Modern Times
With a new album out, the duo is promoting a repertoire that combines American folk with Yiddish and Hebrew songs, all expressing the unifying themes of love, struggle, and spirituality.
Photo by David Coons
Jewlia Eisenberg was the ringleader of Oakland’s free flowing folk ensemble Charming Hostess, a group that combined performance art with world music from Africa, Europe and the Jewish diaspora. Jeremiah Lockwood’s band, The Sway Machinery, charted a similar path, drawing on the multicultural traditions of New York City, inspired by the cantorial music he sang in the choir of his grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg.
Although familiar with each other’s work, the duo didn’t meet until Lockwood moved to the Bay Area to attend Stanford University and work on his dissertation on cantorial music in the Hasidic community. After singing together and comparing musical passions, the Book of J was born.
“We shared similar musical preoccupations for religious American folk music, informed by our diaspora consciousness,” Eisenberg said. Lockwood elaborated: “We asked ourselves, ‘What are the terrains the voice can explore — political, erotic, spiritual?’ What does it take to make radical anti-fascist music that can sustain us in these times?”
The duo developed a repertoire that combined American folk with Yiddish and Hebrew songs, all expressing the unifying themes of love, struggle, and spirituality. “When starting our collaboration, we realized that, in addition to our passion for Jewish liturgical traditions, we had a shared repertoire of religious American folk music,” Lockwood said. “These jewels of American psalmody are rooted in the prophetic voice, using old stories to comment on the present day, and to hold our own time to account.”
The material on their self-titled debut includes African-American spirituals that were well know during the Civil Rights era of the ’60s, Yiddish and Hebrew songs of love and struggle, and “Agadelkha,” a medieval Spanish piyut.
“Piyutim are mystical love songs to the Divine, with verses in elegant Hebrew,” Eisenberg explained. “They represent a wide variety of sensual expression, with a recurrent fluidity of both poetic voice and object of desire. This song is part of a larger canon of queer piyut that we perform. ‘Agadelkha’ is interesting because it uses a tune that is sometimes sung with gay erotic lyrics. We combined the sacred and profane versions.”
Eisenberg and Lockwood made the album quickly, without a producer. The songs were recorded in one take, to analogue tape, singing face to face in one room. “It was done old school style,” Lockwood said. “It’s mostly acoustic, although I did use electric guitar on a couple of tracks. The only effect is tremolo from the amp.”
Book of J, the album, has the feel of an impromptu sing-along. Both principals have strong voices. Eisenberg is a flexible alto, with bluesy inflections; Lockwood has a rumbling lower register that’s supported by his impressive fingerpicking in a variety of styles, from Piedmont blues to ragtime.
When Book of J is on stage, the performance is balanced between music and historical explorations of the songs they’re singing. “Our live shows are loose and joyful,” Lockwood said. “I like storytelling, so we talk a lot about the songs.”
“Expect old-time religion, radical politics, angels and demons, workers and bosses, diasporic languages, erotic longing, close-text reading, hard times resolved, and destiny fulfilled,” Eisenberg said. “We also encourage singing along.”