Think of New Orleans music and you don’t usually think of Hebrew or Yiddish song. But Hebrew, Yiddish and English tunes filled the ears of nearly 1,000 music lovers last weekend as a variety of acts — ranging from New York pop singer Gershon Veroba to Moldovan crooner Efim Chorny — converged on New Orleans for a two-day benefit concert.
Organizers said the New Orleans International Jewish Music Festival was expected to raise at least $75,000 for local Jewish institutions shattered by Hurricane Katrina last year. That includes $50,000 in donations already collected from private individuals and institutions, and another $25,000 from the sale of tickets, CDs, T-shirts and other souvenirs.
But this was more than just a fund-raiser: The gathering also brought badly needed joy to a city that has seen mostly suffering in the seven months since Katrina’s deadly visit.
“Music is a very powerful thing,” singer Neshama Carlebach said. “Being in New Orleans has been heavy for me; it’s very difficult seeing all this destruction first-hand. So I hope I can bring some healing.”
A city famous for jazz, blues, Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras certainly could use a little of Carlebach’s healing.
Fewer than 200,000 of New Orleans’ approximately 500,000 residents have returned since the storm. The Jewish community has fared a little better: About 60 percent of the Big Easy’s pre-hurricane Jewish population of 9,500 has returned.
“The idea was to bring Jewish music back to New Orleans,” sculptor Gary Rosenthal said. “You can talk about how important it is to get jobs and rebuild bricks and mortar. But I’m an artist and I focus on spirit and on making Jewish children happy.”
Billed as a sort of Jewish Woodstock, the event kicked off Saturday night at the Howlin’ Wolf, a club in New Orleans’ Warehouse district, then continued Sunday afternoon at a half-filled auditorium on the Tulane University campus.
Organizers had hoped to attract more people, but they were forced to compete with the NCAA basketball Final Four, in which nearby Louisiana State University was a semi-finalist, as well as other Jewish and secular events taking place around town.
Still, those who showed up weren’t disappointed.
“My grandfather saw an ad in Moment magazine and told me about this,” said Tulane student Zack Rothbart, 19. “I think it’s great all these musicians were able to put on such a concert.”
Faye and Chip Merritt drove four hours from Pensacola, Fla., to attend the Sunday show.
“All the entertainers performed very well,” Faye Merritt said. “The diversity of the Jewish music was great. I really enjoyed the Yiddish stuff, because my mother was from Poland.”
Some of the most popular acts included West Coast musicians Fran Avni, Sam Glaser and RebbeSoul, as well as Nashville singer Stacy Beyer and New York’s Voices for Israel and Blue Fringe.
Also well-received was Veroba, whose adapts Jewish lyrics to such 1970s standards as Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” and Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park.”
“Most of us Jewish musicians are just getting by,” Veroba told JTA, “so it’s amazing that so many of them gave up gigs to come here and play for free.”
The event was put together in just three months by Rosenthal, of Kensington, Md., and his friend Michael Monheit, the Washington-based publisher of Moment.
Rosenthal said he came up with the idea after one of his New Orleans clients, French Quarter gallery owner Dashka Roth, lost her home in Katrina.
Moved to help, Rosenthal arranged for his Hiddur Mitzvah Project to create close to 1,000 menorahs and dreidels. Some $40,000 worth of these objects were donated to the Jewish community of New Orleans at a Chanukah party.
“We have fed people in Argentina and sent rabbis to Uganda, but this was the first time I’ve done anything where I actually know the people being helped,” he said.
Rosenthal didn’t want to stop there. That’s when he contacted Monheit at Moment.
“I told him I’d like to have a concert in New Orleans, a free concert at the JCC. He said, instead of one or two artists, let’s have a festival. He said, ‘Gary, why don’t you make a Jewish Mardi Gras? If you’re gonna do it, let’s do it right.’ “
Monheit began contacting the 19 acts on the CD, and 13 of them immediately said they’d play in a festival.
“I agreed to fly them all in,” Monheit said. “It’s a way for the musicians to contribute to the city of New Orleans, and at the same time for me to do something I’ve always dreamed of doing, having a Jewish music festival. Because of the hurricane, New Orleans became the perfect venue for this.”
According to Monheit, the event was produced for $50,000, but only because the artists donated their time. He hopes to make it an annual event.
While local bands such as the New Orleans All-Star Klezmer Band were paid for their time, out-of-town performers were not. The idea was to help local musicians, many of whom also have lost their homes and possessions.
That’s also why admissions were kept artificially low; Saturday night’s show was only $15 and Sunday afternoon’s performance $10. Students were given $5 discounts.
Avni, who’s been singing in Hebrew and English for close to 30 years, said she didn’t have to think twice about performing for free in New Orleans.
“Having a music festival with people who aren’t getting paid, but donating their efforts, is very special,” she said. “We rarely get a chance to do something like this.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.