New Orleans holds international Jewish music festival

New Orleans is known internationally for Mardi Gras and JazzFest. Could Jewish music be next in line?

At the inaugural New Orleans International Jewish Music Festival, talk was already turning to next year.

The festival, which was held on April 1 and 2, was the brainchild of artist Gary Rosenthal, as a way to bring back Jewish culture in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

After the storm, he found out that one of his favorite dealers, Dashka Roth, had lost her home in the flood. He took on assisting the New Orleans Jewish community as a personal mission, and the Hiddur Mitzvah program coordinated a Chanukah party. Jewish communities throughout the country did art projects, making hundreds of dreidels and Chanukiahs that were distributed at the 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.

The next morning, he had a meeting with Jewish community leaders in New Orleans and suggested the music festival.

Rosenthal also consulted with Michael Monheit, publisher of Moment magazine, which had packaged a sampler of Jewish music with its August 2005 issue.

While Rosenthal originally thought about bringing in one or two artists, both Monheit and the New Orleans leaders suggested it be made into much more, a full-blown festival.

Monheit contacted the 19 artists on the “Moment Anthology, Volume 1” CD. “I did not get a single no among the 19 musicians,” he said. “There were conflicts in schedule, there were people who were ill.”

The artists donated their time, while they were reimbursed for their transportation and lodging.
Some were even moved to do more. Shelley Middleberg, who was the local project director for the festival, said “one of the musicians gave me a wad of cash and said he’d emptied his pushke. I almost started crying.”

Sitting outside the Howlin’ Wolf, the venue on April 1, Monheit explained that the music project he began at Moment was an effort to expose more people to the wide variety of Jewish music. There were 50,000 copies of that CD distributed, much more than most Jewish albums sell. “People have gotten all kinds of gigs off of this.”

Future anthologies will focus on children’s music or female performers.

Monheit said the festival was “a way for musicians to contribute to New Orleans, and do something I’ve always dreamed of doing — put together a Jewish music festival.” It was a decade-long dream of his that became a reality after the hurricane.

He initially went to the artists on the CD because he had worked with them before, and “I knew that they were wonderful musicians.”

The musicians toured some of the hurricane damaged areas after arriving in the area.

“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.”

Efim Chorny, who is from Moldova, said he performs at Jewish music festivals around the world, and this is the first one with such a wide variety of musical styles.

Rosenthal “told me this would be one of the best expressions in my musical career,” Chorny said. “It is the best expression.”

Before the festival began, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars performed a preview at the Ogden Museum on March 30. Over Shabbat, several of the artists visited with the local congregations, serving as guest artists at services. Samuels said that was a way to help get the congregations involved in the festival.

The festival began with an all-star Havdalah. Carol Wise, held the candle while many of the performers on the April 1 lineup combined for the Havdalah jam session. Wise is president of the music festival.

Festival artistic director Will Samuels, who emceed the evening, read a poem about the significance of light, from the Shabbat and Havdalah candles to the light of a rescuer’s flashlight. “The light that brings hope,” he said. “The light that brings redemption.”

Gershon Veroba began his set with a Southern-themed Jewish song — the Shlock Rock tune “Minyan Man,” about finding nine Jews waiting for a 10th on Shabbat evening in the back of a hardware store in Mobile. He said the song was about “being a stranger in a strange land.”

Local artists played with many of the groups. Three local horns players joined Blue Fringe for their set. In some cases, there was improvisation as musicians had not rehearsed together before.

Sam Glaser, Theresa Andersson, Neshama Carlebach and RebbeSoul also performed on April 1.

By the time other performers joined RebbeSoul on-stage for the finale, it was almost 2 a.m. Because of the late hour, organizers added another set for RebbeSoul at the afternoon performance.

The afternoon event was held at Tulane University’s McAlister Auditorium. Joel Chasnoff, Fran Avni, Voices for Israel, Stacy Beyer, Yom Hadash and Efim Chorny performed. The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars finished off the event.

Fran Avni said the festival was “a great opportunity for performers to get together who don’t necessarily play together.”

While the major performers in Jewish music generally know of each other, they don’t cross paths much.

Middleberg said being at the hotel with all the musicians “was wonderful.”

Because the idea was first floated in December, planning for the festival had to take place much quicker than normal. There were some logistical and technical problems, but the musicians took them in stride. Veroba said “It’s nothing in comparison to what New Orleans went through.”

The short time-frame affected fundraising. The festival could not do fundraising locally, and many national groups were already involved in other areas of hurricane relief. In some cases, the timing was off.

In addition to Moment, the festival was sponsored by several family foundations, Whitney National Bank and Offbeat Magazine. DSJV was a media sponsor.

Still, organizers predicted a very preliminary $75,000 for local educational and cultural initiatives, from underwriters and merchandise sales. Rosenthal came up with a spice box with the festival logo that sold in a limited edition. Ten were donated as door prizes, as were three Oreck vacuums.

Ticket prices were kept low to help locals struggling financially after the storm.

There were also schedule conflicts. Because the Saturday night event had to kick off after Shabbat ended, holding the festival during Daylight Savings Time would push the start very late. Then came the unexpected problem of Louisiana State University’s basketball team reaching the Final Four, with tipoff scheduled for the same moment as the festival’s Havdalah program. “There are some things you can control, some things you can’t,” Middleberg said.

About 250 were in the Howlin’ Wolf as the festival began. After a couple of hours, many of the older audience members gave way to a crowd of Hillel volunteers spending spring break working in the area.

About 400 attended the evening session, and another 300 to 400 were at the April 2 performances.

Several attendees made the trip from Mobile. Faye and Chip Merritt drove four hours from Pensacola to attend the April 2 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.”

Middleberg said many issues are things no other festival would face. For example, two bus companies that she had dealt with in the past were unable to help because they lost all their buses in the hurricane. Flights were a challenge, as well as hotel space. Still, “we put this together in three months. That’s remarkable,” she said.

Samuels added, “for a first year event, I was very pleased with how this turned out.”

Julie Oreck Wise, vice president of the music festival, said that with mail service only twice a week, email became the method of choice for coordinating the event.

In the hallway outside the April 2 performances, the sense was that it was time to take the term “inaugural” and change it to “first annual.”

Samuels said this was a “very good base for putting on future events.”

Veroba said the festival audience was “wonderful to play for. These people understand effort, getting something done and taking pride in it.”