Amped up: Jewish Music Festival returns with a string of firsts

To create the finale for the 2008 Jewish Music Festival, director Ellie Shapiro will steal a page from the Camp David method of problem solving.

She will lock a disparate group of Jewish musicians in a room and won’t let them out until they come up with something great to perform.

Well, not lock them in, exactly. As artists in residence they will be free to come and go, but considering that the band — newly dubbed the Ark — includes klezmer pioneer Frank London, Ukrainian folksinger Mariana Sandovska and local luminaries like composer-band leader Jewlia Eisenberg, guitarist John Schott and cellist Jessica Ivry, they may be too enthralled by their collective creativity to take many breaks.

London handpicked the participating artists, all of whom he knows and has collaborated with in the past. The finale, a world premiere London is calling “Cyclical Rituals (Part 1): Spring,” should provide plenty of musical fireworks to close out the festival March 29.

It comes after a week of performances across San Francisco and the East Bay, beginning March 22. Other headliners include Cantor Benzion Miller, Israeli percussionist Chen Zimbalista, klezmer bands Teslim and Golem, and London leading a performance of his ambitious klezmer oratorio “A Night in the Old Marketplace.”

The Jewish Music Festival, presented by the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, regularly ranks among the most anticipated events on the Bay Area’s Jewish cultural calendar.

This year marks a string of firsts for the festival.

Although in years past newly commissioned works have been performed, the Ark’s “Cyclical Rituals” is the first new piece of music commissioned directly by the festival.

“I think it’s the first time in the United States that this many artists are coming together for a new piece of Jewish music,” Shapiro says. “It’s very important to us that we be an environment to nurture artists and new Jewish culture.”

Also this year, the festival bestows its first Shofar Award, to be given annually to artists who have made profound contributions to Jewish music.

This year’s recipient, London, is not only all over the 23rd Jewish Music Festival. The New York-based trumpeter-composer and founder of the Klezmatics is all over the world music scene.

“He’s probably the most prolific musician in Jewish music today,” notes Shapiro. “He’s worked everywhere from Senegal to Brazil, and does it from a Jewish place. His sensibility to use music to explore relationships and culture is what our festival is about as well.”

Shapiro’s admiration for London led her to turn the reins of the Ark project over to him.

The idea for a band of superstars like the Ark came to Shapiro last summer while attending the Jewish music festival in Krakow, Poland.

The Polish festival is one of the biggest events of its kind anywhere. However, as Shapiro reports, some of the best music takes place not on the main stage, but in smoky Krakow nightclubs after hours.

There she witnessed London and scores of other great players jamming ’til dawn.

“The all-nighters is where the new music happens,” she says. “I knew this was where music was formed. That energy was what I wanted to bring back.”

So, together with London, she created the artist-in-residence program with the aim of creating a grand new work. Once everyone arrives in the Bay Area, the ensemble will hole up at a secure location and go for it, six hours a day for a week.

“I have so much faith in them,” Shapiro adds. “These are particularly strong artists. Another thing that binds them is they are all grounded in traditional music. Whatever they create will be our closing event.”

As for the rest of the festival’s schedule, the performers span the Jewish music universe.

Opening night, March 22, marks the West Coast premiere of “A Night in the Old Marketplace.” Composed by London, with lyrics by Glen Berger, “Marketplace” is based on a 1907 play by Yiddish master I.L. Peretz.

Inhabited by golems, wedding jesters and the spirits of the departed, “Marketplace” captures a vanished shtetl world while spinning a universal love story.

That would be the love story of Nosn, who pursues his beloved Sheyndele into the afterlife (that’s after she throws herself down a well, as we learn in the opening song, “The Bottom of the Well”).

London and Berger distilled Peretz’s “tragic carnivalshpiel” (as the author once called it) into a 21-song musical, grounded in klezmer yet at times echoing the sounds of Kurt Weill, Tom Waits and even New Orleans soul music.

To stage it at the Jewish Music Festival, London leads an ensemble of 11 singers and players, many of them the same artists performing on the CD version of “Marketplace” London recorded last year.

And that’s just opening night.

The next night, March 23, Brooklyn-based Benzion Miller performs a program of classical liturgy. A prime exponent of the Orthodox Ashkenazi tradition, Miller is one of the most acclaimed cantors in the world. This marks his Jewish Music Festival debut.

In a similar classical vein, the Bridge Players will perform music by Argentinean Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov in a March 23 concert. Also on the program are pieces by Mendelssohn and Gershwin.

Teslim is the newest band led by East Bay violinist Kaila Flexer, late of Klezmer Mania. Flexer teams up with oud player Gari Hedegus and other guest musicians for a March 25 show of Mizrahi and Sephardic music, titled “Ladder of Gold.”

New York band Golem spins traditional klezmer into a kind of neo-punk frappe all its own. They play March 26.

Chen Zimbalista is Israel’s premiere percussionist, specializing in the marimba. He incorporates classical, Jewish and other ethnic music into an original style. Celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary, he plays March 27.

Wrapping up the festivities is the annual community dance party at the JCC of the East Bay. Making this year’s bash even better, the house band consists of London and his colleagues from the Ark project. That event takes place March 30.

But that’s not really the end.

Since its inception 23 years ago, the Jewish Music Festival has grown into a major cultural force, drawing the best the Jewish music world has to offer. And, Shapiro notes, the organization presents concerts year-round, and not just at festival time.

“There are so many talented people now, whereas 20 years ago there were maybe half a dozen,” says Shapiro of the world Jewish music scene. “The field is an embarrassment of riches now.”

Want to go? Here’s how

The following is a schedule of events of the 23rd Jewish Music Festival:

Opening Night: Frank London’s “A Night in the Old Marketplace,” 8 p.m. March 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets: $24 JCC East Bay or JCCSF members, $28 nonmembers.

“The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” by composer Osvaldo Golijov, performed by the Bridge Players, 4 p.m. March 23 at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 290 Dolores St., S.F.

Cantor Benzion Miller with accompanist Daniel Gildar, 7:30 p.m. March 23 at Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1316 University Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $21 JCC East Bay/Netivot members, $25 nonmembers.

“Ladder of Gold,” featuring music by Teslim and special guests, 7:30 p.m. March 25 at First Unitarian Church of Oakland, 685 14th St., Oakland. Tickets: $16 JCC East Bay members, $20 nonmembers.

Klezmer band Golem, 8 p.m. March 26 at the Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St., S.F. Tickets: $18.

Israeli marimba virtuoso Chen Zimbalista and Friends, 7:30 p.m. March 27 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $20 JCC East Bay members, $24 nonmembers.

The Ark presents the world premiere of “Cyclical Rituals (Part 1): Spring,” 8 p.m. March 29 at JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $24 JCC members, $28 nonmembers, $18 students.

Community Dance Party, 4 p.m.-7 p.m. March 30 at JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Tickets: $15 general, $12 JCC East Bay members/seniors/students.

For tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or visit

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.