NY Music Festival Promotes Jewish Identity, Diversity
by Benyamin Bresky
The third annual New York Jewish Music and Culture Festival is taking place this week culminating in a large free concert this Sunday featuring Neshama Carlebach, Hadag Nahash, David Broza, Yossi Piamenta, a Yiddish and klezmer set and more. The festival began on September 10th and is consisting of over 60 shows throughout 17 different theaters, synagogues and parks around New York. One of the highlights of the festival was a conference, which took place on Tuesday, about new developments in the Jewish culture and entertainment industry. Other events have been participatory workshops, women’s only events, and discussions featuring some of the top names in Jewish music such as Soulfarm, Moshav, Blue Fringe and more.
The brains behind the festival is Michael Dorf, the successful founder of the Knitting Factory theater in New York and a major advocate for development of Jewish arts and culture. Now in his early 40's, Dorf founded the Knitting Factory in 1986. The club hosted a variety of rock groups and other acts but more significantly, became a center for New York downtown Jewish jazz musicians. Longtime collaborator John Zorn, the influential founder of Tzadik Records, was a regular and helped build a scene of jazz musicians who explored their Jewish roots through their music. Zorn is also a performer at the festival this year.
The success of the Knitting Factory led Dorf to expand his horizons and start the festival. The first two years of the festival were headlined by Matisyahu, the Jewish-American singer who went on to hit the Billboard top ten charts this year with his Hasidic influenced reggae.
For Dorf, diversity has always been part of his philosophy. The finale concert's line-up includes musicians from every walk of Jewish life and every musical genre imaginable.
“There's a lot more then what I think most people would define as Jewish music." says Dorf. "In the early days, I produced a big jazz festival called the What Is Jazz Festival. At the same token, I wouldn't mind if this was subtitled the What Is Jewish Music Festival."
Issues of music and identity are a main theme of the conferences. “Sometimes there’s a paradox or a contradiction in calling something Jewish music when its not necessarily at all based in religion or even done by Jews.” comments Dorf. “You don’t have to be a Latino musician to perform Latin music. The same holds in you don’t have to be Jewish to get into klezmer or Sephardic or liturgical music. In Israel, there are great artists who are making music that might be based on religion but it’s not something they’re pushing. For me, the most interesting thing is to ask, ‘what is this music‘? Where is it coming from? What were the artistic impulses of the creator of the music that went into it? How much of it is their Jewish identity, their national identity, their gender identity? These are the more interesting questions.”
As for Dorf’s personal experiences, he grew up in a semi-traditional Conservative Jewish synagogue “When I went to college, I rejected it all.” His interest in his own identity grew after he failed as a record producer in New York and opened the Knitting Factory as a last minute way to make some money. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. “Over the years we've seen a much stronger Jewish cultural set of offerings. More synagogues and Jewish community centers feel that music is a great way to reach a young audience”
For Dorf one of the most exciting aspects of the festival is the opportunity to bring different Jewish people together. “To see in New York, outdoors, a bunch of Hasids with their tzitzit flying and a bunch of people who don't wear yamulkahs or even know what a yamulkah is, all together dancing as one community, that's very powerful.”
The festival finale is called the Jewzapalooza and Dorf envisions it as a parallel to Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo or some of the other popular mainstream rock festivals in the United States. He is expecting over 10,000 people, a significant increase from last year. For the entire eight days of the festival organizers are expecting over 25,000.
The finale concert is free and will take place Sunday Sep. 17th, 2006 at Riverside park at 72nd Street in Manhattan. For more information visit http://www.oyhoo.com
.Benyamin Bresky is recording engineer in Israel and the host of The Beat on Israel National Radio. He is a frequent writer on Jewish and Israeli culture. He maintains a blog on music and culture at http://www.israelneationalradio.com/israelbeat.htm.