Interview with Linda Hirschhorn - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen Women + Work im Oktober 2023 - Beitrag vom 19.07.2005

Interview with Linda Hirschhorn
Sarah Ross

The American singer-songwriter is multi-talented and the best example of a leading lady. Read more about her life as a professional musician and her experiences as a political activist.

Linda Hirschhorn is an American Jewish singer, songwriter, performer, cantor, composer, arranger, choral conductor, life-cycle events-manager, the founder and director of the Jewish women’s a cappella ensemble Vocolot, as well as the mother of two children. During the last 20 years she has released two songbooks and seven recordings of original material, four with Vocolot. Her well-known songs and choral arrangements have been published in major folk anthologies, are performed by professional and amateur groups around the world, and have been used in video, radio documentaries and dance scores. As far as Linda Hirschhorn is concerned, a social and political consciousness goes hand in hand with great musical talent.

AVIVA-Berlin: Linda, you are a singer-songwriter, cantor and chorus director. How do you combine all these jobs? Tell us about a typical working day.
Linda Hirschhorn: I work out of my home office most days. I use the morning hours to do booking for Vocolot - my women’s a cappella ensemble - and spend the afternoon hours working on music. When my children were younger, the evenings were devoted to them. Now that my daughter is in college and my son is in high school they do not need as much of their mother’s attention. On Tuesday afternoons I work at the Temple, teach the bar and bat mitzvah students. I sing most Friday nights and Saturdays at the Temple except when I am off on tour with Vocolot or on some of my solo artist-in-residence gigs. Lately I have also been officiating at weddings and many of my evening hours are spent in meeting with couples and helping them put together a creative ceremony. My earlier career as marriage counsellor is put to good use in these sessions

AVIVA-Berlin: How did your musical career start, and what have been the most important milestones in your life?
Linda Hirschhorn: I have been singing since I was an infant. I was always the soloist in school choirs and when I got to high school age I was admitted to the very prestigious Public High School of Music and Art in New York City. I also kept singing with different choirs for many years - Jewish choirs, symphony choirs etc. and began establishing a solo career as a folksinger. When I moved to California in 1970 I decided it was time to write my own songs and I formed various bands and did the coffee house circuit. My songs became increasingly political as I got involved in the anti-nuclear movement and Central American struggles. In the 1980s, I was asked to lead services and provide music for a Jewish women’s conference. It was then that I started to compose Jewish feminist music - using egalitarian language that was not male-god-centred. Since I had sung for choruses for so many years, my head was always full of harmony so I began writing women’s songs in 4 and 5 part harmonies. That finally led to my forming Vocolot - I couldn’t be a solo singer with a back up band anymore. I was also far more interested in just the pure human voice and didn’t want to perform with instruments.

AVIVA-Berlin: Regarding your orthodox family background, and the restrictions of normative Judaism towards women taking over a leading position in the community, which have been the most positive and negative experiences on your career path?
Linda Hirschhorn: While we did indeed attend an orthodox synagogue and I did attend an orthodox school when I was young, my family was not orthodox. It was typical of Jewish refugees of that generation to want to insure that their children got a thorough Jewish background, but their interest had to do with the preservation of tradition and ritual and less to do with religious belief. So, I felt the complete freedom to enjoy the beauty of the rituals and songs without feeling the constraints of orthodox practice. I have had far more trouble in my performing life when it came to the expression of my politics. Jewish audiences were not always open to my beliefs that Israel and Palestine must make peace and dwell side by side. Progressive left- wing audiences (both Jewish and non-Jewish) were not always open to my Hebrew songs, either. It was hard convincing people on the left that I could be a proud Jew and Zionist, and yet at the same time be critical of Israel and advocate for a two-state solution.

AVIVA-Berlin: What are the specific challenges in your job?
Linda Hirschhorn: To keep introducing new melodies (either by writing them or learning them elsewhere) and yet still sing enough of the old favourites that people long to hear over and over again.

AVIVA-Berlin: You have been a member of the Labour Zionist movement. When and why did you find your way into this movement, and how did this influence your social and religious life and your music?
Linda Hirschhorn: I went to Labour Zionist camps as a kid in the 1950s. It has had a lasting impact on my life. It taught me about social justice. It taught me about the American labour movement, and about socialist Zionism. We studied Marxism and it gave me a strong intellectual foundation for my radicalism in later life. It took my Judaism out of old world Shtetl Poland and brought it into contemporary America and Israel. Suddenly the prophets that I had studied in 4th grade became relevant to me - it was their voices that inspired my own social activism and those of my fellow campers in that era of civil rights and anti-Vietnam war work. My Jewish and social consciousness was strongly influenced by the music of the American working class and the songs of the early Israeli pioneers and these all became part of my growing repertoire. The songs taught me about people coming together to make their dreams come true and about fighting injustice. It taught me about working together in community and how to overcome differences.

AVIVA-Berlin: Describe your individual way of protest when you became active in the anti-nuclear and Central American movements of the 1980s.
Linda Hirschhorn: By then I knew that music was the strongest way I could express myself and involve myself in political activity. I wrote many songs dealing with anti-nuclear issues and the liberation struggle in Central America. I taught my songs on picket lines and at protest rallies, went to jail a couple of times, and taught my songs there. Every movement needs its poets and artists and musicians, and I have been proud of my role as one of them.

AVIVA-Berlin: You also have been involved in the women’s and feminist movement. What did this movement and its achievements give to you? Has it had an impact on your music, and if so, how?
Linda Hirschhorn: Growing up with two brothers in a Jewish household early on, I felt the effects of not being a boy. There was no such thing as a bat mitzvah in those days. Those didn’t happen until some 20 years later. My parents were never as concerned with my education and career as they were with my brothers’. The good side of that is that I felt free from their pressures to achieve anything of note. My oldest brother became the requisite doctor that every Jewish family has to have but I followed my own inclinations, which ultimately led me to my first love - singing. It was the Jewish feminist movement in particular that inspired me to speak out on behalf of all girls and women who had been consigned to the balcony of synagogues for so many years. Jewish feminism with its insistence on, and permission to be an honest expression of one’s deepest self without shame or inhibition helped me integrate my political and Jewish roots, made me determined to sing in Hebrew to all my audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish alike and convinced me that it was time to bring social concerns back into my Jewish world - the concerns that had been so deeply ingrained in me by my years in the Labour Zionist movement. Using traditional Hebrew and original English texts, my music became my contribution to Midrash at a time when more and more women were reclaiming, rediscovering, recreating and inventing Midrash, liturgy, dances, poems and songs to add onto the vast wealth of Jewish texts.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your are the founder of the Jewish women’s a cappella group Vocolot. How did you all come together? What is the story behind Vocolot?
Linda Hirschhorn: In 1988 I started writing rounds and songs that had distinctly feminist themes. Many of them in Hebrew. And these were published by Tara Publications in a songbook I called ’Gather Round’. It became clear to me that I needed to have an accompanying recording so I gathered some women around me to make ’Gather Round, Songs of Celebration and Renewal’. We then continued to sing together and became the performing group Vocolot. Over the years women have left, but I have been very fortunate that through the audition process many amazing singers have joined the group.

AVIVA-Berlin: For all those who do not know your music, how would you describe your sound? What is your music about. What is your intention?
Linda Hirschhorn: I think my music combines all my influences. It’s folky, its harmonies are classical, and it has its distinct Jewish and cantorial twists and turns, and its accessible and complex at the same time. The intention is to draw people in, to make them want to sing along and make them want to understand the poetry. The poetry is about our lives now and yet has a universal, timeless quality to it that I think connects the listener to a past and future with sense of hope and empowerment.

AVIVA-Berlin: What is your inspiration while composing new music and writing the lyrics?
Linda Hirschhorn: My best songs come to me fully formed. I just open my mouth and start singing. I can’t tell you what the inspiration is at that point, but it has something to do with trusting my own process that if I ’show up’ something will happen. Other than that, a beautiful phrase or word that I read or hear spoken can get me going. In addition, it helps when I am asked to write something and have a deadline that I have to meet.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your music has become an integral part of many American Jewish congregations. What is the response to your music, and does it lead to changes within liturgy?
Linda Hirschhorn: I have been delighted with the number of people from all over the world who have asked to use my music. I don’t know that my music leads to changes in liturgy but it certainly adds to it.

AVIVA-Berlin: Regarding to the musical style, would you describe your music as a new form of American Jewish music?
Linda Hirschhorn: Most of the people that I know who are writing what I would call American Jewish music are far more influenced by contemporary popular music than I am. I think my music has its own style relying on classical, folk and eastern European Jewish idioms that were part of my upbringing.

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Women + Work

Beitrag vom 19.07.2005

Sarah Ross