Violinist Alicia Svigals performs tonight as the closing act to the inaugural Philadelphia Jewish Music Festival.
Saul Kaye speaks for many Jews of a certain age when he reflects on the Jewish music of his youth. “My whole concept of what Jewish music was when I was growing up — it was bad,” he says. “It was one of the reasons why I left Judaism after my Bar Mitzvah — it sounded like a funeral.”
Fast-forward 25 years, and the San Francisco-based Jewish bluesman has done a 180 on his feelings about Jewish music. Kaye will be the opening night headliner at the inaugural Philadelphia Jewish Music Festival, which runs from May 1-9. His change of heart about Jewish music — what it can be and what it can do — underscores what many see as an expanding genre.
Kaye started playing guitar shortly after discovering the blues at age 10, thanks to a compilation cassette that featured artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. He ultimately found plenty of work playing jazz. But, he says, “it was too intellectual. I really wanted my music to hit the audience in the kishkes. It seemed strange to me that we have so much music in our culture, and how long we were enslaved, but there really wasn’t that much music about that experience.
“So I put the African-American musical expression of their experience with our historical experience, and I got the Jewish blues.”
For Warren Hoffman, the director of programming for the Gershman Y, which is producing the festival, Kaye’s story embodies just what he and Ariel Ben-Amos, the festival’s chairman, were looking to feature with the upcoming festival.
“We wanted to provide the spectrum and range of Jewish music” to festival-goers, explains Hoffman. “We wanted music that got us moving and excited us. Saul Kaye and his band play Delta blues — with Hebrew and Jewish texts” — an unexpected and powerful mashup.
Beyond Kaye’s performance on May 1, the eight-day, seven-event festival will bring musicians like standard-bearer Michael Feinstein to talk about and play the music of the Gershwins; klezmer pioneer Alicia Svigals playing her original soundtrack to a silent film; and local singer-songwriter Chana Rothman.
The artists featured represent a history of the evolution of American Jewish music. The klezmer music of Eastern Europe is channeled by Svigals; the Gershwins first honed their craft in New York’s Yiddish theaters; and Rothman’s music synthesizes all of the above — along with Israeli pop and folk songs and world music — to create an eclectic sound that represents the melting pot of contemporary Jewish music in America.
Kaye’s appropriation of the blues, a uniquely American style of music, is a logical step in the evolution of Jewish music in this country, according to David Tilman, the cantor emeritus of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park and a professor in the cantorial program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“There is a basic rule that a community’s Jewish music begins to sound, after a period of time, like the host population’s music,” he explains. He cites as an example his experience last year in Santiago, Chile, where he led a trip of the Cantors’ Assembly and taught classes, led services and conducted choirs throughout the Chilean capital. “What was incredibly joyful to me,” he recounts, “was the music of Jewish Santiago. It sounded like someone had poured salsa on it. Music by American Jewish composers like Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman was being sung with a Latin beat.”
As far as Neil Levin is concerned, the festival is right on target in expanding the boundaries of what traditionally comes under the “Jewish” rubric. Levin, a professor of musicology at JTS and artistic director/editor in chief of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, thinks that the term “Jewish music” is needlessly exclusionary and shouldn’t be used at all. He opines that a more accurate description would be “music of Jewish experience, whether it be secular, religious, folk or cultural Jewish experiences.”
For Levin, who splits his time between JTS and Milken’s offices in New York and the archive itself in Santa Monica, Calif., it doesn’t matter where someone was born, what denomination they belong to, or even if they are Jewish (his favorite example of this is the late jazz great Dave Brubeck’s “Jewish Cantata,” written in 1969 as a call to Jews and blacks to put aside their differences and continue to fight together for civil rights), as long as what they create speaks to an authentically Jewish experience.
He says that the cultural context is the most important determinant for what makes a work Jewish. “Even the most secular Yiddish folk song has a foundation in the religious experience,” he says. If a song cycle is set to modern Hebrew poetry — even if that poetry is about the woods and the ocean — Levin would include it in the archive. “It’s part of the whole Jewish experience,” he explains.
Bob Freedman, of the Freedman Jewish Sound Archive at the University of Pennsylvania, seconds Levin’s inclusive approach. He calls the archive, which he has been assembling for the past 54 years with his wife, Molly, a “catholic collection.” The former lawyer believes that archives like the Milken’s and his own still-growing collection that spans klezmer, Chasidic, cantorial, Israeli and Ladino music, as well as a huge spoken-word section, are more than just historical repositories for scholars. Freedman, who works at the archive virtually every day, says that young musicians come in on a regular basis to do research and gain inspiration.
He adds that these younger musicians has him feeling optimistic not just about the future of Jewish music, but also for the increasingly important role it plays in Judaism itself. “The music can help people find their identity,” he says. “Kids who had no religious background, who had very little interest in Judaism, have come to it through the music.”
Alicia Svigals has seen firsthand the connections Freedman is talking about. The New York-based Svigals helped found The Klezmatics in 1985. The band is often credited with influencing the revival in this country of klezmer, the music of Eastern European Jews that was popular during the 19th and part of the 20th centuries before being consigned to obscurity by immigrants looking to assimilate into more American musical styles.
The music’s rebirth is visible in everything from orchestral collaborations to Golem, the klezmer-influenced punk band out of Brooklyn. “I’m happy to see that our klezmer revival really did take root,” she says. “I think klezmer is going to live and thrive with a connection to the past for this generation, which was my goal.”
Svigals will once again be taking inspiration from past art forms to create new music when she performs at the festival’s closing night on May 9 at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Svigals and pianist Marilyn Lerner will be performing Svigals’ original score for the 1918 German silent film, The Yellow Ticket, thanks in part to a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture that helped bring the event to Philadelphia and other cities. The film stars Pola Negri, the Polish-born actress who became the first European star to appear in a Hollywood film, as a Jew in post-World War I Russia struggling to improve her life.
For Svigals, who had written music for movies before, but never a complete score, it was a new challenge. “Normally,” she says, “you’re writing bits and pieces of music to go underneath dialogue. This is a continuous piece of music,” one that, she adds, had to suddenly become 50 percent longer when she used money from the foundation’s grant to secure a pristine print of the film that could be played at normal speed (the first version she worked on was in such delicate condition that it could only be played at a slower speed). The extra work didn’t bother her, she says. “As I watched the movie over and over, I completely fell in love with it. It looked like photos of my great-grandparents, only moving.”
Diversity also defines Chana Rothman, another artist performing at the festival. Hoffman wanted to include the Mount Airy resident after she was featured at last year’s Philadelphia Seder, where her set proved so popular that Hoffman says he knew she had to be in the program.
The singer-songwriter has evolved from playing solo shows and a debut album she describes as “intensely Hebrew” to having a band join her to play music that she says is now “completely mixed up” in its influences.
The eclectic nature of her music is a reflection both of her musical influences and of her audience’s, Rothman says. “We listen to Bob Marley, we listen to Pink, and then there’s Matisyahu. It’s a true reflection of our society — we all have ways of expressing our Judaism.”
Like everyone interviewed for this article, Rothman is optimistic about the future of Jewish music, and with good reason. She recounted a recent performance, when “a kid came up to me afterwards. He said, ‘Do you remember me? I was in one of your music classes. I’m quitting my job at the synagogue and I’m going to try to make it in Jewish music.
“If anything is going to keep Jews in Judaism, and keep them interested, it’s going to be Jewish music.”
Click on the multimedia tab to the right to see clips of some of the artists who will be performing at the festival.