Musical intellectual and Jewish radical Jewlia Eisenberg dies at 50

Charming Hostess band leader was fixture of avant-garde, experimental music scenes in San Francisco and New York since 1990s

Jewlia Eisenberg (Courtesy of Charming Hostess via JTA)
Jewlia Eisenberg (Courtesy of Charming Hostess via JTA)

JTA — Jewlia Eisenberg, who became an unlikely musical star by creating lively tunes inspired in part by arcane poetic and intellectual traditions, has died after struggling with the effects of a rare autoimmune disease. She was 50.

The front-woman for the band Charming Hostess, Eisenberg was a fixture of the avant-garde and experimental music scenes in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York since the 1990s. Her music often explored Jewish themes and aesthetics within a self-invented genre she dubbed nerdy-sexy-commie-girly music.

The music of Charming Hostess draws from influences including the blues, Balkan folk dances and Sephardic piyyut, a liturgical poem. An early album called “Trilectic” borrowed from the philosophy of Walter Benjamin. “Trilectic” was followed by “Sarajevo Blues,” a recording built around texts by the Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic.

According to a 2005 review of “Sarajevo Blues” in the Boston PhoenixEisenberg crystallized a major part of her identity following a trip to Bulgaria and Romania to document local musical traditions.

“I realized I didn’t want to be an ethnomusicologist; I wanted to be a rock star,” she was quoted as saying.

Judging by the outpouring of grief upon news of her death, Eisenberg succeeded. To countless fans and friends, she came to represent the epitome of the human capacity for compassion and creativity. Virtually all the tributes recognized her as both an artist and a genuine political radical committed to pursuing tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) through ritual and community building.

“She was a ferocious and warm presence all along, and an antifascist long before the word antifa was mentioned on TV,” said Blake Eskin, Eisenberg’s friend since their childhood in New York.

Eisenberg, who died last week, grew up in the tight-knit community of Brooklyn’s Starrett City. She had a secular upbringing in an environment that was Jewish only in so far as social justice values are Jewish.

Later she attended the University of California, Berkeley, studying music and history, and it was in the Bay Area that she embraced a more explicitly Jewish identity, altering the spelling of her first name to signal that identity.

“She was not only a great musician, she wanted to teach you how to sing,” Eskin said. “She loved including people in her music. She saw music as the key to community, whether in the union movement or Jewish gatherings.”

She spent the last moments of her life surrounded by her spouse, AnMarie Rodgers; her mother, Anne; and close friends.

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