The 20th Jewish Folks Arts Festival took place this past weekend at the University of Maryland Shady Grove campus and attracted an array of artists and craftspeople, musicians and music groups, a storyteller, a few choirs and about 1,300 interested attendees Sunday afternoon. The event opened Saturday night with a Chanukah concert dedicated to human rights, featuring Jewish music mainstay Fabrangen Fiddlers as the headliner, joined by the adult and children’s choirs of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, where the concert was held. The evening of songs and a few stories delivered with panache by Israeli-American storyteller Noa Baum, included the Beth Ami’s adult and youth choirs directed by cantorial soloist Joshana Erenberg. Otherwise, the event looked like an AARP meeting, though it was mostly friends, fans and supporters of the Fiddlers.
Philadelphia-based performer Jessi Roemer, who grew up in the Jewish music biz thanks to her late mother Cantor Sue Roemer, performed with her band Ezuz, offering up some intriguing Middle Eastern rhythms and original compositions, and backed up by sister Debi Roemer.
The Fiddlers set, though, hasn’t changed since about 1989. The 420 or so audience members clapped along to the joyous freilachs and bluegrass-inspired tunes – which lead fiddler David Shneyer admitted were slower than they used to be.
Sunday’s programming, held at University of Maryland Shady Grove campus conference center, included two music stages where mostly local klezmer groups, from Kol Chaim Orchestra to Machaya to Lox & Vodka, presented the usual danceable tunes with a dash of Chanukah numbers thrown in.
The day opened with a tribute to four founding members of the Jewish Folk Arts Society who died this past year:
Ketuba artist Marsha Goldfine, photo journalist Ida Jervis, poet Herman Taube and mandolinist and klezmer musician Alex Gakner.
Workshops spanned the rich range of Jewish creativity in the D.C. metropolitan community with discussions on repurposing inherited items by longtime fiber artist Shirley Waxman; creating an instant choir by Cantor Teddy Klaus; worship songs from Ethiopia’s Beta Abraham community; a slide show by Bernd Kiekebusch-Steinitz; a history of Jews and chocolate by cookbook author Sheilah Kaufman; and a poetry slam session led by Jonathan Tucker of Split This Rock.
The first Jewish Folk Arts Festival was created in 1977, said David Shneyer, one of the festival founders. “When started we were responding to a different kind of need than this young generation has. We saw a need in the community to find ways of expressing Jewish identity through the arts,” he explained. And this seeking doorways into Judaism through cultural and artistic expression wasn’t unique. Throughout the nation, across cultures, a new blossoming in the cultural and folk arts was occurring. Here in the District that was evident through the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festivals, which began in 1967, and the Bicentennial celebrations on the National Mall a decade later.
The day featured plenty of klezmer music and at least a few renditions of the Chanukah song “Al Hanisim,” on two stages, a few local children’s and adult’s choirs and a challah competition, with contributions from Great Harvest, Upper Crust Bakery, Motti’s Market and independent baker Rabbi Ethan Seidel, who won bragging rights for the best challot.
A rich array of artists and exhibitors had wares for sale in the well-attended hall where challah covers and tallitot, stained glass Judaica and artistic photography were being sold by their creators along with artisan kosher and pareve chocolate and music and books.
The children’s programming featured a family-oriented dance session by folk-dance teacher Sharon Gelboin-Katz, and a very popular crafts room devised by Baltimore-based woodworker Hannah Wides and Takoma Park-based artisan and educator Judybeth Greene. They said they were inspired by 20th-century Jewish painter Marc Chagall and featured collage, saturated colors, geometrics and stained-glass inspired, tissue-paper cutouts.
Silver Spring’s Nina Tarley was involved with her twin grandsons, Ezra and Gabriel Sichermin, 5, who were decorating dreidels (Chanukah tops) and colorful tzedakah (charity) boxes. She found out about the festival from a flier she picked up at her senior adult education program and took the boys to give her daughter an afternoon off. “The volunteers are wonderful, so helpful,” she noted.
Silver Spring’s Sabrina Katz, 10, was there with her friend Gabi Barke, 9, of Bethesda, mixing up colors for a sand art project. “This is really fun. I’m glad you can be creative and do your own thing, that way you can make it your own,” said Barke.
With the wide-ranging programming the festival promotes, there’s just about something for everyone – even moody kids and teens. A group of six college-age counselors from Habonim Dror/Camp Moshava ran games, song sessions, informal discussions about Jewish topics for children and teens in a second floor lounge.
“When you’re a teenager, “Ethan Weisbaum, 19, of Potomac and College Park, explained, “you don’t always want to come to a Jewish Folk Arts Festival with your parents. We try to provide programming that makes it so that kids can enjoy themselves. This is our way of connecting with them and providing a bit of that education.”
Fairfax resident Rabbi Mat Tonti, a music educator at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, who was there with his wife and three children – Uri, 2, Hami, 5, and May, 7 – said, “I love the eclectic music. It’s just such a haimish place to come and hang out, hear great music and see great arts and crafts.”
The growth and perpetuation of Jewish cultural activities is one to help to ensure the survival of Judaism.