Under One Tent brings tribe together for books and arts

After the Contra Costa JCC shut down five years ago, East Bay Jews lost more than a few buildings in Walnut Creek. They lost a treasure trove of cultural programming. Or so it seemed.

One of the JCC’s main events, the Jewish Book and Arts Festival, had been a staple for decades. Riva Gambert, then director of community programs for the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, wanted to save the festival. She asked synagogues and other local Jewish institutions whether she could hand off the baton to one of them.

There were no takers. So she handed it off to all of them.

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“No one really wanted to take on all the responsibility,” she recalled, “so we came up with the partnership. This was a way to continue the [festival] as a force in Contra Costa County without any one organization taking on all the financial burden.”

The festival, renamed Under One Tent Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival, emerged in 2012. Now simply called Under One Tent, Contra Costa’s Jewish book and arts festival is still going strong, with the newest edition underway. A mix of author lectures, concerts, comedy, food events, film screenings and more, Under One Tent runs now through January at multiple venues across Contra Costa County.

Among the marquee local speakers and performers: comedian Will Durst, Jewish historian Fred Rosenbaum, Holocaust survivor and author Henry Oster, KQED radio host Michael Krasny and novelist Alan Jacobson.

Musical performances on tap include Jewish blues master Saul Kaye, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell, French Jewish chanteuse Marina Pacowski, and the Makhelat Hashachar Japanese Choir, a Japanese Christian choral group that specializes in Jewish liturgy and Israeli folk songs.

On the big screen, the festival will show several Jewish-themed films, including “Trumbo” and “The Man I Am,” a documentary about five Israeli transgender men.

And for those hungrier for food than thought, Under One Tent will present several culinary events, including a lecture and tasting with author-chef Joyce Goldstein, a pie-baking demonstration by Debbie Shahvar, and a crash course in olive oil held at the Amphora Restaurant in Lafayette.

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Ten East Bay Jewish institutions partnered with the JCC to present Under One Tent: Congregations B’nai Shalom, B’nai Tikvah and Beth Chaim; Temple Isaiah, Chabad of Contra Costa, Diablo Valley Hadassah, Lehrhaus Judaica, the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living and the Federation.

They shared expenses mounting the 34-event festival, and hopefully will share the reward of a more cohesive East Bay Jewish community. “We join together,” said Gambert, “and pool our resources for publicity and in sharing ideas and goals.”

“We worked really hard to get the community to see itself,” added Jo-Ann Jacobson, a JCC board member who also sits on the Under One Tent committee. “This gives us an opportunity to meet. You can go to anyone’s program and meet people, and the benefit is we get to know who we are.”

Ruth Oxman has been a member of the committee for six years. After the closure of the JCC in December 2011, Oxman and her colleagues wanted to save the festival, which had been rendered homeless. Together they hit on the idea of using unused space at local Jewish institutions to serve as stages for festival events.

That’s how it’s been done ever since, as local synagogues and Jewish day schools make up the bulk of the Under One Tent venues.

“It’s a way to bring programming into new places,” Oxman said. “I belong to Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, which is small. There’s no way we could afford to bring in more than one author. Now we can because we’re in a partnership.”

Though the JCC on Tice Valley Road no longer exists, the JCC as an entity is still going strong, according to Jacobson. She hopes Under One Tent, now in its fifth year under that name, will help make the far-flung East Bay Jewish community a bit more cohesive.

“It’s a first step,” she said. “We are trying to find out what the community needs and wants, and how we can bring everyone together. We’re a JCC without walls.”

Under One Tent
, through Jan. 29, 2017. www.underonetent.org

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.