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Water and Oil: An Exploration of Identity

Jenni Rudolphs most recent release, Water & Oil, speaks to her identity as a mixed race Jew.

Jenni Rudolph was just three years old when the teacher at her Jewish preschool taught her the musical notes in treble clef. The recent graduate of the Berklee College of Music admits that it may have been a bit advanced, still it was a pivotal moment, “I truly credit my preschool for nurturing my musical learning from the beginning.”

Rudolph’s most recent release, Water & Oil, speaks to her identity as a mixed race Jew. “My ancestry is Chinese on my mom’s side and Russian Ashkenazi Jewish on my dad’s side, but both my parents were born and raised in the US.” The words of the opening verse speak to the loneliness and isolation that Rudolph often felt growing up. “I was foreign, wherever I went, I kept my spirit in, What a lonely way to live”

Jenni Rudolph holding her preschool photo. (courtesy)

Though Rudolph felt at home in Jewish preschool, she was already conceptualizing race and questioning why she “looked different,” but it was not until “I attended public elementary school where I began to *feel* different from my predominantly white, predominantly Christian classmates.”

Sadly, her Chinese grandmother passed away before she was born and her Chinese grandfather when she was an infant so that the connection to that part of her heritage largely slipped away. And while family celebrations of Jewish holidays and reading books on Jewish themes connected her to her Jewish identity, “the impostor syndrome of being “only half Jewish” started to kick in.”

Rudolph found a home in music. “Throughout elementary school, I was writing songs on the playground daily and my heart was set on becoming a professional songwriter. By the time I entered high school I had amassed a catalogue of hundreds of (now embarrassing) self-produced demos.” Today, with the support of her parents, she has turned this childhood passion into a career. “I was so fortunate to be able to invest myself into this path early on, which I know is not typical for Asian American creatives. Now I get to spend every day doing what I’ve always loved, and working towards more diverse representation in the music industry.”

Jenni Rudolph (courtesy)

“Water & Oil” – both the song and the music video, which is currently under production – “explore themes of belonging and othering, internalized racism and distorted self image, impostor syndrome, fetishization, living in diaspora and searching for “home”, and ultimately, finding joy and pride in my identity,” explains Rudolph. For this project, she brought together “a team of 25 multiracial and multicultural musicians, filmmakers, and artists,” including fellow Asian Jewish American filmmaker Jared Chiang-Zeizel, who shot the music video. “We hope that the project can bring joy and belonging to fellow mixed folks and mixed families, our transracial adoptee friends, the broader Asian American community and the broader Jewish community.”

Rudolph met Chiang-Zeizel while working on LUNAR: The Jewish-Asian Film Project, which Rudolph created together with Gen Slosberg along with “23 cast members, 4 team members, grant funding from the Jews of Color Initiative, and support from Be’chol Lashon. Working on both LUNAR and Water & Oil has truly given me belonging and wholeness in my identity, and I’m so grateful to have these communities.”

“LUNAR was born at a very momentous time for my identity. In spring 2020 my Jewish grandma passed away at 91, anti-Asian and antisemitic hate crimes were spiking, and I began working in an industry that isn’t always welcoming to Asian Americans.” As she sets forth on the musical career that started early in life, expanding visibility and conversation about Jewish identity and racial representation is essential to Rudolph. And she is finding ways to bring together all the elements of her identity. 

“I love that being Jewish connects me to such a diverse global peoplehood. I feel empowered to carry on the strength and resilience of my ancestors. I also find that the Jewish values of curiosity and questioning are very intertwined with my creative process. I’m always looking to dig deeper and uncover truths about myself and the world around me.”