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American Jewish music rocks on


NEW YORK, March 5 (JTA) — In a cathedral-like room whose finish was painted the green of old money, at an upstate New York retreat center that was once the country estate of a wealthy political family, the Jews had the joint jumpin’.

About two dozen leading Jewish musicians, composers and singers had gathered to meet, talk and play for each other at a by-invitation-only showcase put together by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and their work at the conference, titled “New Jewish Musics,” showed that it’s a lot more than klezmer.

It was Jewish music in every genre — classical and jazz, klezmer and American pop, folk and traditional synagogue music, often fusing several together in a single composition.

Their work made clear that it’s a rockin’ time for American Jewish music — wildly creative, energetic and passionate — and that there are no orthodoxies in Jewish music today.

“Like with the rabbis’ commentaries on Gemarah,” said Basya Schechter, a singer/songwriter who leads the band Pharaoh’s Daughter, referring to the Talmud, “no two interpretations are the same.”

The Foundation for Jewish Culture brought the musicians together with a few bigwigs from the Jewish communal establishment and Jewish family foundations — along with representatives of venues presenting Jewish work.

They need to know each other because the artists need more financial support from the organized Jewish community and get little, the musicians said, and because Jewish art should be an explicit part of the “renaissance” now being touted by the Jewish communal establishment.

Jewish artists and the organized Jewish community seem to occupy parallel universes, said one of the retreat’s organizers, Frank London.

“This is one of the most vibrant times for Jewish art, but the rhetoric from the Jewish community is that we are dying,” said London, a composer and trumpeter for the Klezmatics and Hasidic New Wave. “It’s as if I’m living in one world, and there’s a whole other world out there.”

“I live in this seemingly blessed universe where things are thriving. The last 10 years have really been amazing” for Jewish music. “We need to get that spoken about.”

London was referring to the thriving world of grass-roots Jewish culture.

But the organized Jewish community isn’t tapping into the well-spring of creativity that is drawing crowds, said executives with the Foundation for Jewish Culture.

“The communities don’t have a clue about the artistic riches in their midst,” said Jerome Chanes, associate executive director of the organization.

Richard Siegel, the NFJC’s executive director, told the musicians, “Frankly, your voices are not being heard by leaders of the organized Jewish community.”

To date there has been little discussion of including music and other arts in the new Jewish communal endeavor known as the Renaissance pillar of the United Jewish Communities, the mother ship of Jewish organizations.

Even at its current embryonic stage of development, leaders of the Renaissance pillar, in their position papers and strategy outlines, have not much talked about the arts as an integral part of their work.

“There is not one mention of Jewish art in the first position paper” of the Renaissance Pillar, said London. “That’s a shanda fur de Yidden,” he said, turning around the well-worn Yiddish phrase.

“An essential feature” of the Christian “Renaissance was art, and they don’t talk about art” in the Jewish organizational effort to bring about a renaissance, said Rabbi Rachel Cowan, director of the Jewish Life Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which sponsored the retreat.

Part of the problem, conference attendees said, is that, unlike in generations past, Jews today are not being culturally educated by their Jewish experiences — and that major Jewish funders have made day school education and trips to Israel their priority, seemingly at the expense of all else.

“It shouldn’t be either-or,” said Cowan. “We have to create a diverse, astonishing, breathtaking place so that people will want to be part of it, and the community needs your help in articulating an aspiration.”

She said, in an interview, that she is considering taking her board members on a tour of contemporary Jewish culture in order to make them familiar with what’s happening.

Hankus Netsky, who is founder and director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, said the arts “are not perceived as part of Jewish education.”

Jonathan Woocher, the lead staff person for the United Jewish Community’s Renaissance Pillar, wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jewish artists would definitely be included in the pillar’s committee of people who will be engaged in defining how the central Jewish communal organization will try to bring the renewal of Jewish life into Jewish organizations.

But he did agree in an interview, with the critique that London and Cowan were making.

“If we’re talking seriously about a Jewish revival, the arts and culture have to be part of this,” said Woocher, who was not part of the retreat. “The gaps have to be bridged. It’s just a matter of time.”

Few, like Schechter of Pharaoh’s Daughter, come from a deeply rooted religious place. Her music borrows echoes from the prayer-filled cadences of her youth as a fervently Orthodox girl in the haredi world of Borough Park, Brooklyn, weaves them with Middle Eastern syncopation and ties it all in with her hip New York chick’s ironic sensibility to create something totally original.

Other parts of the new wave of Jewish music are rigorously trained musicians who have come more recently into exploring the spiritual aspects of their Jewishness, like jazz saxaphonist Greg Wall, who is a member of Hasidic New Wave.

He almost accidentally met maniacally virtuosic Chasidic guitarist Yossi Piamenta and then began playing at Chasidic weddings with the popular Lubavitcher’s band.

Though he comes from a “passionless, nonparticipatory Reform” background, Wall said at the conference, he has more recently become observant. Today, learning Torah several hours a week is as important to him as practicing his musical craft.

But despite the wildly varied approaches to religion and music of the participants — from the pure religious spirit of Debbie Friedman’s ethereal vocals and guitar strumming, to the operatic classical vocals of Isabelle Ganz, to the avant garde jazz jamming of Anthony Coleman — many had shared the experience of being shunned by mainstream recording executives because they are “too Jewish.”

“It’s still problematic to be out Jewishly unless you work in the Jewish field,” said London, in an interview. “I’ll write a jazz piece that sounds just like Charlie Parker and someone will say that it sounds like Jewish music because it’s coming from me. We do get pigeonholed.”

Even though the musicians feel the Jewish establishment is ignoring them, the joy and creative energy at the retreat made it clear that it’s a great time for Jewish music in America.

Their work also deeply reflected the uniquely American expression of the interplay between the music of Judaism and other ethnicities and religions.

That may have been best summed up by the video that Hankus Netsky showed of a performance he directed of the gospel choir at the Boston Conservatory of Music, where he teaches jazz and contemporary improvisation.

Two African American soloists — a baritone and an alto — backed up by a multiracial but largely black chorus were singing, in full voice, the late Shlomo Carlebach’s plaintive request of God to open the gates of heaven to him, “Pischu Li.”

These singers, whose usual musical diet is composed more of black spirituals than Jewish ones, sang their Hebrew with a nuanced Eastern European inflection.

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