Moscow club offers atypical outreach

Jewlia Eisenberg, lead singer of the American-Israeli band Charming Hostess, rocks the house at Moscow's Bilingua club. ()

Jewlia Eisenberg, lead singer of the American-Israeli band Charming Hostess, rocks the house at Moscow’s Bilingua club. ()

MOSCOW (JTA) – Inside the shabby two-story building, bohemian youth have gathered to share their views on contemporary art, argue about politics and test the assortment of liquor.

The mix of beer glasses clinking, Jewlia Eisenberg singing and cigarette smoke rising create a surrealistic, psychedelic scene inside the Bilingua club on a quiet back street in Moscow.

It’s a club with a marked Jewish and Israeli flavor.

Tonight’s entertainment, the American-Israeli band Charming Hostess, is in the Russian capital thanks to the Eshkol Jewish club, whose stated objective is to present a “modern view on the millennia-old Jewish culture.”

Eshkol coordinator Yuri Sorochkin says the club tries to bring “non-traditional” purveyors of new Israeli culture to Moscow for a reason.

“We try to show Jewish culture as a live, actual, contemporary, here-and-now phenomenon,” says Sorochkin, balancing awkwardly on a bar stool. “Modern young Jews living in megalopolises like Moscow or New York are reluctant to attend synagogues, but they force their way into nightclubs that offer cultural events like tonight’s.”

Bilingua indeed is packed with young people making themselves at home. Few sit at tables, preferring to sprawl on the floor in front of the stage.

Lyudmila Zakharova of Eshkol says this is Charming Hostess’ first performance outside its base in the United States. The current tour, named “The Bowels Project,” aims to attract people of various backgrounds, not just Jews.

“Eshkol’s raison d’etre has been to familiarize non-Jewish youth with the multifaceted nature of Israeli culture,” Zahkarova says. “We present Israeli club music, arthouse cinema, photography, Hebrew language literature, theater and so on.”

The members of Charming Hostess describe their music as “radical Jewish-Balkan-black funk punk-ethnic-anarchic blues.”

Eisenberg, the lead singer who insists on that spelling of her first name, is the sole woman in the ensemble. Two Americans and two Israelis provide the mix of saxophone, accordion, beat box and Cambodian Jews’ harp that gives the group its unusual sound, ranging from sleepy Bedouin vibrations to rhythmical soul melodies.

The group, which records under John Zorn’s Tzadik label, has two CDs – “Eat” (1998) and “Punch” (2005).

Eisenberg waves her hands as she sings, shakes the microphone stand, grimaces and chats easily with the crowd when her harp string breaks, emitting a fiery energy all the while. The audience happily chats with the musicians in English and Hebrew – clapping, whistling and smoking heavily.

“What hypnotic music,” one long-haired girl mutters as she lights another cigarette.

Eshkol has succeeded in attracting non-Jews to this American-Israeli evening; at least half the crowd is not Jewish. Organizers want that mix, even though the club actively promotes Jewish and Israeli music.

“Jewishness is not the principal part of today’s young Russian Jews’ identity,” Sorochkin says. “Shows like these are supposed to be a two-way road. We offer ethnic Russians a taste of Jewish life and at the same time, we remind ethnic Jews of their historic roots.”

No official organizations, such as the Jewish Agency or the Israeli embassy, have a hand in organizing Eshkol’s events. Travel expenses for Charming Hostess were paid by the Avi Chai Foundation, headquartered in New York and Jerusalem, and the Los Angeles-based Chais Family Foundation.

This is the ultimate exercise in Jewish outreach: There is no entry fee, the musicians play for free and everything is funded by the sponsors.

“We don’t even try to bring any officialdom to our events,” Sorochkin says. “It may scare away some people, especially the youth.”

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