If you met Lainie Fefferman growing up in New York City, you might not peg her as the future composer of an electronic music album based on women in the Tanakh. Fefferman played classical piano and her Jewish family had little connection to religion. Despite a lack of Torah readings and temple services in childhood, Fefferman still felt strongly connected to her Jewish identity. “I was raised with klezmer music and the Marx Brothers and — you know — Jewish delis and Borscht Belt humor,” Fefferman said. And today, she is releasing her debut solo album, “White Fire,” an electronic exegesis based on the stories of five women from the Tanakh.
As an adolescent, Fefferman fell in love with contemporary classical and the avant-garde: “weirdo 20th century music,” as she put it. While she now walks around with a tattoo that reads eshet chayil in Hebrew — literally translated to mean “woman of valor” — on her bicep, interest in religion originally came through interactions with her college Hillel as a young adult. “I liked the rabbi and I liked the conversations — they felt familiar,” said Fefferman. Much of her 20s and 30s were spent playing and composing music collaboratively, such as through Exapno, the community music center she founded and ran for a decade in Brooklyn. Now, she’s flying solo through her debut album “White Fire.”
The title comes from a teaching that says the Torah has a “black fire on white fire.” The black fire is the literal texts and information while the white fire is everything read between the lines.
It started in 2015 when Fefferman received a commission to write an opera about anything she wanted. “‘There should be some narrative and there should be singing’ — that’s all they gave me,” Fefferman recounted. Amidst a career with a heavy focus on collaboration, Fefferman was ready to do something that was just her — “just Lainie.” She had a year and a half to complete the opera commission, and she pondered what topic she would want to focus on for that span of time. “That was around the time of the 2016 election, and what feminism meant to me was on my mind. I decided I just wanted to sit with women,” said Fefferman.
Now, years later and after a handful of iterations, Fefferman has decided to release “White Fire” on label with Gold Bolus Recordings.
One thing that might surprise you after listening is that the album is completely homespun, from Fefferman’s own recording equipment to the everyday objects and ambient sounds which she would manipulate into the sounds you hear on the album. “DIY-est of DIY,” Fefferman said. “Ninety-eight percent was recorded in my very noisy Brooklyn apartment… I really early on just decided that was a feature, not a bug.” The album features ambient recordings from nearby iconic NYC spots like the Manhattan and Marine Parkway Bridges to the newspaper box outside Fefferman’s apartment: “I kicked it — and that’s my kick drum sound.”
Deceptively rhythmic, Fefferman’s album is chock-full of earworms, the kind which are stick-in-your-head catchy even as they are unnervingly burrowing in your brain. Her lyricism is potent and suggestive, begging a deep and challenging introspection on female identity and the Jewish mythos. All of this, mixed with Fefferman’s keen sonic ear and compositional prowess makes for a truly incomparable listening experience. The album’s five tracks are dedicated to five women from the Tanakh: Rebecca, Lilith, Miriam, Jezebel and Dinah.
The story of Rebecca was a source of awe for Fefferman. “At 13 she’s given the choice by her family [about] what she wants to do. She’s actually just asked by her family, do you want to go with this servant and marry your cousin, basically? And she’s like, yes, yes, I do. What kind of 13-year-old has that bravado and curiosity?” Amidst pounding bass and percussion, Fefferman’s lyrics on the track strike the chord of Rebecca’s enigmatic confidence and youthful conviction.
Fefferman based the track “Lilith” off a particular midrash which characterized the suffering the first wife of Adam, Lilith, was punished with for disobedience and refusing to lay with Adam. “These angels keep coming to threaten her and the final threat they make is, look, if you won’t return, you’re gonna have 1000 babies a day and watch each of them die… it happens for all eternity and she becomes kind of the symbol of miscarriage,” Fefferman said. Her spliced vocals emulate the she-demon Lilith is made out to be as the lyrics show the woman trying to retain her autonomy while enduring an ultimate penance.
Miriam strikes a lighter note for Fefferman, recounting a midrash on the miracle of Miriam’s Well where the elder sister of Moses and Aaron provides water to the Israelites in the desert. Mirroring the wonder of Miriam upholding her community, Fefferman pictured a modern comparison from childhood: the miraculous feeling when fire hydrants were opened in her community during heat waves. “The hydrants get opened, all the kids and people are out, and it’s like ‘thank God — it’s 100 degrees,'” said Fefferman.
Jezebel, for Fefferman, was the most difficult track to realize. Reflecting the figure from the Book of Kings who is defenestrated and fed to dogs for heresy, Fefferman’s track is made almost entirely of manipulated audio of herself screaming mixed with misogynistic epithets. “Some of those words have been said about me to me,” she said. “When I’m empowered and I’m on stage, hearing those words and thinking about those times, then I realize I’m the one in the driver’s seat.”
The final track, Dinah, is maybe the most enigmatic musically and thematically. For Fefferman, the story sheds light on the absurdity of female positionality from the story of the oft-forgotten sister of Jacob’s twelve sons. In one of the Torah’s more unclearly translated stories, Dinah is preyed upon by a Canaanite prince who is then convinced to circumcise all of his male subjects for her hand in marriage before all the freshly-circumcised men are murdered by two of Dinah’s angry brothers. Almost at a loss for words, Fefferman described this story agitatedly. “I don’t know. I just feel so weird. Just telling you the story, my heart skipped a beat,” she said. “I feel weird as a Jewish feminist. Like, okay, we’ve got these twelve tribes and there’s this thirteenth one we maybe should’ve had and we didn’t?”
After years of performing, pondering and pounding on IKEA dishware with microphones at the ready, Fefferman’s thoughts on her solo endeavor remain humble. Reflecting on her experience making “White Fire,” Fefferman said: “It felt like a feminist act to just sit there going ‘I care about women and their stories and I’m gonna take this time to think about it.'”