On Being a Jewish Artist

Posting this piece that was originally published in the Washington DCJCC’s Center in the City June edition. Even though the Music Festival is half-over, I thought it was still apt.

Artists sometimes run away from the label of “Jewish” because it can be seen as limiting in much the same way that other hyphenates can serve the dual purpose of marginalization in the guise of classification. Woman-writer. Gay-poet. African-American painter. All great art aspires to the universal, however frequently it attains that universality through the prism of specific experience. When that experience comes from outside the “mainstream” the culture tends to value it less—for many complex reasons not least of which is the insultingly reductive notion that we already know what a woman-writer, gay-poet or African-American painter has to say. That is a shame really. In the end what sends Jewish writers, musicians and artists fleeing from this identity is the fear that their art will not be read, heard or seen on its own merits.


This brings us to the Washington Jewish Music Festival, which, by design, is meant to confound our presumptions of what Jewish music is and/or should be. The Festival encompasses a patchwork of musical styles from hip-hop to pop, swing to salsa, classical to klezmer, and sacred to sensual. It is like the iPod of a polymath music fiend come to life owing as much to influences from Mix-Master Mike as Felix Mendelssohn (or Moses Mendelssohn for that matter). In other words, it is a complex assemblage of melodies that bow to tradition on the one hand, while embracing exciting new styles on the other. A classic German silent film from 1920 gets a new score from Davka which combines klezmer, jazz, middle eastern melodies and pop. David Buchbinder takes the beloved musical styles of Odessa and fuses them with the exciting tempo of Havana, while David Chevan and Warren Byrd jam off African and Jewish styles. Regina Spektor and Rachael Sage bring their Jewish identity with them as they perform in a modern pop idiom. I could go on and on.


I want to congratulate Festival Director, Tali Chitaiad for her amazing program. I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the generosity of the Howard and Geraldine Polinger Family Foundation for their support of the Festival through a major challenge grant. We thank them for their faith in us, their belief in the mission of the Festival and their creative partnership in growing the program.

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