JJ: What is your Jewish background like?
FoV: I grew up in a secular Jewish Community in Western MA. My family attended a Chavurah (friend group/community worship group) instead of a synagogue. We developed our own special traditions as a family including Rosh Hashana hikes, putting our menorahs in the windows on Chanukah and walking around the house singing, and letting the dog play the roles of both Elijah and Miriam on Passover. Occasionally I would attend a synagogue service with a relative or a friend’s B’nai mitzvah but I always felt out of place in those settings. I never had my own B’nai mitzvah but was pushed hard to by my grandmother who tried to entice me with the thought of presents.
JJ: How has your music been inspired (or not) by Judaism and Jewish music?
FoV: My mom played in a klezmer band when I was very young and klezmer is some of the first live music I ever remember hearing. As soon as I started playing instruments, I was jamming with the band and I was playing gigs with them by the time I was 8. As I got older, the band fizzled away and I forgot about klezmer as I developed baggage around Judaism and distanced myself from the religion. I came back to it in college where I studied with Hankus Netsky and played in his ensemble. Here I learned about the history of klezmer music and the ways the music was lost along with the Yiddish language during the post-holocaust mass migration to Palestine/Israel. I had no idea that there was a period of time before the klezmer revival movement when almost nobody played or knew the tunes, and I feel extremely empowered playing this music and carrying on the legacy of not only my mother but also my great grandparents and many of their siblings. Some of my original music also has klezmer and Yiddish Theatre influence. I hope to one day learn Yiddish and am especially interested in adding Yiddish protest songs to my repertoire.
JJ: What is your current Jewish practice and identity like?
FoV: My Jewish practice is rooted in the knowledge that Judaism is still a diaspora and I seek to incorporate the traditions that have been birthed across the diaspora with special attention to the traditions coming from Eastern Europe because that is where most of my ancestors came from. I also engage with Judaism through an antizionist lens rooted in prioritizing spirituality over following rules to the letter. This past Yom Kippur I took a 10-mile walk, stopping periodically to meditate and write poetry. On the 8th night of Chanukah this year, I said the blessings while looking at my menorahs but chose not to light them because I was bothered that the candles I had were part of a free box I had received indirectly from Chabad that also came with a plastic menorah that said: “be an ambassador of light.” In ugly blue cursive letters. Somehow it just felt entirely wrong to light those candles that night but I didn’t want to not acknowledge the holiday. The previous evening, I had attended a Trans Rosh Chodesh community space facilitated by Rabbi Noam Lerman and had heard about an older Chanukah tradition where they start with the most candles and gradually decrease the number instead of increasing the number, celebrating the darkness. This felt beautiful to me, so I looked at my menorahs and said the blessings in the dark.
JJ: What musical projects have you been involved in, and where do you see yourself going musically?
FoV: In addition to my solo songwriting project and freelancing as an oboist and violinist in a variety of ensembles around Boston, I play in a Queer multi-instrumentalist folk duo known as Petting Kazoo. Both of us in the duo are songwriters and love to come up with arrangement ideas for each other’s music. We also are available as a backup band for other solo artists, providing orchestral textures and vocal harmonies. In this capacity, we have toured and recorded with Peruvian Baroque-Pop sensation Anaís Azul. My music comes to me when I feel like I have something to say. I hope to continue writing music that soothes my community by reminding everyone that activism is love, self-care is love, and it is our duty to express these loves.
JJ: How would you describe your genre?
FoV: I use the term “Classical Punk” because my music has a streak of anger and a streak of subversion but I also thrive on classical techniques and dynamic contrasts. My songs usually contain cinematic qualities and elements of storytelling. If I played guitar or piano, I might be classified as a “singer-songwriter” and I sometimes think of myself this way too, but I feel like an outsider in singer-songwriter communities.
JJ: If you were to create a themed tefillah (prayer) service in any genre, what would you choose and why?
FoV: Wow this is a really hard question! I think of prayer as something similar to songwriting and poetry. It has to come to you. You can’t force it. At the moment, I have to say handwashing because I wrote a prayer for handwashing last Passover at the start of the pandemic. It goes like this:
“We express gratitude for the access we have to clean water and soap as we experience diaspora anew. We express gratitude for the soap that scrubs our skin dry but allows us to more-safely provide food and sustenance to our immediate community. We pray that communities such as Gaza, Flint, those imprisoned at MCI Norfolk, and so many others may one day enjoy these same points of access. We pray for a world that doesn’t sustain itself on the exploitation of others through prison labor, unsafe working conditions, insufficient pay, and other forms of legalized slavery. We pray for a world where clean water is a human right for all.”
JJ: Where can people learn more about your music, and support you as an artist?
FoV: Feel free to visit my website and follow me on Instagram. If you enjoy my music, please Buy it on Bandcamp but then Stream it on Spotify. The purchase will help me get paid for my labor and the streaming will help me reach more listeners. I also recently released my debut music video My Name (is Joanna), a multidisciplinary Queer power anthem.
JJ: Anything else you'd like JamJews to know?
FoV: In addition to my work as a musician, I am also the founder of the School of Arts and Social Justice at Make Shift Boston! We are about to launch our 2nd semester and are currently asking folks to propose classes they want to teach and Venmo @makeshiftboston with the note SASJ to support our teacher stipend and accessibility fund.
Photo by Echo Harris, @echoharrisphoto