Letter from the Director, Joe Alterman
I’ve long been fascinated by what makes something “Jewish”.
I’ve seen hundreds of lists of various Jewish celebrities that, especially when it relates to the arts, always leave me with one question: so what? I understand they’re Jewish, but what does that mean and why does that matter? Sure, they may have been born Jewish, but what is it about their being born Jewish that makes their art “Jewish”?
Now, nearly eight months in my role as AJMF director, I confess that my favorite part of my work has been exploring the question - what is Jewish music? - , which began during my application when I met with several Jewish people in town I know to be music fans who had not yet engaged with this festival. Seeking answers for why they hadn’t, I frequently heard “I don’t like Klezmer music” or “I don’t know what Jewish music is.”
Even though the festival presented much more than Klezmer over the years, I thought long and hard about both comments.
“Ok,” I said to myself. “That will be easy. I’ll simply define Jewish music and we’ll be good to go.” Easier said than done.
“Anything in Hebrew,” someone answered. “Hebrew is the Jewish language, so anything in that language must be Jewish.” Fair, but I recalled a band that sings Johnny Cash songs in Hebrew. Could that really be Jewish music?
“Anything from Israel”, someone else expressed to me. “Anything that comes from the Jewish state is automatically Jewish.” At that point, I’d heard many bands that, had I not known they were from Israel, I’d have thought they were a modern American pop group. Could that really be Jewish music?
Others indicated that Jewish music was anything based off the Torah, which, under that definition, qualified many black spirituals as Jewish music (and maybe they are).
Still others suggested that Jewish music was George Gershwin, while others said it was Leonard Cohen.
It quickly dawned on me that this “easy” task of defining Jewish music wasn’t going to be so easy, but I also realized something else: these answers are fascinating! These conversations are fascinating. The confusion and range surrounding defining Jewish music need not be a deterrent to attend the festival; instead, it can be a reason to embrace it.
Jewish music, I’ve decided, is hard to define because the words “Jewish music” imply a genre of music, and that’s just not what this is: Jewish music is more than a genre of music. Klezmer music is a genre of music; Jewish music, however, is, truly, a cultural phenomenon that touches on nearly every genre of music.
Consider Alan Lomax, who traveled the country documenting rural musicians, with the belief - quoting Ben Sidran’s There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream - that, “by recording and then letting these men and women hear themselves on tape, he could convince them of their worth. ‘When you play this material back, it changes everything,’ Lomax said. ‘All at once, these poor ignorant players see that their music is just as good as anybody else.’” (continued on next page)
As it relates to American popular music, Sidran wrote, “The Jews preserved the roots of black American culture. [They] were responsible for preserving a huge spectrum of American music…and in the process they helped elevate American street life to the realm of high art. And not just the manufacturing and marketing of this music was in Jewish hands; for example, the modern jazz idiom called “bebop” was difficult for many jazz fans to comprehend. But Jewish writers such as Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, and Nat Shapiro took up its cause, explaining to the average fan just why this new music was important, while Symphony Sid Torin, the famous New York jazz disc jockey—[who] attracted thousands of listeners to jazz…similarly championed its cause.”
What’s interesting about the above is that none involves Jewish performers or composers, but all are deeply important to the music that’s shaped American culture. The stories are powerful, inspiring and Jewish, and it’s the story, I’m convinced, that makes music Jewish. Jewish music is not only music composed by Jews and performed by Jews, but also music that has been influenced, in part, and expanded, in part, by Jews to make it uniquely American.
Consider Albert Von Tilzer who, having never been to a baseball game in his life decided to write a song about the game after reading an article in New York Yiddish newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward. Quoting Sidran once again, “The name of the song he wrote was ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ And if you think about the lyrics, it’s a dream about a man who wants to go, who wants to belong to the masses, who wants to participate. It’s a song looking for a community, and he says, “I don’t care if I never get back.” This isn’t just about baseball. It’s about discovering America.”
As Bill Charlap shared with me, “It belongs to the world and it’s all about celebrating the essence of our own culture and realizing that to have that is a gift, and as Dizzy Gillespie said, ‘You can’t steal a gift.’” Indeed!
Welcome to the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival. May you revel in the sounds, soul and joy of celebrating and discovering. May you discover a gift of Jewish music and Jewish culture. I’m so glad you’re along for the ride! I look forward to hearing what gift you discover.