Golem on the rise, female in the lead

Ezekiel Kogan came to klezmer in a roundabout fashion. Inspired by her grandfather, who had immigrated to America from Ukraine, she began studying Russian as a Columbia undergraduate. After teaching herself the accordion, she picked up and sang Russian and Ukrainian folk songs, to the delight of fellow students. Then, while studying Proust in a PhD program, she also got interested in Yiddish and realized that she wanted to play klezmer, saying, “Jewish music is mine.”

So she decided to found her own band, Golem (named for the legendary creature of clay created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in sixteenth-century Prague). Golem played their first gig in November 2000, and . Over the course of 14 years and six albums, the ensemble’s music has evolved significantly.

“When I started Golem, I had no interest in original songs. I said, I’m interested in preserving the Old World through those old songs—my grandfather’s world,” Ezekiel Kogan said in a recent conversation at the Lilith office. Then the band’s music began to express juxtapositions between contemporary American-Jewish experiences and the “Old Country” of Eastern Europe. The new direction was partially inspired by the immigrant experience of Ezekiel Kogan’s husband, Sasha, who emigrated from Eastern Ukraine in 1992. Just as Ezekiel Kogan’s grandfather had spoken of pogroms in Dniepropetrovsk, Sasha’s family fled Kharkov and claimed refugee status in the United States because of their own experience of anti-Semitism in that city. 

“A lot of our original songs are based on my husband’s family stories—folk songs for a new experience that’s the same as the old experience,” Ezekiel Kogan said. The song “Mirror Mirror,” off 2009’s “Citizen Boris,” exemplifies this blend of old and new: she based the song on both her great-grandmother’s and her mother-in-law’s experiences of immigrating from Eastern Europe. The song lyrically melds multiple generations of female longing.

“Tanz,” Golem’s new album, combines traditional klezmer motifs with rock and punk, and makes heavy use of Russian in its lyrics, along with Yiddish and English. In utilizing a Slavic language in addition to Yiddish, the band hopes to subvert the idea that the shtetl and its culture was purely monolingual.

“I think of Golem as using all the languages in the shtetl,” Ezekiel Kogan said. “There was no shtetl in which it was exclusively a Yiddish world. There was Yiddish and Ukrainian, or Russian, or Polish, there were Gypsies coming through—it was a very mixed world.” 

A striking change in Golem’s attitudes over time is the band’s increasing incorporation of Jewish religious tradition into their music and performance. Their new song “Mikveh Bath” focuses on the quintessentially female ritual of immersing in a mikveh to purify oneself prior to marriage. After marriage, mikveh immersion is a monthly ritual to cleanse oneself of menstrual impurity prior to sex. The slow, sensual song is told from the point of view of a young girl in the shtetl, immersing herself before meeting her bridegroom for the first time.

“The mikveh bath will purify me/before I lie down in my wedding bed./Will he close his eyes before we kiss? Will he run his fingers through my hair?/Will he undress in the other room/Or watch me as I say the evening prayer?”

With the tentative eroticism of its lyrics, the song recasts the mikveh ritual in a way that Ezekiel Kogan conceives as an empowering expression of female sexuality. At the same time, as a female musical performer, she has also had to adapt to very traditional religious environments. During private events, clients occasionally request that she refrain from singing, following the constraints of kol isha, an Orthodox prohibition on women singing in public. However, for public events and performances, the band’s policy is to reject events at which Annette would be barred from singing.

“The band—they get angry on my behalf more often than I do,” she says, laughing. “I’m a female leader, for sure, in all ways.”

For more of Golem’s multilingual rock, check out the sensational music video for the second track on “Tanz,” “Freydele” – complete with Yiddish rap!