Reuben Bard-Rosenberg reviews Chanukah Lewinsky: 120 Years from Grodno
Last week, a sell-out crowd at JW3 in London was treated to an unusual performance by up-and-coming performance artist Dex Grodner. As the lights dimmed, Chanukah Lewinsky appeared on-stage, and began to rearrange her bags and suitcases. It was 1890 Russia, and her life as a queer Jewish woman was about as easy as one might expect.
Her complaints ranged from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Her son had been conscripted into the army and sent to Siberia. She'd been forced out of her village by anti-Semitic legislation. And to top it all off, her husband, a fagele, had left her for a man. This, she told us, was a travesty. She was, after all, the Julie Walters of 19th century Russia. And he would never find a better gay icon to marry than Chanukah Lewinsky.
And so it was clearly time to move on. Acknowledging her voluminous arrangement of suitcases, Chanukah proudly told us that "you are what you shlap", and after hiding her pearls about her person, she proceeded to make her way first to Whitechapel in London, and then onto America and back again.
What followed was a glorious hour and a half of lip-syncing, dancing, and storytelling that took Chanukah through the lives of various awesome, struggling Jewish women from the turn of the century to the present day. In the East End of London she joined the Yiddish Theatre on Princelet Street. More established members of the community couldn't understand why she and her fellow immigrant-thesps wished to carry on making art in Yiddish and not the language of their adopted homeland. Yet she had a whale of a time until - as was historically the case - a fatal stampede, tragically caused by a fire scare, closed the theatre.
She moved to America where she eventually found herself in the shoes of her near namesake Monica Lewinsky. Few punches were pulled as to the way in which America's establishment ripped apart the life of this particular young Jewish woman. Monica, we were told, became "the people's other woman". And yet, the Monica we saw on stage was elevated into something far more than either a monster or a victim. Indeed, the characters portrayed in this show contrasted starkly with a mainstream Jewish comedy tradition that has too often reduced Jewish women to those two demons of the young adult male psyche: the overbearing mother and the stuck-up princess.
Throughout all of her adventures, Chanukah Lewinksy held on to the bags and suitcases that she'd brought with her from Russia.
It proved to be a powerful theme.
We are not supposed to come with baggage. Indeed, the phrase is something of an insult. We are supposed to be agile, ready to adapt to the present circumstance, ready to strike a deal, commercially, socially, sexually and professionally, unencumbered by ourselves or our past. As queers we hear stories of people breaking free from the boundaries of their small towns, or their immigrant communities, or in Billy Elliot's case, his class, in order to go and manifest their true individual character. And yet, Chanukah Lewinsky elected to have a different relationship with the cases that she carried.
In a powerful scene, she handles her pearls, now over 100 years old, and then her bags. She acknowledges that she does not know with certainty what they still contain, but determines to keep on carrying them. Within Judaic traditions, rituals matter - what we do augments reality in a way that doesn't quite make sense within England's more other-worldly Protestant culture, with its stricter separation between heaven and earth.
Today, much of society seems caught between the isolation and uncertainty of our liquid liberal order, and the reactionary siren songs of those who sell us stories of national authenticity. On the one hand we have the likes of Emmanuel Macron who bemoans the "Gallic resistance to change" - by which he means his countrymen's unwillingness to simply adapt to the commercial imperatives of the present economic order. On the other hand, we have the likes of Marine Le Pen who offers up a vision of national salvation rooted in an exclusive and unchanging vision of Frenchness.
Perhaps the image of Chanukah Lewinsky shlapping her baggage offers a better way of grappling with identity. It demonstrates an engagement with the past that is partly dictated by necessity, but which is also active and deliberate. The carrying of baggage represents an engagement with our history which is also an experience of moving onwards. And in the shuttered suitcase, our ethnic heritage is embodied not in a visible and knowable object, but instead in an opaque container - whose contents probably did evolve over the course of Chanukah's 120 year-long life. As the performer puts it, “Our stories can never be lost in translation, for they are born from it”. As a queer Jewish artist from the Edgware suburbs, Chanukah's creator Dex Grodner perhaps knows better than most that there is no final destination of arrival, and no untroubled point of communal origin.
Yet I fear that to meditate any further upon the meaning of baggage would not quite do justice to a show that is intelligent and moving, but which is also camp, flippant, joyous and seriously funny - a truly wonderful patchwork of stories about a crowd of badass Jewish women.
Reuben Bard-Rosenberg caught up with renowned radical songwriter David Rovics to talk music and politics. David is about to kick off his worldwide Musical History Tour - details of gigs are at the end of this interview.
Your shows in England are part of your Worldwide Musical History Tour and will focus on stories from the past. How can music shape our understanding of the past, and why is it important?
I think it's impossible to understand the world around us without understanding how we got here. And there are a lot of different elements of any society who are well aware of that. The powers-that-be in the US would have us believe that history is shaped mainly by great leaders, or technological innovation. Those factors have their roles to play, but what they don't want us to know is that history is mainly shaped by the many different forms that the struggle between the haves and have-nots takes at different points, in different societies.
You've been gigging since the 1990s. How has the situation facing an independent musician changed since then? Has it become easier or harder to build a crowd, find good venues and make good events happen?
The short answer is it's become far, far harder to survive as a musician. It's a similar situation for a lot of other people doing what we call “content creation” these days – writers, filmmakers, journalists. It's great that it's so easy to develop an international audience if you give away your music, books, movies or reportage, but making a living is a whole different question. I can't afford to tour in the United States anymore, the way things are. I tour in Europe for a living now, almost entirely, as far as gigs go. The lack of CD sales I've partially made up for with an online subscription scheme I call Community-Supported Art, which a lot of other artists are now doing these days. For me it's working OK, but I think I have a sort of advantage as a political artist in that way, strangely enough. Which is not usually an advantage, so I'm OK with that.
When I first saw you back in 2004, everybody had a Myspace, and "social media" referred to a kaleidoscope of blogs and forums. These days it's all about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. How has the changing digital landscape affected independent musicians and their ability to engage with fans?
Basically all of these platforms have their pros and cons, and the pros and cons change constantly as they change their algorithms. The internet was a very useful place for about a decade, starting around 1995. Since the demise of email lists and Indymedia and the rise of Facebook, the dream is moribund, if not dead. Facebook is a nightmare, unequivocally. If there were standard rules to social media and it all behaved more or less like Twitter, it could be useful for a lot of people, like it used to be. Facebook has killed that, and of course the regulatory authorities in most of the world have allowed that to happen, except in certain places, where it is quite sensibly just banned altogether.
You've gigged all over the world. What's your favourite country to gig in and why?
My favourite country, or place, to gig is always wherever there's a big international protest happening, and I get to see many of my friends from different countries together in one place. It doesn't happen nearly often enough. But barring that, my favourite place to play is Denmark, because Denmark is the only country in the world where I can play for a cafeteria full of socialist high school students, many of whom know my songs well enough to sing along with every word. Denmark wins. It's the only country I'm familiar with that has a really functional inter-generational left scene.
One thing that is striking about your songs is the sheer number that you have written. Do they all come quickly? And do you have a go-to method?
I decided to specialize a long time ago. I know too many people who do a lot of things, none of them all that well. Which is fine, but it's not for me. I don't organize anything other than my tours, I don't have a day job, my job is to write songs, record them, put them on Spotify, and hope that people keep liking them enough to book gigs for me and allow me to continue to make a living as a touring musician. So basically if I'm not hanging out with my kids or touring, I'm doing something related to writing a song – either reading or writing. But also the traveling inspires a lot of the songs, because I hear stories when I'm traveling that I'd never hear otherwise. Many songs come quickly, especially if it's about something that just happened in the world and it's the sort of thing I'm already knowledgeable about in general. Songs about historical events are often much different, and involve a lot of research. Sometimes that takes days, sometimes years. Usually less.
There is quite a distinct left wing music scene and you are very much part of it. What's the best and the worst thing about being a lefty musician?
I think only certain few people who are immersed in this scene would even say there's a scene. Most people I come across think I'm the only one, and aren't aware of anyone else. That happens all the time, despite the fact that I'm often sharing other people's contemporary songs in various places. Anyway, the best thing about it is getting to do something I believe in for a living, and the folks out there who like this sort of music tend to be a pretty cool bunch to hang with. The worst thing about it, well it's hard to say. If I weren't a lefty musician I still probably wouldn't have had commercial success and I still wouldn't be playing the main stage at Glastonbury. I don't even get invited to play at the Left Stage there, for that matter. But being a lefty musician pretty well guarantees you're not going to get invited to play most types of gigs that you might possibly get otherwise.
You've written a number of songs about people who've resisted Fascism, from diplomats who bent the rules, and fishermen who rescued Jews, through to armed Anti-fascist partisans. What do you think is the best way right now for socialists to resist the rise of the far right, whose power seems to be rocketing right across the Northern Hemisphere?
I think the only way forward is for socialists to offer a clear alternative to fascism. It is neoliberals like Blair, Thatcher, Bush, Obama, Macron, Merkel, etc., who have pushed austerity budgets and free trade deals and imperialism. They have handed over their countries to people like Trump, Le Pen, AFD, etc. Left parties in Europe and left electoral factions in Britain and the US are also growing – Die Linke, Melenchon, Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, etc. But the fascists are growing faster, because they have become identified with local democracy, national sovereignty, and economic protectionism. These are all very popular ideas that socialists are widely seen as having abandoned in favour of identity politics. In the US, we literally gave the Republicans the colour red. It's a very sad state of affairs. Which I've written a lot of songs about, it's true. Most recently one called “1933.” It's on my latest album, which you can download for free if you sign up to my email list at davidrovics.com.
One thing that has caught the attention of the left over in Britain is the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic primary against a very established right wing incumbent. Do you believe that this represents a major political turning point? And what do you think the future holds for her?
She and other progressive Democrats have the backing of a billionaire from California, among others, so I'm not surprised they're making headway. I see no sign of them even coming close to challenging the Democrats for leadership of their totally worthless, corrupt, imperialist, capitalist party. But I wish them luck.
Do you have any advice for radical musicians trying to build up a crowd?
I wrote a book on the subject which I may eventually find a publisher for. Yes, I have a lot of advice. The first and most important piece of advice is write great songs, record them really well, and perform them really well in public settings. Figure out whether they're great songs objectively, not by asking your friends what they think. If your song is sad it should make people cry. If no one is crying, it's not a sad song. Remember that there is no room for an out-of-place word or phrase in a song. It's a ruthless medium. Imperfection will not be tolerated by anyone, whether they know it or not. It's like figure-skating. You can't fall down, you get a 0 that way, spell broken, in the toilet. Don't suck – be really good. The fact that you have something to say doesn't make it OK to suck. Tell a story that makes people forget where they are and who they are. Then tell another. Never tell anyone what you think or what you feel in a song. Let the story do that. If you're really, really good, you'll build a crowd by giving away your music. Then it's a question of what you do with that.
I see you've started a weekly podcast. Could you tell me what inspired it?
I got a call from a guy named Dennis Bernstein, who has a show called Flashpoints at a radio station called KPFA in Berkeley, California. He asked me if I wanted to produce a short segment with commentary and music to air approximately once a week on his show. I was immediately taken with the idea, and I found working within the confines of this format really inspiring. I'm not sure how many people can relate to this if they're not communication geeks, but for me it's an interesting challenge to see what I can accomplish in 5 minutes. It's a lot like the challenge of effectively working within the confines of the medium of writing a 2-minute song, but you have a lot more to work with.
We've talked about songs as a means of spreading knowledge. How useful do you believe podcasts are as a tool for popular education?
Joe Hill said, “a pamphlet, no matter how well written, is read once and then thrown away. A song lasts forever.” He may have been exaggerating in either direction, and I don't know where podcasts fall on the spectrum between pamphlets and songs, but I think podcasts are a potentially powerful medium. One thing I like about them is how accessible they are to anyone who does podcasts through whatever platform, as long as they know the name of the podcast they're looking for. If it's not really easy to access then it's kind of pointless, and podcasts are a very user-friendly medium. Maybe it just seems that way to me because I'm into podcasts, but I'm pretty sure a whole lot of other people are, too...
If you weren't a revolutionary bard, what would you like to be?
Probably something else in the field of communication – writer, journalist, teacher, something like that.
As a frequent visitor to these Isles, you do feel the Corbyn project is turning out?
In my travels around Europe, I find that the most hopeful place anywhere in Europe in the past couple years, strangely enough, is England. Specifically England, not Wales or Scotland or anywhere else. Most of the people in England I know who used to do other political projects are now fully engaged with their local Labour Party branch. To me, and to them, I think it seems hopeful. Everyone knows the stakes are huge on all sides and it's a big gamble and nothing is certain, but I think it's a great effort and the atmosphere is refreshingly hopeful, from my vantage point.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
I hope to see folks on the road and in the streets!
UK Tour Dates
Thursday, October 4th Hove Folk Club Railway Inn Hove England
Friday, October 5th, 7 pm Housmans Bookshop with Jack Harris — Facebook Event 5 Caledonian Road London N1 9DX England
Monday, October 8th Doublet Bar — Facebook Event 74 Park Road Glasgow G4 9JF Scotland
Friday, October 12th Love Music Hate Racism event! Blues 3 Spooner Road Sheffield England
Saturday, October 13th Otley Labour Rooms with Chris Butler and others — Facebook Event Walkergate Otley England