JTA / April 4, 2006
By Larry Luxner
NEW ORLEANS — Think of New Orleans music and you don't usually think of Hebrew or Yiddish song.
But Hebrew, English and Yiddish tunes filled the ears of nearly 1,000 music lovers last weekend as a variety of acts — ranging from New York pop singer Gershon Veroba to Moldovan crooner Efim Chorny — converged on New Orleans for a two-day benefit concert.
Organizers said the New Orleans International Jewish Music Festival was expected to raise at least $75,000 for local Jewish institutions shattered by last year's Hurricane Katrina. That includes $50,000 in donations already collected from private individuals and institutions, and another $25,000 from the sale of tickets, music CDs, T-shirts and other souvenirs.
But this was more than just a fundraiser. The unprecedented gathering also brought badly needed joy to a city that has seen mostly suffering in the seven months since Katrina's deadly visit.
"Music is a very powerful thing," said singer Neshama Carlebach, daughter of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and a well-known performer in her own right. "Being in New Orleans has been heavy for me; it's very difficult seeing all this destruction first-hand. So I hope I can bring some healing."
The city famous for jazz, blues, Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras can certainly use a little of Neshama's healing.
Fewer than 200,000 of its 500,000 or so residents have returned since the storm. The Jewish community of New Orleans has fared a little better; about 70% of the Big Easy's pre-hurricane Jewish population of 9,500 has since returned.
"The idea was to bring Jewish music back to New Orleans," said renowned sculptor Gary Rosenthal. "You can talk about how important it is to get jobs and rebuild bricks and mortar. But I'm an artist and I focus on spirit and on making Jewish children happy."
Billed as a sort of Jewish Woodstock, the event kicked off Saturday night at the Howlin' Wolf, a venue in the Warehouse district of New Orleans, then continued Sunday afternoon at a half-filled auditorium on the campus of Tulane University.
While organizers had hoped to attract more people, they were forced to compete with the Final Four NCAA basketball championship, in which nearby Louisiana State University was a finalist, as well as with other Jewish and secular events taking place around town.
Yet those who did show up weren't disappointed.
"My grandfather saw an ad in Moment magazine and told me about this," said Zack Rothbart, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in Jewish studies at Tulane. "I think it's great all these musicians were able to put on such a concert."
Faye and Chip Merritt drove four hours from Pensacola, Fla., to attend the Sunday show.
"All the entertainers performed very well," said Faye Merritt. "The diversity of the Jewish music was great. I really enjoyed the Yiddish stuff, because my mother was from Poland."
Some of the most popular acts included West Coast musicians Fran Avni, Sam Glaser and RebbeSoul, as well as Nashville singer Stacy Beyer and New York's Voices for Israel and Blue Fringe. Also well-received was Veroba, whose shtick is cleverly adapting Jewish lyrics to such 1970s standards as Earth Wind and Fire's "September" and Chicago's "Saturday in the Park."
"Most of us Jewish musicians are just getting by," Veroba told JTA, "so it's amazing that so many of them gave up gigs to come here and play for free."
The event was slapped together in just three months by Rosenthal, of Kensington, Md., and his friend, Michael Monheit, the Washington-based publisher of Moment.
Rosenthal said he came up with the idea after one of his New Orleans clients, French Quarter gallery owner Dashka Roth, lost her home to Katrina's fetid floodwaters. Moved to help, Rosenthal arranged for his Hiddur Mitzvah Project to create close to 1,000 menorahs and dreidels. Some $40,000 worth of these ritual objects were then donated to the Jewish community of New Orleans at a Chanukah party attended by over 650 people.
"Anything that beautifies Jewish ritual is a hiddur mitzvah, whether it's learning a new tune to L'cha Dodi or making a special challah for Shabbat," he said. "We have fed people in Argentina and sent rabbis to Uganda, but this was the first time I've done anything where I actually know the people being helped.'
But Rosenthal didn't want to stop there. That's when he contacted his friend at Moment.
"Michael is a music lover, and last year he created an anthology of Jewish music, with some of the very best Jewish artists in the world. I told him I'd like to have a concert in New Orleans, a free concert at the JCC. He said, instead of one or two artists, let's have a festival. He said, 'Gary, why don't you make a Jewish Mardi Gras? If you're gonna do it, let's do it right.'"
Monheit began contacting the 19 acts on the CD, 13 of which responded 'yes' immediately.
"I agreed to fly them all in," said Monheit. "It's a way for the musicians to contribute to the city of New Orleans, and at the same time, for me to do something I've always dreamed of doing, having a Jewish music festival. And because of the hurricane, New Orleans became the perfect venue for this."
According to Monheit, the event cost around $50,000, "but that's only because the artists donated their time. What's amazing about this event is how quickly we pulled it together, in only three months. But our intention is to make this an annual event."
While local bands such as the New Orleans All-Star Klezmer Band were paid for their time, out-of-town performers were not. The idea was to help local musicians, many of whom also have lost their homes and possessions. That's also why admissions were kept artificially low; Saturday night's show was only $15 and Sunday afternoon's performance $10. On top of that, students were given $5 discounts.
Avni, who's been singing in Hebrew and English for close to 30 years now, said she didn't have to think twice about agreeing to peform for free in New Orleans.
"Having a music festival with people who aren't getting paid, but donating their efforts, is very special," she said. "We rarely get a chance to do something like this."