Jewish Music Festival is ours for a song

One of the most eagerly anticipated events on the Bay Area’s Jewish cultural calendar is the annual Jewish Music Festival.

Set to launch its 27th season next week, the music festival runs March 1-25 at premiere venues across the East Bay and in San Francisco, bringing to our region the best and the brightest in the realm of Jewish music.

So what exactly constitutes Jewish music, anyway? The answer to that question seems to

broaden every year in the capable hands of the festival’s executive director, Ellie Shapiro, who never fails to book a compelling lineup of performers.

Rock, hip-hop, klezmer, jazz, folk, liturgical, Mizrachi: Every musical style has a place at the Jewish Music Festival.

But as our story on page 19 notes, Shapiro took quite a leap of faith this year by programming almost entirely original music. That is, artists and bands on the 2012 festival lineup wrote all of their own tunes, drawing on the rich history of world Jewish music, while giving it a contemporary spin.

And for the sixth year running, the music festival has commissioned a new composition, in this case a song cycle, “Orphic Machine,” written and performed by former New Klezmer Trio clarinetist Ben Goldberg and his jazz ensemble.

By commissioning new work, the Jewish Music Festival plays a vital role in sustaining a future for Jewish music. In an age when budget cuts to the arts threaten our cultural survival, it is heartening to know that a leading Bay Area arts institution continues to step up, to just say yes to new music.

It’s all well and good for this publication to urge readers to attend the festival. Indeed, we feel strongly about the importance of financially supporting Bay Area Jewish community institutions like this, and we never shy away from saying so.

But this is about more than mere dollars and cents, or doing whatever we can for the Jewish Music Festival. Rather, think for a moment what this festival does for us. Can there be any doubt that Jewish music provides food for the neshama, the soul?

Nationwide, there’s been a surge of new interest in Jewish music, from the klezmer revival of the 1990s to today’s Shlomo Carlebach–inspired shul bands like L.A.’s Moshav, the haunting Ladino melodies of the Bay Area’s Jewlia Eisenberg, the Arab-Jewish fusion music of Israel’s Yair Dalal, and — yes — the formerly Chassidic-inspired reggae/hip-hop of Matisyahu. All these genres, and more, have been represented at our own Bay Area festival.

We value what Ellie Shapiro and her festival offer the community, just as we value all of the Bay Area’s creative Jewish energy. We are truly fortunate to live in a place where so much Jewish cultural bounty lies within easy reach. All we have to do is show up and take it — if we’re not creating it ourselves.

We’ll see you at the Jewish Music Festival.