To Life! Festival:Zaatar spices up the festival

Za’atar’s John Erlich says audiences usually find three things most surprising about his band’s music: It’s Jewish, it’s religious and it rocks.

“This,” he says of the Za’atar sound, “is not klezmer.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, the distinctly Mideast-flavored Za’atar will be more than happy to share the stage with a variety of other Jewish ensembles — including klezmorim — at Palo Alto’s fifth annual “To Life! A Jewish Cultural Street Festival” on Sunday, Oct. 24.

But Za’atar is more Yemeni than Yiddish, more kanoun than clarinet. The group plays the music of the Mizrachi Jews from Arab lands, and as that sub-genre of Jewish musical culture increases in popularity, so does Za’atar.

Named for the fragrant Middle Eastern spice blend, Za’atar has been a Bay Area staple since the mid-1990s. The eight members play a number of exotic instruments unfamiliar to most Jews, including oud (lute), kanoun (harp), ney (flute) and drums like the doumbek, bendir, daff and zarb.

And though all eight are highly skilled players, some even trained musicologists, the members of Za’atar keep things fun and folksy when they perform.

“The vast majority of this music has never been written out,” says Erlich. “It’s mostly an aural tradition, so we learn the songs by ear.”

For their Palo Alto appearance, Za’atar will perform its usual set, plus a new Sephardic tune, sung in Ladino. Mostly they sing in Hebrew, set to tunes familiar to most Mizrahi Jews.

Says Erlich: “For the most part, our audiences are not from that background, but when we do get [Mizrachi Jews], the people get excited, especially the older folks who grew up with this music. They hear it rarely.”

Za’atar will be rocking the house in Palo Alto, as will Jews of all stripes and from all parts of the Bay Area. Street festival coordinator Stephanie Brown promises the three stages — one for kids, one for seniors and a main stage — will have something for everyone.

“We have fewer stages this year,” she says, “but even more quality music. It’s shaping up beautifully.”

Other acts on the bill include Yehudit Steinberg and RebbeSoul, aka Bruce Berger, a popular local solo artist specializing in ecstatic Jewish music. Several choral groups will be there as well, including the a cappella female chorale Ya Elah, the Yiddish Choristers, HaShirim and the Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco.

And as a special treat, “The Meshuganutcracker!” presented by the National Jewish Theater Festival, will be performed on the Jessica Saal Memorial Stage, named for a longtime festival and New Bridges volunteer who died in January at age 34.

For the kids, a cadre of storytellers, puppeteers and the first American Jewish Idol competition will be on hand.

A recent transplant who hails originally from Knoxville, Tenn., Brown is having a ball in this, her first year running the festival. “I love the Bay Area,” she says. “And this festival is such a celebration of Jewish art and culture. It’s wonderful that we focus on the things that bring us together rather than things that drive us apart.”

Erlich couldn’t agree more. He’s found that the music of Za’atar, while Jewish in essence, has similarly helped bring together people from varying faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

“The best way we can make bridges is by erasing some of the barriers between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures,” he says. “Whether Jewish, Arab, Persian or Turkish, when people hear us, they say, ‘Wow.'”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.