Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through Feb. 2009


ALTTEXT

Robert Dowd — Pop Art Money — See Jan.17 listing

DECEMBER

Fri., Dec. 12
“Laemmle Through the Decades: 1938-2008, 70 Years in 7 Days.” It must have been an extraordinarily difficult task to select only seven films to represent the rich and diverse history of the Laemmle Theatres chain. But someone did it. For the next week, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles will screen the seven most iconic foreign-language films to have graced the company’s silver screens, each one representing a different decade of its existence. The lineup includes “Children of Paradise” (1945, France), “La Strada” (1954, Italy), “Jules & Jim” (1962, France), “The Conformist” (1970, Italy, France and West Germany), “Fanny & Alexander” (1982, Sweden), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988, Spain) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001, Mexico). Films will screen several times a day. Through Dec. 18. $7-$10. Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ecogift.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” With a long list of Top 40 favorites, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway,” this musical mishmash of Leiber and Stoller hits is ideally jubilant for the holiday season. Since its 1995 premiere on Broadway, the 39-song revue has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, won a Grammy Award for the legendary duo’s songs and featured special appearances by megastars such as Gladys Knight, Gloria Gaynor and Rick Springfield. Starring in this NoHo production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” are DeLee Lively, Robert Torti and a host of other talented stage veterans. Special performances include tonight’s opening night gala and two New Year’s Eve shows, one with a champagne reception, the other followed by an all-out party with the cast. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Through Jan. 4. $25-$150. El Portal Theatre, Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.benjamintrigano.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Moonlight Rollerway Holiday Jubilee.” Charles Phoenix is addicted to thrift store shopping. Luckily for us, Phoenix has put together a collection of the goodies he has found. Now, Moonlight Rollerway, which calls itself Southern California’s last classic roller rink, is presenting Phoenix and his quirky, retro holiday slide show. The viewing event will be followed by a roller-skating revue spectacular, featuring 75 championship skaters and celebrating the entire year’s holidays, including Cinco de Mayo and Valentine’s Day. Snacks and an after-show skating party are included. 8 p.m. Also, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. $35. Moonlight Rollerway, 5110 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 241-3630. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mbfala.com.

Sun., Dec. 14
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Annual Winter Concert. There is an Academy Award-nominated documentary about this choir. It has toured Brazil, China, Italy and Poland, among other nations. And since its inception in 1986, the chorus has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Approximately 250 talented and dedicated children between the ages of 8 and 12 make up the LACC. The angelic voices of these preteen choristers will bring to life works by composers such as Aaron Copland, Pablo Casals, Randall Thompson and J.S. Bach in a winter concert inspired by literary luminaries Robert Frost, William Shakespeare and others. The program follows the 2008-2009 season theme, “The Poet Sings,” and features a varied selection of classical, folk and contemporary pieces. 7 p.m. $24-$42. Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 793-4231. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lamoth.org.

Mon., Dec. 15
Reel Talk: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Stephen Farber, film critic for Hollywood Life magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, has been treating audiences to sneak previews of the industry’s hottest films for more than 25 years. The veteran film buff concludes this year’s preview series with a fascinating film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backward. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the odd tale is already making waves and is set to hit theaters during prime-time movie-watching season, Christmas. The screening will be followed by a discussion with members of the filmmaking team, including Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West. 7 p.m. $20. Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lacma.org.

Tue., Dec. 16
Carrie Fisher presents and signs “Wishful Drinking.” It’s not easy being an action figure before you can legally drink a beer, but that didn’t stop Princess Leia from having one, or two, or many more. Fisher’s first memoir, adapted from her one-woman stage show, is a revealing look at her childhood as a product of “Hollywood in-breeding” and her adulthood in the shadow of “Star Wars.” After electroshock therapy, marrying, divorcing then dating Paul Simon, a drug addition and a bipolar disorder, Fisher still manages to take an ironic and humorous survey of her bizarre life. Meet Fisher and get a copy of her book signed at this WeHo book haven. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Fri., Dec. 19
“Peter Pan.” Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, pirates, Indians — we know the cast of characters well. But how many of us have actually seen a full production of J.M. Barrie’s classic fantasy play, “Peter Pan” — especially one that features the complete musical score by Leonard Bernstein? Composer Alexander Frey — who helped reconstruct portions of Bernstein’s score that had been previously lost for a special CD — is flying in from Berlin to conduct the live orchestra. 7 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Dec. 28. $30-$70; $10 (seniors and students). Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. (805) 963-0761. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Wed., Dec. 24
“49th Annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration.” Los Angeles’ biggest holiday show, featuring 45 groups and 1,200 performers, is a proud tradition — and it’s absolutely free! Running approximately six hours, the holiday extravaganza features the county’s cultural diversity. This year’s highlights include hip-hop group Antics Performances, South Bay Ballet and Grammy-nominated Lisa Haley and the Zydekats. Audiences will have the opportunity to listen to sounds and see sights from the world over, including Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. For those of you who can’t make it to see the event in person, KCET-TV will also be airing the event live. Sponsored by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and produced by the County Arts Commission. 3-9 p.m. Free. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3099. http:www.holidaycelebration.org.

JDub throws off the label and opts for change




Golem live (‘Romania, Romania!’) at the Knitting Factory in NYC June 2007

JDub was never supposed to be just a record label, and as JDub records celebrates its fifth anniversary with a free concert on July 27 downtown at California Plaza, it is more clear than ever that the organization’s founders have greater ambitions than merely putting out good Jewish CDs.

Aaron Bisman, who co-founded the label with Jacob Harris when the duo were finishing college in New York, readily admits those ambitions.

“We believed there were legs for the idea behind the label,” Bisman says, his eyes alight with the passion of someone who after a half-decade is still excited by what he is doing. “We wanted to change attitudes about Jewish music and culture. We wanted to create something for young Jews, our contemporaries, to create spaces and music that would make them want to be there.”

And it wasn’t about making money. What sets JDub apart from other Jewish music purveyors is their not-for-profit status, which allows them to seek grants and work closely with other Jewish nonprofits. The Six Points Fellowship program, a partnership among the label, Avoda Arts and the Foundation for Jewish Culture, substantially funded by UJA-Federation of New York, is a good example.

“We wanted to bring together artists who had never done a specifically Jewish project before,” Bisman says.

The two-year fellowship program provides 12 artists with a living stipend, financial project support, professional development workshops and ongoing peer- and professional-led learning opportunities.

The vision has already begun to bear fruit. Having built a strong foundation in New York, Bisman and Harris have begun the slow, hard work of expanding their outreach to Los Angeles and other cities with a substantial Jewish presence. They have already cleared a major hurdle, receiving a “Cutting Edge” grant of $250,000 from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. In the long run, the idea is to create spaces and events for young Jews, whether affiliated or not, with the goal of making Jewish culture cool.

“They have figured out a way to allow their contemporaries to find a way to comfortably express themselves,” says Marvin Schotland, CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation. “It’s another way in a complex environment to test what will attract other people to get comfortable with their identity and to take some step beyond showing up at a concert. JDub has the capacity to get them to show up at a concert, but they’re interested in doing more than that, and they are interested in connecting with other participants in the Jewish community. We believe this initiative will have a major impact on the Jewish community in Los Angeles.”

Of course, no one is expecting an overnight transformation of Los Angeles’ diverse, diffuse Jewish community. JDub’s program is designed to build gradually, creating links between self-identified Jews in the arts communities, the Jewish communal world and audiences. And somewhere along the road, JDub also hopes to nurture new bands and performers to sign to their label.

In the very short term, the July 27 concert is a useful launching pad for JDub in Los Angeles, highlighting two of their bands — Golem, a hard-driving klezmer-punk-gypsy fusion, and Soulico, a powerful crew of Israeli DJs whose guests for this performance will include the Ethiopian-Israeli MCs of Axum and Sagol 59, the grand old man of Israeli hip-hop. In its sheer atypicality, the double-bill is typical of JDub, Bisman says.

“Both [bands] help us fill in the picture of the diversity of the world of Jewish music we’ve always been striving for,” he says. “Eastern European Jewish — and non-Jewish — folk tunes played as rock and punk, led by an amateur female ethnomusicologist, and an Israeli DJ crew building original hip-hop out of Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms.”

Not coincidentally, both groups have new CDs scheduled for release in early 2009. (Hey, we said they weren’t just a record label.)

“New York has been our base of support and our home,” Bisman says. “But our plan is to grow as a national organization, to find artists and funding outside New York City.”

Schotland is optimistic.

“For us, while the art is significant, it’s the vision they have for the utilization of the art to provide a way for young Jewish adults to identify with their Jewish identity [that] was most impressive about their proposal,” he says. “The proof of the pudding will be five years from now.”

Golem, Soulico, with Sagol 59 and Axum as guest artists, and Slivovitz and Soul will be performing free at Grand Performances (California Plaza, Waterfront Stage) on Sunday, July 27 at 7 p.m.

Originality trumps repetition in the holiday songs battle


I will be frank. I’m tired of hearing the same holiday songs over and over. So the best Chanukah present I’ve received this year is a pile of Chanukah-themed CDs with lots of new holiday songs, many of them quite good. Here’s what crossed my desk this December.

The Klezmatics: “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah” (JMG) and “Wonder Wheel” (JMG). I wasn’t that enthused by the “Matics” Guthrie Chanukah set when it was released last year, but I have to admit I was wrong.

This is a spirited, jaunty and frequently funny set that should be particularly appealing to children (and will give their parents a respite from “The Dreydl Song”). The set adds four instrumental tracks to last year’s release, allowing the band to stretch out and show their chops, but my favorite is a carry-over, “The Many and the Few,” a classic example of Guthrie’s skill at rendering narratives into song lyrics redolent of ballad classics.

“Wonder Wheel” continues the Klezmatics’ collaboration with the Guthrie Archives, which is looking like a very fruitful pairing indeed. Drawing a wide range of moods and tones from the archives collection of previously unset lyrics, the band gets to show off its considerable range, from a funky faux-Latin “Mermaid Avenue” to a lovely Calpyso-ish lullaby “Headdy Down,” from a weirdly Asiatic/alternative-country “Pass Away” to a klezmer “Goin’ Away to Sea.” One of the surprises of the set is how profoundly spiritual some of the Guthrie lyrics are. One expects the good-natured progressivism of something like “Come When I Call You” and “Heaven,” but the deeply felt religious feeling of “Holy Ground” is unexpected and moving.

The LeeVees: “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” (JDub/iTunes). When the LeeVees’ “Hanukkah Rocks” came out on JDub last year, I wrote, “Alt-rock heavies Adam Gardner of Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis felt that the post-punk world desperately needed a Chanukah record of its own…. The result is a very funny, smart self-satire, with adolescent agonies turned into the difficult choice of sour cream vs. applesauce (‘Tell your mom to fry, not bake’) and of not getting presents (well, there are ‘six-packs of new socks from each of our moms’).” Now, they have added an EP, mostly of playful acoustic versions of the previous Chanukah tunes and a punchy new tune “Jewish Stars,” downloadable from iTunes. Like the originals, these are amiable, bouncy and witty rockers. Thirteen minutes of pure pleasure.

The Lori Cahan-Simon Ensemble: “Chanukah Is Freylekh!” (self-distributed). This is a very jolly set of European-style performances — tsimbl and fiddle predominate, no brass — that often feels like a family gathering. And that’s appropriate, because the CD comes with dance directions for kids, as well as the usual translations, bios and such. It is a delightful recording, fueled by Cahan-Simon’s warm, friendly sound. Available from Hatikvah Music, (323) 655-7083 or hatikvahmusic.com.

Poppa’s Kitchen: “A Rockin’ Hanukkah” (self-distributed). A cheerful MOR-rock set of new Chanukah songs from Robert Romanus (who you may recall from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Scott Feldman. The EP (only 21 minutes) has one song for each night, a cheerful blend of California rock and holiday spirit, witty lyrics and some hook-filled tunes. Available from cdbaby.com.

Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman: “Fli, Mayn Fishlang! Fly, Fly My Kite!” (Yiddishland). It is devoutly to be hoped that casual listeners will not dismiss Schaechter-Gottesman as the “flavor of the month” because she has become so prominent of late; she has more than earned the attention, and I, for one, hope it continues for a long time. The quality of musicians she attracts is one mark of how good she is — this set includes contributions by Lorin Sklamberg, Binumen Schaechter, Matt Darriau and Ben Holmes. This CD features her Yiddish children’s songs, which have a charming wistfulness that reminds me more of a French chanson than anything else. There are also songs for several holidays (including a couple of Chanukah tunes) and, as usual from Schaechter-Gottesman, a lot of yearning lyrics about the changing of the seasons. Available from yiddishlandrecords.com.

Julie Silver: “It’s Chanukah Time” (HyLo). Of course, there is another way to pep up those tired traditional holiday songs — you can reinterpret them, change the lyrics around, make them contemporary. This is often a recipe for disaster, but Silver’s “The Dreidel Song” reworked as a frisky country rocker works wonderfully (almost hilariously) well, and sets a high standard for the rest of this set. A reggae “Al Hanisim” and a Latin-flavored “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” work almost as well. The only problem with this approach, even when it’s done right, is that the focus shifts from the message of the holiday to a guessing game: What’s next, a goth-metal “Mi Yimalel,” “Maoz Tzur” as a morning raga? Silver doesn’t do anything that absurd, so the set doesn’t spiral out of control, but there is an inevitable lingering doubt in the listener’s mind that some of the choices were motivated by the need for the unfamiliar rather than the musical possibilities. Still, it’s a nicely played and sung set. Available from hyloproductions.com and at Barnes & Noble.

In addition to these Chanukah-themed recordings, there are two big-ticket items to keep in mind when doing your year-end gift shopping. The ongoing partnership between Naxos Records and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music has resulted in 50 CDs showcasing the remarkable range of Jewish American music; although they will continue to issue new recordings on a regular basis, they are celebrating this milestone by offering a set of those first sets. The deluxe box set of all 50 Milken Archive CDs will be available for $349, a savings of $100 if purchased individually. Available at milkenarchive.org.

If you are feeling less ambitious or less solvent, or if you know an aspiring Jewish musician, you should consider Yale Strom’s latest project, “The Absolutely Complete Klezmer Songbook,” published by Transcontinental Music. This volume boasts more than 300 songs that Strom has collected in his travels through the Old Country, and comes with a CD that features his performances of 36 of them. At $49.95, it is a must for anyone interested in East European Jewish music. Availble wherever music books are sold.

George Robinson, film and music critic for Jewish Week, is the author of “Essential Torah” (Shocken Books, 2006).

Jazz and Classical in Perfect Harmony


Throughout his career, musician Uri Caine has gambled that he could find a niche in unconventional musical settings — and he’s usually won. His body of work includes hard-swinging jazz, contemporary imaginings of Jewish musical themes and controversial reworkings of hallowed masterpieces by Bach, Beethoven and Mahler. Not only has the 49-year-old Caine dared to alter the notes written by classical masters, but he’s also incorporated decidedly nontraditional sonic elements into his recordings — like D.J. effects and the voice of a Sephardic cantor.

For his next daring feat, as the composer-in-residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), Caine will debut a concerto for two pianos and chamber orchestra this month in Los Angeles, incorporating improvisation between his piano and the piano of LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane, as part of a salute to Mozart in the year marking the 250th anniversary of his birth. Caine’s piece is hardly a clich├ęd “jazzing up” of Mozart. Instead, the new composition uses the Austrian master as a point of departure for a composition written in a contemporary musical language that is very much Caine’s own.

“People ask me, ‘How do we categorize this music?'” says Caine, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his wife, artist Jan Caine. “‘Should we put it in the classical department or put it in the jazz department?’ As an idealist, I say put it in both. See what happens.”

LACO’s Kahane, whose musician son Gabriel first urged his skeptical father to explore Caine’s music, says that because of the composer’s unusual level of mastery in multiple genres, Caine does far more than simply translate a classical style into a jazz idiom.

“He’s literally reimagining the music and placing it in a great many different contexts,” Kahane says. “His stylistic vocabulary is so vast, and he’s so skillful in moving from one vocabulary to another, that he’s able to use all these different languages as commentary on the piece — and uses the piece to comment on other pieces, and other pieces besides the piece to comment on it. One of the wonderful things about Uri is that you don’t know what’s going to come out.”

Caine has had his ears wide open to a broad musical palette ever since he was seduced by the jazz, classical, funk and pop music of Philadelphia as a teenager in the mid-1970s. His musical education also had a distinctive Jewish flavor; as the son of two professors who diligently taught their children “Eliezer Ben-Yehudah” Hebrew, Caine ended up hearing a lot of Israeli pop and Sephardic music. The family would sing Jewish folk songs together around the table.

“My parents grew up in the generation of young people after the Holocaust — and they were embracing the Hebrew movement,” Caine says. “They weren’t religious necessarily, but at some point they thought about moving to Israel, even though they never left — they still live in Philadelphia.”

After studying with prominent composers George Rochberg and George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania, and heading off to nighttime jam sessions that sometimes included jazz legends Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley, Caine spent time finding himself. After stints in Philadelphia and Israel, Caine decided in 1985 to move to New York City, perhaps the most vibrant but challenging jazz city in the world.

Caine credits his successes today to a willingness to stick with his musical vision through lean times.

“Follow that instinct,” he urges young musicians. “It’ll happen, if you work hard, and you can keep moving somehow.”

Caine’s critical buzz arrived with the release of Urlicht/Primal Light, a bold re-imagining of various Mahler compositions, released in 1997. While tradition-minded listeners objected — some walked out in protest at a 1998 performance in Toblach, Italy — the piece received a composer’s prize for best Mahler CD of the year.

Caine thought of the Mahler project in the manner of a jazz musician interpreting an established work. Just as in the 1960s, Miles Davis would reconceive a tune written by Cole Porter, so Caine would transform Mahler’s teeming stylistic soundscapes. Inescapably, some listeners saw the piece as an artistic reaction that embodied Caine’s Jewish identity, because of Mahler’s ultimate conversion to Christianity.

“Maybe, if you’re a German, you’re looking at the project as this New York Jewish person reinterpreting Jewish music — on the one hand, that seems very racist, because everything is reduced to that,” Caine says. “On the other hand, I understand it. Mahler’s life is a very interesting subject from that point of view.”

Caine is fascinated by the complexities of Jewish identity, but resents having the aesthetic breadth and complexity of his work reduced to a simple religious or political message: “The artist should be free — I mean everybody should be free — to like what they like, and not have to be pressured by the group.”

Still, Caine is hardly dismissive of his Jewish background: “It’s that conflict between an individual just trying to embrace different things and use everything that is out there. And also the reality that you come from a tradition. A very long, proud tradition of survival and innovation and creativity.”

Caine’s own work is also marked by inventiveness. And yet, say admirers, he’s the rare bird who can take on intellectually demanding projects without drowning in pedantry. His work can be complex without losing its playful vitality.

Uri Caine will premiere his “Concerto for Two Pianos and Chamber Orchestra” on May 20 at 8 p.m. at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Boulevard, Glendale, and May 21 at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA campus. $22-$80. For more information, call (213) 622-7001 ext. 215, or visit

When Faiths Jam


At the Southern California Islamic Center last Saturday night, only Shawn Landres dared utter a four-letter word. That word was, “kumbaya.”

Yes, the evening brought together about 150 Jews, Muslims and Christians for a night of prayer and music at the center, which had never before hosted such a gathering.

And yes, it began with a drum circle.

But if the faithful had one thing in common, underneath their kippahs and collars and hijabs, it was that not one of them wanted this night confused with those circa-1970-“Free to Be You and Me” warm and cuddly attempts at interfaith dialogue. No, this was Faith Jam 2006.

And the biggest difference between those previous attempts at ethno-religious harmony and this one? This one seemed to work.

Musician and community organizer Craig Taubman had wanted such an event to be part of the weeklong “Let My People Sing” celebration. The Passover-themed musical happenings took place in synagogues and community centers throughout L.A. An interfaith component, he told me, fit the theme: “Passover is about liberation, and we’re enslaved by our hatreds.”

Organizing took finesse. Taubman tapped Landres, director of research at Synagogue 3000, to use his ample interfaith Rolodex. He brought on 16 Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups as co-sponsors, including Abraham’s Vision, IKAR, Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

The Islamic Center came on board enthusiastically, according to its religious director, Jihad Turk. But there were conditions: grape juice, not wine, for Havdalah; no dancing; appropriate dress; and no overt mention from the Christians of Jesus as God or the messiah. The center vetted the gospel choir’s songs, and in the program its name, The Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church Choir, became COR A.M.E.

Another concern was overloading the event with Jews, a drawback of interfaith dialogues past. Landres compiled three R.S.V.P. lists and cut off the Jewish respondents in order to ensure equivalent amounts of Muslims and Christians. By 8 p.m. the place was full, the drumming had stopped, and Turk quieted the crowd with the traditional, piercing Muslim call to prayer.

The evening had three acts. First came ritual. Taubman and Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, another co-sponsor, lit the traditional Havdalah candle, woven together from three wicks.

“This night and nights like this are so long overdue,” Rabbi Levy said. “Tonight we pray to come together to celebrate our differences and treasure our oneness.” (The rabbi also happens to be my wife, but no person of any faith seemed to hold that against her.)

The Rev. Wilma Jakobsen of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena gave a brief sermon, urging the audience members to work within their faith traditions to help the poor and oppressed.

Then Turk invited everyone to shed their shoes and join the center’s men and women for the traditional evening prayers, or isha, men shoulder to shoulder in front, women behind them. “We hope to get a better understanding of who the Other is,” Turk said.

Several Jews migrated over to the prayer room and lined up as the prayer leader led the worship. It was the full-on experience — standing, kneeling, bowing — just what you see on the evening news but with, yes, some Jews and Christians sprinkled in. I mentioned to a woman standing nearby that the young man leading the prayers, Abdelwahab Ben Youcef, was almost unnaturally handsome.

“Oh, he’s an actor,” she said. “He played one of the Palestinian terrorists in ‘Munich.'”

After the ritual came the main program: the music. The Christ Our Redeemer gospel choir lit up the room, followed by Ani Zonneveld, a Muslim recording artist and head of the co-sponsoring Progressive Muslim Union. Then came the Yuval Ron Ensemble, whose Middle Eastern music, with its organic blending of Muslim and Jewish roots, enthralled the crowd (their CD table did brisk sales) and MC Rai, a Tunisian-born Muslim hip-hop artist. Two comedians, the Jewish Beth Lapidus and the Muslim Maz Jobrani provided comedy breaks.

And afterward came the mingling.

Why was this night different from all other attempts at interfaith dialogue?

First, the crowd skewed young. Because the agenda was largely musical, the night brought out young Jews and Muslims, the demographic that wanted a fun night out, not a lecture.

Second, the ritual wasn’t dumbed down. People who knew their stuff conducted Havdalah and the Muslim evening prayer, without abridgment or reinterpretation. I asked Landres why that was — and that’s when he said the word.

“We’re not doing ‘Kumbaya’ where we all get together and hug,” he said. “This is the way a new generation does dialogue.”

What Landres seemed to mean was: There was no dialogue. We didn’t have to sit in a circle and look into the Other’s eyes and tell him how we feel. No one led a pointless discussion about Mideast peace — as if we have any say in it.

“It’s just breaking the ice,” Turk told me, “and music goes beyond words.”

Actually, I noticed only a modest amount of real mixing. Most people hung with their own, enjoying the music, baklava, mint tea and enhanced bottled water beverage. The reviews were positive.

Islamic Center members Nadim and Gita Itani — he’s Lebanese, she’s Iranian — pronounced it good.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Nadim, a 30-something architect. “And it’s about time.”

The apparent success of the enterprise gave him hope.

“It’s foundational,” he said. “Singing beside a Jew as we close the Sabbath, that’s when you get goose bumps.”

A young Palestinian American who only wanted to give his name as Muhammed — “I work in the entertainment industry,” he explained — said the Havdalah ritual he witnessed touched him, too.

“We have to all get together,” he said. “People who are opposed to this kind of night, they shouldn’t even be in this country.”

Now that kind of intolerance? It’s a beautiful thing.

 

PASSOVER: Songs for a Swinging Seder


Of all the Jewish holidays, none is so firmly rooted in the home and so joyously celebrated with song as Passover. This simple fact would lead you to expect an avalanche of Passover records, but this year the avalanche is more like a mild rain of pebbles, at least in the quantity department. The quality is pretty high, but don’t count on finding much for your own seder table. These records should come with the warning: “Trained singing professionals; do not try this at home.”

The two most unusual and interesting of the four new CDs both use hip-hop as a touchstone. Samples, cut-ups, rapping, multiple overdubbing with hard beats — the usual package — used artfully by Craig Taubman on “The Passover Lounge” (Craig + Co.) and Josh Dolgin, better known as SoCalled, on “The SoCalled Seder: A Hip-Hop Haggadah” (JDub).

Taubman’s outing is more musically conservative, generally staying close to the familiar holiday tunes and drawing on a trippy vibe that nicely complements his breezy tenor singing. Co-producer Luke Tozour provides some tasty beats and samples and a lot of friendly ambient sound. (Hey, guys, my seder never sounds this mellow — where is all the screaming and yelling?) It’s a nice little package that turns the Four Questions into juicy, dreamy funk and the recounting of the plagues into something like “old-skool horror” rap. If Taubman has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, the humor is affectionate and endearing.

SoCalled, unsurprisingly, is after something tougher, with more street cred and a straight-razor edge. Taking samples from old how-to-do-a-seder records and slicing and dicing them into a bubbling stew of breakbeat sounds, scratching from P.Love, klezmer instrumentals from Elaine and Susan Hoffman Watts, high-powered sax funk from Paul Shapiro, and a startling rap from Killah Priest on the plagues, he has created a Pesach for downtown hipsters. I love it but I’m pretty sure my zayde would not. As the old joke goes, if he were alive, this would kill him. Be forewarned.

If you are seeking a more traditional Passover recording, you might be more comfortable with “The Spirit of Passover: Voices of the Conservative Movement” (Cantors Assembly/United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), a sampler that was actually released last year but which didn’t turn up on my desk until a few weeks ago. The current issue of Judaism is devoted to a long discussion of the current state and possible future of the Conservative movement, but if you want a truly vivid portrait of the many directions in which its adherents are pulling, this CD is the thing.

The record opens with a burst of Hollywood Strings-style kitsch that suddenly turns into a veritable explosion of “Ki Lo Na’eh/Had Gadya” sung by the Three Jewish Tenors. Meir Finkelstein, Alberto Mizrahi and David Propis sound like the musical equivalent of human cannonballs on this gleeful tribute to Moyshe Oysher, but it’s not a great idea to open a record at this energy level, because anything that follows is bound to be a letdown.

And much of what follows is a new-agey, Celine Dionish ode to Rebbe Nachman written by Jeff Klepper and sung by Eva Robbins, although nothing is quite so dire as “The Empty Chair.” Things couldn’t get worse than that and, fortunately, they don’t. Indeed, there are some real high points: a lithe “Dayeinu” performed by the Syracuse Children’s Chorus, a supremely simple but powerful “Hodu Ladonai” from Sam Weiss, a haunting “Livbavtini” in which a multitracked Ramon Tasat duets with himself and an audacious “Prayer for Dew: Tal” in which Moshe Schulhof sings with a recording of the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt. If you look up “chutzpahdik” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a photo of Schulhof, but to his everlasting credit, he holds his own with the man most consider the single greatest hazzan of all time. (Available from www.TheSpiritSeries.com.)

The final entry in this year’s Pesach sweepstakes is a somber one, Max Helfman’s “Di Naye Hagode” (Milken Archive/Naxos). Helfman’s oratorio is not, strictly speaking, a Passover commemoration in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it is a 1948 piece he wrote in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on Passover in 1943. Using the seder as a structural armature on which to mount “di naye hagode,” that is, “the new telling,” Helfman wrote a frequently powerful, occasionally bombastic piece for choir, narrator and orchestra. This recording features particularly forceful contributions from the Choral Society of Southern California, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale and narrator Theodore Bikel, who never succumbs to the temptation to “emote,” wisely allowing Itzik Fefer’s stark, bleak text to do the hard work. The CD also features an effective rendition of Helfman’s “Hag Habikkurim” and a surprisingly mournful “The Holy Ark.” The result is one of the best releases in the Milken Archive series to date.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

 

Kosher Gospel — a Joyful Noise at Shul


Joshua Nelson is resting his voice. That’s a tall order for Nelson, the 29-year-old African American Jewish singer who has blended black style and Jewish prayers and folksongs into a new, foot-stomping, synagogue-shaking praise music he has dubbed “kosher gospel.”

Though he’s been spreading his unique gospel for years, lately it’s been catching on like wildfire; an appearance on “Oprah” last fall solidified it as a hot commodity in crossover music, and Nelson as its inventor and chief spokesman. So Nelson has been speaking — and singing — a lot lately, which is why he is doing his best to do as little as possible of both between dates of his current tour (he and his band arrive at University Synagogue in Irvine on Jan. 22).

But once he gets started, once a certain spirit moves him and a passion for the subject matter takes hold, it’s hard for him to stop.

One subject he never seems to tire talking about is how he was moved to create kosher gospel, which for all its appeal strikes many people (Jewish and non-Jewish) as a contradiction of terms. Nelson is African American in the truest sense of the word: his Orthodox mother (his father is also Jewish) is from West Africa, and he grew up in South Orange, N.J. He is a third-generation Jew who grew up around predominantly black synagogues in Harlem and in his hometown. But his original inspiration for kosher gospel came from a traditional rabbi in Jersey who cornered him when he was a teenager honing his singing style. Rabbi Sky saw not only potential in Nelson as a performer, but also in his performance style–the potential to attract new generations of Jews.

“Rabbi Sky was strict, and I thought he was going to scorn me and the way I sang,” recalls Nelson. “But he didn’t. He said, ‘You should put that sound to Jewish music. You can encourage young people to come to temple!'”

Nelson has done that, and then some. His widening audience includes not just reinvigorated Jews, but non-Jews drawn to the undeniable spirit of the music, especially African Americans who were raised on this music in churches and who have always been steeped in it culturally. The fact that Nelson sings Jewish liturgy and prayer — often in Hebrew and not about Jesus — matters not to folks like Oprah, who respond primarily to Nelson’s soaring voice, his infectious rhythms and his conviction, all of which look and sound awfully familiar.

And the fact that Jewish and Christian themes and theology overlap, especially in the black church — the story of Moses and the divinely aided deliverance of his people from slavery comes to mind — makes Nelson resonate that much more. All of which is fine by him.

“Blacks have always put soul into something, wherever they are in the world,” he says.

A scholar of gospel, he stresses that despite the synonymity of the music with church, gospel originated in the fields where black slaves toiled for centuries in the American South.

“When slaves were introduced to Christianity, their moans and groans were wedded to hymns — that was syncopation. That was how gospel really came to be,” explains Nelson, who in addition to being a singer is a Hebrew teacher at his longtime temple, Shari-Tefilo Israel in South Orange. “Gospel wasn’t really accepted by churches, which thought it was too bluesy. Ultimately, it was too black.”

Nelson says his idol, gospel great Mahalia Jackson (whom he closely resembles in voice), encountered the same kind of disapproval early in her career in her adopted hometown of Chicago, which was populated by middle-class blacks seeking to distance themselves from black folk traditions and all things Southern. The power of gospel won out, of course, and Jackson went on to become a superstar and a catalyst for the music’s popularity.

Nelson says there’s a parallel between that dynamic and one unfolding today in Christianity: “You have a euphoric element in all denominations now.”

As for Judaism, he believes that gospel at temple is an idea whose time has come.

“In Jewish tradition, there were songs that [blacks) always sung with soul,” he muses. “We always did at our temple. It wasn’t exactly gospel, but it was different. We brought our traditions to it, like Jews all over the world brought their own traditions to the faith.”

It’s irresistible to speculate that kosher gospel is just the sort of entertaining, listener-friendly thing needed to help bridge the divide between blacks and Jews that developed after the 1960s and that conscientious folks in both camps have wrung their hands about ever since. Though he has no problem with multiculturalism or with coalition-building — his own Reform temple is notably diverse — Nelson cautions against equating race with religion, or implying it, in any discussions of blacks and Jews, or of Jews and any other ethnic group.

“Jewishness is not a race,” he says emphatically. “We tend to think in this country that all Jews are European or Ashkenazi. That’s how the immigration went. But that’s not the case.” Ironically, Nelson says that he encounters skepticism most frequently not from Jews or whites, but from blacks. “They’ve just never met a black Jew before,” he says, particularly one singing gospel. He adds, with a laugh: “They get a little confused.”

Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will be in concert Jan. 22, 6:45 p.m., at University Synagogue, 3400 Michelson Drive, Irvine. For tickets, call (949) 553-3535.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

 

Shticking It to the Classics


My 5-year-old thinks “My Yiddishe Mama,” the soulful ballad immortalized by Sophie Tucker in 1928, is a rock anthem. The version he learned didn’t come from a dusty old record, but from a CD released in 2004 by the group, Yiddishe Cup, called “Meshugeneh Mambo.”

This is not your grandmother’s Jewish music. Like other recent Jewish parody CDs, “Meshugeneh Mambo” carries on the tradition of Jewish humor popularized by such forbearers as Mickey Katz and Allan Sherman. Although the lounge acts of the Catskills have all but vanished, a few intrepid souls are bringing a modern brand of Borscht Belt humor to a whole new generation.

Yiddishe Cup’s album combines soulful klezmer ballads, doo-wop and, of course, Latin flair. The title track sets the tone, promising “No frailech [joyful] hora can compare/ to shaking your Yiddishe dierriere/ to the lovely Mesugheneh Mambo.”

The group’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama” throws in homage to James Bond’s “Goldfinger” and the theme song to “The Patty Duke Show.” Listen closely and you will hear spoofs of “Star Trek,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Outer Limits” scattered about in the traditional melodies and remakes of comedy routines created in the 1950s.

Newer artists like Yiddishe Cup have learned from the old comedic masters that classic Jewish humor relies on cleverness rather than anger. The best comics “tell a story that is visual and makes you think,” said Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah International on Fairfax Avenue. “Using the word ‘shmuck’ doesn’t make it Jewish.”

Instead, skilled artists allow listeners to recognize themselves and the universal truths behind the tales and tunes.

One artist who stresses ruach (spirit) over raunch is Michael Lange. The director, whose credits include “Life Goes On” and “The X-Files,” has released several titles under his Silly Music label. In November, Lange will release “A Kosher Christmas,” a collection of popular yuletide melodies coupled with decidedly Jewish-themed lyrics. It’s a strange experience indeed to hear the traditional orchestrations — think bells, trumpets and choral harmonies — as singers croon about litigation, food, guilt and family (categories that Lange refers to as “the four cornerstones of the Jewish experience.”)

In “Such a Loyal Son Am I,” a take-off on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a mother and son alternate kvetching about one another: (Him:) Not so easy with this mother/Still a loyal son am I. (Her:) Not a doctor like his brother/Such a shanda [shame] I should cry. “Greensleeves” is re-imagined as “Greenstein,” an ode to the singer’s childhood crush, Tiffany Greenstein.

And, of course, food plays a significant role, as in “Harvey Weisenberg” (to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”): “[which] Soup would he pick, wondered he:/Lentil, borscht or chicken/As he ate he thought with glee:/This is finger lickin’….

Lange previously created two Broadway musical parodies. “Goys and Dolls,” released in 2002, uses the original melodies of “Guys and Dolls” to tell the story of a young man who begins dating a non-Jewish woman, while “Say Oy Vey” re-imagines “Cabaret” as the story of two seniors who find romance at synagogue bridge night.

Musicals are also the targets of spoofs created by the group Shlock Rock, whose founder, Lenny Solomon, hails from a long line of cantors. Their 2003 release, “Almost on Broadway,” transforms “Maria” from “West Side Story” to “Tekia”: “Tekia! I’ve just heard the sound called Tekia!”

Shlock Rock boasts 23 albums to its credit, ranging from original compositions to children’s music to parody. The group’s nine other parody CD’s display an impressive range of musical styles, Judaic knowledge and humor. In one, for example, Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” becomes “49 Days to Count the Omer,” while in another, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin morphs into “Learning to Do the Hora.” And you’ve got to wonder what kind of mind would think of transforming the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” into “Rabbi Akiva”: “Rabbi Akiva had straw for a bed/Love thy neighbor like thyself is what he said.”

While they’re amusing to listen to, be forewarned: The lyrics stick with you. So when the time comes for my son to join his kindergarten classmates for the annual holiday assembly in December, he’ll be easy to pick out. He’ll be the one singing “Goys Rule the World.”

 

Singing Klezmer Isn’t Hard to Do


Neil Sedaka is a punctual, polite musical legend, and at 65, he still likes being a mama’s boy.

“I do. I like being protected,” Sedaka said. He grew up in a loving Sephardic/Ashkenazic home in Brooklyn, where he practiced piano for hours. It was a sheltered Coney Island Avenue universe in which, “my sister fought my battles in school,” Sedaka said. “To me, the raising of a voice was very jarring. My mother told me that everything I did was perfect.”

When it comes to catchy tunes with perfect melodies, the world often has agreed with Mama Sedaka (now 88 and living in Ft. Lauderdale). And while having Andy Warhol paint your portrait and seeing one’s songwriting skills praised in Bob Dylan’s recent autobiography are great, it is the Yiddish songs he grew up listening to that now claim Sedaka’s melodic soul.

His CD, “Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish,” cost less than $10,000 to produce, prompted a Carnegie Hall concert last summer and is now coming to the Wilshire Theatre this weekend — complete with a klezmer band. The show’s second half will be from Sedaka’s own large repertoire, with the show’s first half dedicated to Yiddish tunes such as “My Yiddishe Mamme” and “Shein vi di L’Vone” (“Pretty as the Moon”).

“I grew up on these songs. I wanted to do something that was close to my heart,” Sedaka told The Journal in telephone interview from his Park Avenue apartment. “But I have to tell you that this CD has taken a life of its own.”

Since dropping out of Juilliard in 1958, Sedaka’s 1,000 songs have included nearly 50 hummable and singable hits, including “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Calendar Girl,” “Stupid Cupid” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” A product of Manhattan’s 1960s Brill Building songwriting factory, his music has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Cher, Sheryl Crow, ABBA, David Cassidy, Mandy Moore and The Monkees. A hit single this year came out of “American Idol” — Clay Aiken’s rendition of “Solitaire.”

“It’s a big body of work,” Sedaka said. His high baritone voice prompted a compliment decades ago from fellow Las Vegas Hilton staple Elvis Presley. “He said to me that when he was in the Army, he would go to the jukebox and sing the ‘Sedaka songs,'” he said.

Sedaka has had a noteworthy place in American music for four decades; he became a comfortable perennial who did not let himself turn into a tortured titan like Sinatra or a forgettable one-hit wonder like The Imperials, Haircut 100 or Luscious Jackson.

One does not cringe when VH1 asks “Where Are They Now?” of Sedaka, because he usually has a hit somewhere, including at least one Billboard chart-topper each decade since 1958. Even while touring the Great Wall of China, the songwriter marveled at his Chinese guide singing one of his songs on the tour bus, the tour guide then refusing to believe Sedaka when he identified himself.

His hit-making consistency and songwriting discipline also have made him a man entirely lacking in public scandal. His work is remembered more than anything else, overshadowing even his enviable 42-year marriage to fellow New Yorker Leba Strassberg. The couple, who met in the Catskills, have two children — daughter Dara, a recording artist, and son Marc, an L.A. screenwriter — and twin granddaughters, Amanda and Charlotte.

He also finds Israeli audiences enjoying him when he sings Hebrew versions of his hits; his decidedly “charitable” last name (tzedaka means charity), he said, “has been very helpful.”

Yet, Sedaka admits that for all the pop hits he has written and heard played, hummed or sung in elevators, supermarkets and cocktail lounges, writing pop music is not bubblegum and can require as much elaborate creation as a Bach symphony.

“The hardest thing is to write a simple melody,” he said. “I do wish that I could write something a little more complicated, but it’s not me; it’s not my makeup. I’m very disciplined. It was kind of a long, long career. It never went to my head.”

His evergreen tunes (before Aiken, Elvis recorded “Solitaire”) means Sedaka has not had to work the ’50s hits revival circuit.

“I love oldies, but I never had to do those shows,” the songwriter said.

Sedaka’s choice of rock ‘n’ roll and pop over classical notes initially irked his mother, who saw her baby as the next Arthur Rubinstein. When someone suggested that young Neil, with his unique high voice, become a chazan, his mother dismissed that, too, insisting he would be a concert pianist.

But success smiled on his mother’s dashed dreams when at 19, his songwriting brought in royalties of $42,000.

“I bought her a mink stole,” Sedaka said. “That made the difference. We call it her Hadassah tallit.”

Neil Sedaka performs Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m, and Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $35-$55 with an eight-ticket limit. For more information, call (323) 468-1770 or go to

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