I come from a family of Jewish musicians who immigrated to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. My maternal great-grandfather, Abraham Miller, was a violinist and teacher who combined Yiddish songs with neighboring Romany repertoires. His daughter, my grandmother, Nettie Miller Silverman, and her nine brothers and sisters carried this Yiddish/Romany mix forward into conversation with the urban jazz traditions in early twentieth-century New York City. They were community musicians, performing at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and neighborhood parties, and they taught music to augment their livelihoods. I only heard about my musical history as stories about the good old days, as I grew up in Washington, D.C., far from Brooklyn, where I imagined music had filled every waking moment of family life.
My own musical experience was in sharp contrast to the family stories. As a child, I sang in a citywide choir, performing songs from 30 countries at official Washington functions, embassies, and the White House. I remember performing with other children from the Young Pioneers at the Soviet Embassy during the Cold War, being told by the choir director to keep my distance from these Communists and at the same time realizing that I, too, was partly Russian. Around that time, I asked to play cello; my mother, perhaps out of her own longing for the sounds of family gatherings, now only memories, brought home a violin. The closest renderings of my inheritance were the biblical cantillations that I learned in preparation for chanting my bat mitzvah Torah portion in a Reform Jewish ceremony and the Israeli folk songs that were part of my experience at Jewish summer camp. My short-lived violin training was in the classical tradition, far from the folk traditions that were my legacy. In high school, I sang classical choral music and madrigals, learned to play the guitar, and composed folk songs. The music of my forebears was absent from my own world.
Curiosity eventually led to my becoming international president of the B’nai Brith Girls in high school in 1969, at which time I was introduced to Israel’s official culture (photo ops with Abba Eban and other dignitaries dotted my itinerary in 1970). I returned to Israel in 1973 and witnessed the unraveling of the Israeli social fabric with the Yom Kippur War.
It was in high school that I became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. By the time I got to college in Ashland, Oregon, my growing commitment to political activism was focused on the music of social change and women’s issues. I worked for the emerging “Women’s Music Network,” a loose consortium of women artists, record and concert producers, and activists who built an alternative to the mainstream industry in the late 1970s. There I met the protest singer Holly Near, became her professional and political manager, and worked with her record company in Los Angeles. In 1977, I co-founded Roadwork in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization that produced Sisterfire, an annual international women’s festival and helped dozens of racially and ethnically diverse women’s performance groups to further their careers.
Most notably, I worked as artist representative for Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey In The Rock for the next 17 years. Dr. Reagon was the Roadwork co-founder and founder of the African-American women’s a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock. This multiracial, multicultural work tuned my ear (in ways that I can only understand retrospectively) to the new Mediterranean Israeli music created by Arab Jews that was emerging at the same time in Israel. In hindsight, it is not surprising that I gravitated to the study of Mediterranean Israeli music when I began my doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s. By then, Sweet Honey in the Rock was able to fill Carnegie Hall and my work with the group was completed. I had never meant to be an artist representative. What had interested me was the activist sensibility required to create a national and international touring system for the group, which allowed them to remain in control of their artistry. Dr. Reagon, who earned a Ph.D. from Howard University, suggested I consider the Department of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. She proposed that I draw upon my years of grassroots cultural work with Sweet Honey and other women artists in designing my scholarly path.
As a discipline, folklore attracted me because it straddled the borders between the humanities, social sciences, and the arts and seemed to combine the best of ethnography, oral history, literary criticism, anthropology, and even political science. Housed variously in English, anthropology, and foreign language departments, folklore’s discomfited and self-reflexive posture within academia and the public sector resonated with my own ambivalence about my grassroots and scholarly commitments and desires.
Eventually, I came to believe that these mutually interacting impulses helped me remain true to my material as well as to the academic world. It was my work in grassroots women’s music that helped me recognize the profoundly revolutionary impulses of Mediterranean Israeli music even though the genre was defined as explicitly apolitical. In retrospect, the move from my work with Dr. Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock, Holly Near, and Sisterfire to Mediterranean Israeli music seems an obvious, transparent continuation of the same struggles and questions. But as I began to outline this new research problem, it felt entirely uncharted.