Feb 22, 2018
Riding the subway to Brooklyn with a handful of friends, we got to talking about religious imagery and gender amidst a conversation about the implications of looking recognizably Jewish: What does flagging look like in a Jewish context? The conversation, while not out of the ordinary with these particular friends, felt especially relevant in light of our destination: a Tsibele concert at The Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook; we were all so excited. Tsibele has been on my radar for a while now; their new album has been causing a stir within New York City’s leftist and Yiddish spheres. Tsibele’s image is unapologetically Jewish, and they take evident pride in their musical roots, visible queerness, and political community.
A chilly drizzle greeted us as we exited the subway station. By the time we found the tucked-away venue, we were damp, and still hadn’t determined what Jewish flagging might look like. Left to chew on the questions we’d been discussing, I found my seat in the intimate venue, which offered not only refuge from the rain but a cozy atmosphere and chattering audience. My mind kept churning: What does it mean to display identity with intention? What does it mean to visibly represent Jewishness—not just flagging Jewishly, but flagging Jewishness? I leaned back into the converted pew and let the evening’s music engulf me. Tsibele (“Onion” in Yiddish) is a Brooklyn-based klezmer band comprised of accordionist Ira Khonen Temple, flutist/vocalist Eléonore Weill, violinist Zoë Aqua, trumpeter Eva Boodman, and bassist Zoe Guigueno. From the very start of their gig that night in Red Hook, Tsibele embodied a certain rootedness, demonstrating pride in their Brooklyn homebase as well as in their musical and activist communities. Looking around, I could see that the venue was speckled with an intergenerational array of friends, acquaintances, and other familiar faces, including members of the leftist organization JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice), and local klezmorim and other musicians. Between sets, audience members could be seen milling around and striking up conversations with one other or buying merch from the band members’ mothers. This is the kind of community that built Tsibele, and which Tsibele builds.
The opening acts underscored this connection to community. First, multi-disciplinary artist Jendog Lonewolf rapped about living in Brooklyn and used sharp-witted lyrics interspersed with familiar, casual conversation to illustrate the harmful impacts of gentrification on communities of color. Then renowned performer, puppeteer, and JFREJ member Jenny Romaine performed a rendition of Fred Penner’s song “Sandwiches” accompanied by beautiful, goofy handmade props that created a deli atmosphere. These acts, which deliberately and directly engaged the audience and created a playful, intimate mood, set the tone for the rest of the concert. During the performances, audience members sometimes yelled out words of encouragement, contributing to the sense of camaraderie in the room. Both on- and offstage, Tsibele members maintained a banter and friendliness with the audience, fostering a comfortable space. Even more notably, they guided the audience throughout their set, explaining the origins and personal significance of the songs they played. This, to me, is a testament to the band’s ethos: they are trying to make traditional klezmer and Moldovan/Bessarabian music accessible and exciting, simultaneously paying homage to musical traditions and connecting it to contemporary listeners.
Tsibele’s set featured a wide range of music, both originals and klezmer classics. The songs they played, only some of which were on their album, varied in tone, smoothly flowing from uplifting bulgars to more somber tunes. Sometimes the music was whimsical and playful, and at other moments it was deep, cavernous, and heart-wrenching—but in every case, the band played cohesively, sounds meshing together and sweeping up the audience. Some songs from the set that particularly left an impression on me include Di Svet Shop, which comes off of their album and was described as “being about alienation under capitalism, about working at a machine all day until one becomes a machine.” There was also a fantastic bulgar that served as a Philly-style klezmer tribute to Elaine Hoffman Watts z”l and visibly brightened the whole room. Another klezmer artist to whom they paid homage was Ethel Raim, a renowned performer and teacher of traditional, unaccompanied women’s Yiddish singing. Raim’s techniques and vocal stylings could be heard throughout the performance, manifesting Tsibele’s immersion in klezmer tradition and artistic community.
Tsibele’s music is also politically informed, but while members of the band are involved in outside political projects like The Rude Mechanical Orchestra and the Aftselakhis Spectacle Committee, Tsibele itself is not an organizing project, a point they emphasized from the stage. To treat Tsibele as a band worth listening to purely because of their politics would be to undermine their serious musicianship and talent. Towards the end of the set, the band began to play a wordless version of Lomir zikh iberbetn (“Let’s Make Up”), a famous and familiar Yiddish song which was welcomed by the audience. After a few minutes, Tsibele stopped and taught some new words to the song: “mir veln zey iberlebn,” or “we will outlive them,” lyrics that emerged from Holocaust resistance and have recently been made into a banner and protest chant by Tsibele member Ira Khonen Temple, along with Raphael Mishler and Jenny Romaine. That night, the audience’s powerful, upbeat rendition of the resistance lyrics, filled the venue with sound. Tsibele’s final song of the evening, “Dem nayntn yanuar” (“The 9th of January,” inspired by Pussy Riot), is a rallying cry for collective liberation. Even a few weeks later, Tsibele’s music from that night still lingers in the back of my mind, worming its way into my consciousness when I let my brain return to questions of Jewishness and visibility. How do they flag so effectively? How am I able to read it so clearly? Why does a small tweed cap so effectively convey queer masculinity while nodding to the shtetl? Tsibele’s music is nourishing and grounding as much as it is political. It offers me a way to honor the past while building a radical future.
“Dem nayntn yanuar”