Rapper Kosha Dillz performing in Ventura, California, June 21, 2015. Kosha Dillz is one of the Jewish highlights at this year’s South by Southwest festival. Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images.

SXSW 2017: 5 don’t-miss Jewish events

Austin, Texas, is known for several things: authentic barbecue, hot weather, cowboys — and, increasingly each year, the ever-growing South by Southwest festival.

What began as an indie music event in the late 1980s has swelled to include multiple conferences on film and technology. Last year, over 70,000 people registered to attend the nine-day extravaganza.

As always, this year’s installment, which starts on Friday and runs until March 19, will feature plenty of Jewish artists, innovations and forums — including a session with the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, about the recent uptick in anti-Semitism. And of course, at least one Purim party.

If you’re headed to SXSW, here are some Jewish events you shouldn’t miss.

Trolls: Lessons from Online Anti-Semitism’s Rise  (March 12, 12:30 – 1:30 p.m., Hyatt Regency Austin)

After writing an article on Melania Trump in GQ last spring, journalist Julia Ioffe received so many anti-Semitic messages, including death threats, that she filed a police complaint. Sadly, she was just among the first of many Jewish journalists and other Jews active on social media to be targeted by anti-Semitic “trolls” — a term commonly used to describe belligerent online provocateurs — over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign. Ioffe, who now writes for The Atlantic, will speak with Chabad Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone about how trolls, once relegated to the fringes of the internet, are now feeling empowered.

Kosha Dillz (March 16, 1:00 a.m. – 1:25 a.m., Scratchouse)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a rapper whose stage name is a Jewish delicacy isn’t your typical hip-hop artist. The Israeli-American Kosha Dillz (real name Rami Even-Esh) has wowed crowds with his freestyle abilities for more than a decade — and he is also known for being able to rap in English, Hebrew, Spanish and Yiddish. According to his South by Southwest bio, he now teaches a class at synagogues around the country on “how to be a Jewish rapper in 45 minutes.” You can catch him at the festival as part of his Oy VEY USA tour, likely spitting tracks from his latest album “What I Do All Day And Pickle,” which he released last year.

YAASSS Queen Esther Purim party (March 12, 3:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m., Jackrabbit Mobile)

You likely have to be a fan of “Broad City,” the uber-hip sitcom created by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, to get why the title of this event is so clever. But you won’t have to get the joke to enjoy this Purim party. Hosted by the Chabad Young Professionals group in Austin, the event will include a traditional holiday megillah reading, a hamantaschen fondue bar, plenty of Purim gifts (known as misloach manot), an open bar and — what do you know — beats from Kosha Dillz.

Orkestar Kriminal (March 15, 1:00 p.m. – 1:40 p.m., Austin Convention Center; March 18, 9:00 p.m. – 9:40 p.m., Russian House)

Orkestar Kriminal is the rare band that lives up to its name, in multiple ways. The Montreal-based group plays (or steals, as band leader Giselle Webber says) songs from the Yiddish-speaking musicians who populated the the criminal underworlds that once flourished in cities such as Warsaw, Odessa and Istanbul. Think one part hyped-up klezmer, one part gypsy rock, one part utter chaos — and a heck of a live show.

Faith & Technology Meet Up (March 12, 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m., Hyatt Regency Austin)

Jews aren’t the only religious group looking to connect their faith with technology at this year’s festival. This discussion will feature the Anti-Defamation League’s Austin Community Director Renee Lafair, who, alongside Christian and Muslim speakers, will address the ways religious communities are joining together on social media to fight online hate.

Commentary magazine donates archive to University of Texas

Commentary, the seminal neoconservative magazine, has donated its archives to the University of Texas at Austin.

Founded in 1945, the New York-based magazine has played an outsized role in American intellectual life as a venue for essays on politics, culture and Jewish issues. Commentary moved rightward along with its editor Norman Podhoretz, who took the helm in 1960, and the magazine became a leading voice of the emerging neoconservative movement.

The Commentary archive that the University of Texas is receiving spans material from 1945 to 1995, including correspondence with S. Y. Agnon, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, William F. Buckley, George Orwell, Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe.

The archive will be housed at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum that already houses the papers of a number of prominent American Jewish writers, such as Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, David Mamet, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leon Uris.

“The early decades of Commentary, especially its first 25 years, should prove to be an invaluable resource for the social and intellectual history of the postwar years and the gradual assimilation of Jews into the mainstream of American life,” said Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said in a statement released by the Ransom Center on Monday.

Commentary was long published by the American Jewish Committee, though it had editorial independence. Commentary became fully independent of AJC in 2006 and is today edited by John Podhoretz, Norman’s son.

Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel): The biggest Jew in country music [VIDEO]

CRAPONNE SUR ARZON, France (JTA)—Think Jews and country music and you’ll probably come up with Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping frontman of the iconoclastic Texas Jewboys, who is also a humorist, mystery novelist and failed but flamboyant candidate for Texas governor.

The real Jewish king of country music, however, is Ray Benson, the nine-time Grammy-winning leader of the country western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

At 6-foot-7, Ray Benson has been described as a “Jewish giant” and “the biggest Jew in country.”

He literally and figuratively towers over the stage in a Stetson and fancy tooled boots, with a grizzled beard and long, thinning hair pulled back in a pony tail.

“I saw miles and miles of Texas, all the stars up in the sky,” he sings in his deep, mellow baritone. “I saw miles and miles of Texas, gonna live here ‘til I die.”

Now 57, Benson was born in Philadelphia but has lived in Austin for 35 years. He talks with a twang, plays golf with Willie Nelson, has recorded more than 30 albums and was named Texas Musician of the Year in 2004.

By his own estimate, he is the only Jewish singing star in the country western scene.

“Kinky’s not a country western singer—he’s Kinky!” Benson laughed during a conversation with JTA this summer at the annual Country Rendez-vous festival in south-central France, where Asleep at the Wheel wound up a five-nation European tour.

Unlike Friedman, however, who makes playing with stereotypes part of his in-your-face persona, Benson has—until now—kept his religious identity out of the limelight.

“I didn’t want to be known as a Jewish country western singer; I wanted to be known as a country western singer who happens to be Jewish,” he said.
“You don’t usually tell your religion or politics on stage,” he added. “For years, because I’m 6’7” and people don’t think Jews are tall, and because I guess I don’t look like the stereotype Jew, most people don’t known I’m Jewish.”

Benson got his musical start as a child in suburban Philadelphia, where he grew up in a Reform Jewish home. He and his sister put together a folk group, and he was only 11 when he played his first professional gig.

“In those days, if you’re a Jewish kid, you go to school, you go to college or you enter your parents’ business,” Benson said. “So, I obviously chose a different path.”

Benson founded Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 along with several friends, including his former Philadelphia schoolmate Lucky Oceans, a pedal steel guitar player born Ruben Gosfield, who now lives in Australia.

The band based itself in West Virginia and California before moving to Austin in 1973. Over the decades, Benson has remained the anchor of the group, while some 90 musicians have moved in and out of its line-up.

On the road much of the year, the band has criss-crossed the nation, playing everywhere from down-home dance halls to the White House—they were, in fact, scheduled to perform there on Sept. 11, 2001.

Asleep at the Wheel has played at inauguration parties for Presidents Bush and Clinton and expect to play for whomever is elected in November. Earlier this year, they played at an Austin fund-raiser for Barack Obama where the Democratic presidential nominee joined them onstage for a chorus.

In the 1970s, when the band first started touring, Benson recalled, country music was a “southern, conservative, Christian, white domain—period,” and he repeatedly came up against offhand prejudice and ignorance about Jews and Judaism.

He cites as an example a member of Tammy Wynette’s entourage, who blamed “the Jews in New York” for failing to promote her career, and had a hard time believing Benson when he told him he was Jewish. Then there’s the wife of a musician who had never heard of Judaism as a religion.

“I asked her what she thought a Jew was, and she said, ‘Someone who’s cheap,’ ” Benson recalled.

“So the stereotypes are there, and they’re still there,” he said.

“I always felt myself to be an ambassador,” he added. “I’m not a great practicing Jew on a daily basis, but I’m Jewish. And so I try to bring to them that we’re just people.”

Recently, for the first time, Benson started doing this publicly, making explicit reference to his Jewish identity on stage.

The revelation comes as part of “A Ride With Bob,”  a musical that Benson co-wrote, based on the life of Benson’s musical hero, the Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, who died in 1975.

Benson stars in the play, along with members of Asleep at the Wheel. Since its premiere in 2005, it has played to audiences all over Texas and elsewhere, including a sell-out performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

The premise is an imagined conversation between Benson and Wills. In it, Wills asks Benson how “a Jewish boy from Philadelphia” can play western swing music. Benson responds: “The same way that a white, hayseed hillbilly from the West Texas panhandle” can play, as Wills did, blues and jazz.

“Basically in this play I confront the issue, and I let the cat out of the bag—hey, I’m Jewish and happen to be the leader of the ‘modern kings of western swing,’” Benson said.

“In the context of the play I was able to reveal this and also give it context,” he added.

The point he wanted to make, he said, is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your religion or background is in terms of music, art or other creative endeavors. What’s important, he said, “is what’s in your heart or what’s in your mind or what’s in your talent.”

Asleep at the Wheel: ‘Route 66’ (live)