Jewlia Eisenberg, the musical polymath behind Charming Hostess, Book of J. and a million other projects, has passed away from a rare autoimmune disease at the age of 50.
Jewlia Eisenberg, the musical polymath behind Charming Hostess, Book of J. and a million other projects, has passed away from a rare autoimmune disease at the age of 50.

In memoriam: Jewlia Eisenberg, a shining star in the musical Jewniverse 

Whoever preserves a single life, the Talmud tells us, is said to have saved the whole world. With the death of Jewlia Eisenberg last week at the age of 50, after a prolonged fight against a rare autoimmune disease, an entire galaxy has been lost.

The Brooklyn-bred, Bay Area–based vocalist, composer, scholar, activist, educator, lay cantor and indefatigable cultural spelunker seemed to embrace the entire far-flung Jewish cosmos, from ancient Babylonia to the Dyke March.

What made Eisenberg such a multifarious force wasn’t just that she contained mansions. It’s that each room featured a raging party in which you might find her … performing at a punk club … crooning in a jazz joint … belting out an anthem at a protest … delivering a presentation at an academic conference … or developing new projects at an artist retreat.

She threw herself into every undertaking with infectious joy, whether delving into ancient Hebrew texts, officiating at Jewish weddings, setting cultural theorist Walter Benjamin’s diary entries to a rollicking score on the album “Trilectic,” or re-creating an East German Yiddish cabaret show by Auschwitz survivor Lin Jaldati.

Any encounter could spin off a new creative endeavor. 

Soon after British guitarist Fred Frith moved to the Bay Area in 1999 to teach composition at Mills College in Oakland, he sat in with Eisenberg’s band to play some of the pieces from his avant garde trio Art Bears, which led to the formation of Art Bears Songbook, “very much at her instigation and which she sadly ended up missing out on because of ongoing health issues,” Frith wrote on Facebook. “Jewlia made me laugh, she made me sit up, she made me stand up — her commitment and engagement were totally inspiring to so many. Her passionate light remains.”

For some three decades, Eisenberg’s primary musical vehicle was the band Charming Hostess, which crafted a sound that she often described as “klezmer-punk/Balkan-funk.” The group performed and recorded in a variety of iterations, but always centered on powerful, exuberantly polyglot vocals.

Charming Hostess grew out of UC Berkeley’s notorious anarchist co-op Barrington Hall while Eisenberg was studying music and history at Cal, though the band really coalesced in the early 1990s after she spent a year traveling around Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Israel, supporting herself by teaching English. Her travels gave her the opportunity to study firsthand various female vocal traditions, and she returned to the Bay Area loaded with cassettes.

“If you’re looking for ancient women’s texts, you’ll find a lot of them are preserved in traditional folk songs of North African and Eastern European peoples,” Eisenberg told me in a 1999 interview. “I was interested in taking those texts which express female sensibilities and bringing that into a more modern context.”

Charming Hostess put theory into practice on the band’s first album, 1998’s “Eat.” On the song “Dali Tzerni,” the band arranged a traditional Bulgarian tune from Macedonia that offers a stinging rebuke to a romantic suitor, while on “Mi Nuera” they juxtaposed three traditional Jewish wedding tunes from Morocco, sung in Ladino.

By using kinetic rhythms, Charming Hostess honored the traditional sources of inspiration while sounding entirely contemporary. Running through everything she created was a vein of generous humor. On the song “Sha Shtil,” she set a Yiddish proverb (“When a man can’t dance, he says the band can’t play”) to a finely ornamented cantorial wail.

While reveling in the particularities of local Jewish traditions, Eisenberg believed in a vision of Judaism that was expansive, cosmopolitan and welcoming. Delighting in contradiction and irony, she changed the spelling of her first name to both embrace and poke fun at notions of ethnic pride.

She brought the same sensibility to her music, refusing to peg Charming Hostess as solely a Jewish project, even though many of the group’s projects — such as this one in 2010 that gave musical voice to the ancient Babylonian women whose wishes were inscribed on clay bowls and buried beneath their houses — were featured in J.

“The identity of the band is based on a multiplicity of cultures,” she explained. “There’s no one culture or place or language we get tied down to.”

Numerous artists came into her orbit, and many of them came away transformed. Over the years, Charming Hostess featured musicians such as Carla Kihlstedt, Jenny Scheinman, Cynthia Taylor and Marika Hughes, who was a conservatory-trained cellist when she first encountered Eisenberg. A little star-struck when Kihlstedt introduced them after a Charming Hostess set at the Mission District bar Bruno’s, Hughes struggled to make a good impression, ultimately complimenting Eisenberg’s tank top.

She gave me a wink and took it off right there and said, ‘It’s yours,’” recalled Hughes. A few weeks later, Eisenberg gave her a call, looking to get together for a singing session. Hughes assured Eisenberg that she wasn’t a singer, but the rendezvous took place anyway and Hughes ended up joining Charming Hostess with her cello “and not only singing, but in seven different languages,” she said, noting that her voice has been a central component of her music ever since.

Musicians weren’t the only people who could find their lives recalibrated after joining up with Eisenberg. Her longtime spouse, AnMarie Rodgers, had met Eisenberg only a couple of times before they set out on a road trip to the Four Corners region of the Southwest. Eisenberg showed up with a detailed travel itinerary, and the first night they checked into a rundown hotel. “I like to wrestle, and she likes to sleep without pants,” Rodgers recalled in an email to me this week.  “And the next day, you know, she’s just singing on the back of my motorcycle.”

Eisenberg’s gift for turning every undertaking into a gleeful adventure manifested in her youth. Born into a secular Jewish family passionately committed to social justice, she was street smart and politically engaged. In a post on Facebook, her high school friend Susan Kleinman remembered what it was like to be swept up in Eisenberg’s whirlwind.

“To know Jewlia was to be challenged and changed — intellectually, spiritually, creatively, politically,” she wrote. “In high school she brought me to CBGB and the Knitting Factory and we watched a million films at Thalia and Film Forum. She taught me to fight back against sexual harassment on the streets, shouting ‘capitalist pigs!’ if the men were wearing suits, otherwise just cursing them out. Her home in Lower Manhattan was a sanctuary and a gathering place, a launching pad for great adventures. The wall above her bed [was] plastered with pictures and words she found that excited her young and ravenous mind.”

Blues guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood, one of her closest musical collaborators over the past decade, worked with Eisenberg on the duo project Book of J. The son of postminimalist composer and conductor Larry Lockwood and the grandson of the legendary Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, he credits Eisenberg with providing “the vision for what Book of J. should be,” he said. “She decided we were going to do this, and before I really knew what was happening we had a band.”

Eisenberg and Lockwood were in the midst of several major undertakings that are now up in the air, including a set of songs inspired by Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin and a project based on research in LA Archivera, an archive holding field recordings of Jews from Turkey collected in Los Angeles by Emily Sene.

Eisenberg, who died on March 11, is survived by her spouse of 17 years, AnMarie Rodgers, her mother, Anne, and a multitude of close friends.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.