Photo © Erika Kapin

Isabel Frey is a PhD candidate in the structured doctoral program “Music matters” and a Yiddish singer and cultural activist. She studied social sciences at Amsterdam University College and Medical Anthropology & Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Her masters’ thesis was a material-semiotic ethnography of recognition in a clinic for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME). She has published peer-reviewed articles on eating disorders and on end-of-life decision-making after severe stroke after working as a Junior Researcher at the Amsterdam University Medical Centre. After returning to her hometown of Vienna, she started performing Yiddish revolutionary songs both in concert and at political protests, continuing the tradition of Jewish social justice activism. She regularly writes essays on issues of Jewish identity and Yiddish music. In her research project, she combines her passion for Yiddish music with her background in new-materialist and material-semiotic theory and methodology.

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Voices of Yiddishland: Towards an Ethnography of the Yiddish singing voice

This research project studies the articulation of Jewish diasporic identity through an ethnography of the Yiddish singing voice in Yiddish cultural spaces in North America, Europe and Israel. It examines the contemporary practices of Yiddish singing through a lens Jewish diasporist theory, investigating how diasporic identity is enacted through the embodied practices of Yiddish singers of vocal production, technique and performance. The Yiddish culture movement can be seen as a diasporic movement, not in a demographic sense, but as a claim to a counter-hegemonic political belonging that stands in contrast to Zionist territorial nationalism. Ethnographically studying the singing voice can foreground previously-bracketed considerations, tensions and multiplicities that respond to the politics of the Jewish diaspora. The research methods are ethnographic interviews with professional Yiddish singers, participant observation of Yiddish song classes and workshops and the documentation and analysis of musical performances in Yiddish culture festivals. How do singers adapt their voices to fit different genres of Yiddish song? How is a “traditional” Yiddish singing style taught and learned, and how does it mediate diasporic tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish elements? How do singers navigate the chasm between their mother tongues and postvernacular Yiddish? What alternative geographies emerge from mapping the trajectories of Yiddish singers’ vocal training? And finally, how do the embodied practices of the Yiddish singing articulate a particular diasporic Jewish identity?