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Arts & Culture Founder of N.y.’s Knitting Factory Promotes Jewish Music at Festival


If you’re still trying to answer to the perennial question of “What’s Jewish music?” don’t worry — you’re in the same boat as Michael Dorf, founder of New York City’s Knitting Factory. A music producer of more than 200 titles under the KnitMedia entertainment group, Dorf knows what good music is when he hears it, but Jewish music — if there is such a genre — remains elusive.

That’s partly why Dorf created the Oyhoo Festival three years ago.

“I would like to call this the ‘What is Jewish music? Festival,’ though that’s a mouthful,” Dorf told JTA by phone. “There’s a broad swath of definitions.”

This year’s festival, which runs through Sunday at various New York venues, features more than 60 events including a Yiddish singalong; a hip-hop sulha, or model for peace; Jewish burlesque; a homage to Lenny Bruce, with comedians Lewis Black and Judy Gold; and a two-day conference exploring the Jewish culture and entertainment industry.

The festival attempts to reach not just Jews but to heighten the general population’s awareness of the diverse styles of Jewish music. Dorf said he expected some 25,000 people to attend — “Not all of them, I hope, are Jewish,” he said.

The festival’s Sidney Krum Conference seeks to provoke conversations and develop ties between artists and entertainment industry people to build a business infrastructure for Jewish culture.

“There’s some very strong momentum building — whether it’s because of Matisyahu or Jon Stewart, who says he’s Jewish two or three times a night,” Dorf said, referring to the singer and comedian, respectively. “Getting everyone together in the room creates a strong marketplace.”

How does one differentiate Jewish music from music created by people who happen to be Jewish? It’s a matter a of interpretation, but Dorf mentions John Zorn, a contemporary composer who is performing on the festival’s opening night.

Zorn’s current project, Masada, “examines his own Jewish identity and crosses it with his deep connection to jazz, avant-garde,” Dorf said. “Here’s an artist who’s certainly making Jewish music.”

Dorf’s interest in Jewish music began in the late 1980s, when he started listening seriously to klezmer.

“I started moving my tooshie and dancing, and saw other hippie, beatnik” people doing the same, Dorf said. “I felt this unconscious connection to the Old World.”

Jewish music today crosses all styles, with a growing trend for performers to openly embrace their Jewish roots. Among the Orthodox artists in the festival are Rav Shmuel, a beer-guzzling rabbi who loves the Grateful Dead, and Y-Love, a socially conscious rapper who converted to Judaism.

The festival culminates with Jewzapalooza, a free daylong event that will showcase Hadag Nachash, David Broza, Pharaoh’s Daughter and Neshama Carlebach.

“There aren’t opportunities in the current configuration of Jewish offerings that bring all the tribes together,” Dorf said. “It’s quite powerful.”

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