Ethnomusicology and Parenthood

For our first post of the new year, we are very excited to introduce Dr. Judith Cohen. Dr. Cohen is a Canadian singer and ethnomusicologist specializing in Sephardic, Crypto-Jewish and related music, and the editor-consultant for the Alan Lomax Spain recordings. She did her MA in medieval studies and PhD in ethnomusicology, both at the French-speaking Université de Montréal. Her daughter Tamar Ilana has a biology degree, but works as a professional flamenco singer and dancer, as well as in other music traditions. Dr. Cohen was very gracious in sharing some of her thoughts and experiences of raising her daughter while conducting fieldwork and finishing her PhD. You can learn more about Dr. Cohen’s work on her website and Facebook page.

T Urueña 1991


I never planned to be a parent of a small child while writing a dissertation, much less to be a SINGLE parent, working to pay rent while writing the dissertation, with no close family around. But it worked out that way. My daughter Tamar was born in 1986, when the internet was nowhere near what it is today, so doing online research beyond a slow telnet connection to see what was in the library was not even something one thought about. On a typical cold winter’s day I walked her to day care, lifting her stroller over snowbanks, often by 7:30 a.m., so I could get to the schools where I taught recorder as an itinerant, and, with any luck, to the library; and then picked her up, took her home, fed her, played with her, tried to put her to bed (not usually successfully) and spent much of the night doggedly writing the current chapter. I did not have a TA position or other funding. The day I was ready to hand the dissertation in, a friend of mine came to stay with Tamar, then two years old, while I took the train from Toronto to Montreal, where my university was. I showed her the stack of copies, and said “look! I’m all finished! I just have to go and give it to the university and then I can play with you all summer!” She burst into tears. “Mommy, no! you spent all dat time on dat teesis , and you didn’t play with me, and now you’re gonna give it AWAY to da uniBERsity?? Don’t give it away! KEEP it!!!”

In my post-doc years – and my post-post-post doc years – I took Tamar on almost all my overseas field trips as soon as she was diaper-trained. In North America I took her everywhere from the beginning. I don’t drive, so had no car, and very very little money – trains, buses, occasional lifts. By the time she was eight, she had been to Spain and Israel several times, to Portugal, Morocco, France, Belgium, Turkey, Greece…. She had spent enough time playing with local children in villages to pick up reasonable Spanish, and I sent her to “French immersion” school, and eventually, to a proper French public school in Toronto. She came to conferences with me. I took her out of school quite a bit, and we brought homework, of course – almost no internet, though; we mailed it back by snail-mail or handed it in when we returned home. She got to know children, old women and men, colleagues, cities, villages, museums, playgrounds, universities, amusement parks… She also performed traditional songs in Judeo-Spanish, Bulgarian, medieval Romance languages and others with me and my various ensembles (Sephardic, Balkan, Medieval) from the time she was five.

Today Tamar has a biology degree, but chose music, and is an accomplished singer, of the traditions she learned with me, but especially she is a professional flamenco singer and dancer, has had singing roles in Ukrainian folk operas and in a major production of “Salomé” in Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company; sings with several groups including the one she formed, “Ventanas”, and the Moroccan Sephardic one she sang with me in as a small child, “Gerineldo”.

Tamar’s non-standard childhood was not without its fraught moments, but neither of us regrets it. Not having money, not having a car, not having a partner, not having at least one other child with us—and all before there were cell phones and the internet was in its inefficient infancy—none of that was easy, but neither was it unapproachably difficult.

At 13, my daughter was asked by the then editor of the Canadian Folk Music Bulletin to write something—without showing it to me first—about her experiences as the daughter of an ethnomusicologist. I had just completed a term as President, so they all knew her and she knew them. The article is, I modestly believe, a classic.

T and fieldwork Galicia 1996


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