I was honored to be invited to perform at the Northwest Folklife Festival, one of the largest and oldest folk festivals on the West Coast, where I played the opening set for the Big Jewish Show.
Let's put aside, for a moment, the notion that Jewish music extends to Ashkenazic klezmer and Yiddish theatre music and no further. Because a lot of us know that's ridiculous. Still, I found it curious that, in a city with the nation's second-largest Sephardic Jewish population, there was not a single Sephardic or Mizrachi act on the slate. Perhaps none applied. I don't know.
What I do know is that, after I played a half-hour set of contemporary Jewish folk that was almost entirely in English, I was followed by three Klezmer or Klezmer-influenced bands.
But even that was not a concern.
In the Pacific Northwest, ANY Jewish music being programmed at a festival is a plus; there just aren't as many affiliated Jews in this part of the country.
What I found most interesting was what a couple said to me as I exited the stage and came to the Merchandise table to sell some CDs. The husband and wife, perhaps no more than ten years older than me, greeted me at the backstage entrance, smiled, shook my hand and thanked me for my music. But then, the woman said something that shocked me: "Honey, you're good and your songs are from the heart. But they're not Jewish. And YOU don't sound Jewish. Folklife should've put you in a songwiter's roundtable or something."
I was taken aback but remained composed. I smiled, thanked them for their comments, and invited them to walk with me. I asked them why they felt my music wasn't Jewish. The woman responded, "Hardly any Hebrew, no Yiddish -- your lyrics may be influenced by Judaism but they don't say anything about it. If you're going to bill yourself as a Jewish artist, write some REAL Jewish music."
They smiled and walked back around to the front of the stage to sit and watch the next act, leaving me stunned and speechless.
I regained myself, sat and smiled and talked with flks who came to talk and buy a CD, and by the time I'd packed up and left the Merch table for the next act to take it over, I'd forgotten about it. But then I got home, and remembered the exchange.
The couple wasn't mean -- in fact, they said nice things about my music -- but their understanding of Jewish music is clearly different from mine.
I believe that Jewish music is music that says something about a Jew's life -- and that those rich stories and perspectives can be expressed in any language and in any style or genre. That's why we have a richness of music ranging from Yiddish theatre songs to modern klezmer fusion from groups like Golem and hip-hop artists like Y-Love, from Ladino love songs to evocative Mizrachi chants, from the traditional Cantorial melodies still in use in synagogues today to the pop/folk melodies that have become a staple at Jewish camps and less formal Kabbat Shabbat services.
It's ALL Jewish music.
Perhaps it's a generational thing; perhaps it's the divide between people who grew up in a more Jewishly insular time and place and someone like me who grew up secular.
I appreciated the woman's perspective, but I gently disagree with her.
I'm a Jew. I write songs based on the lessons of my tradition and my experiences living within that tradition while also being a woman of the modern world.
I look forward to hearing what other Jewish artists create and present as their perspective on the intersection between living Jewishly and living in the world. It's an exciting time to be a Jewish musician and I am humbled and honored to be part of this sphere.
I welcome your thoughts on what you think makes Jewish music Jewish! Please share them by using the contact form. I would love to learn from your perspective!