Tag Archives: culture

Why I Help Bring Jewish Music to the South

“So how long have you been a singer?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked from time to time, and one that I can’t seem to answer without sounding sarcastic.

“Um… forever?”

The Red Heifers Quartet will be performing at AJMF 2015

The Red Heifers Quartet will be performing at AJMF 2015

Singing is unique, in that if pose the “how long have you been…” question to a pianist, violinist, or some other instrumentalist, they can usually give you an exact age when they remember the first feel of the instrument in their hands. Technically, I’ve always had my instrument. And I’m using my instrument all the time, which is both a gift and a curse.

My earliest memories of actual singing are from Sunday School at my synagogue in Chevy Chase, Maryland. It was fun to see how much singing was involved in Jewish life and learning. We learned prayer chants as well as folk songs about our traditions and culture. Even now I’m amazed how many songs I remember from decades ago.

But you don’t have to be a musician to appreciate music. As you learn to develop your own taste in music, it’s your family that ultimately influences your early tastes that eventually evolve. I would steal my brother’s Green Day and A Tribe Called Quest CDs, which explains my affinity for pop-rock and hip hop, and my mother would insist on us listening to the “oldies” channel on the radio which explains my love of Motown and classic rock.

Now, thanks to social media outlets and music sharing apps like Spotify which allow you to share playlists with your friends, I couldn’t even tell you what “types” of music I’m into. I just listen to a song/artist/band and think “yes, I like this” or “no, not for me.” The way I see it, there is less need for labeling. It’s actually comical to me how far some people are willing to go to assign genres to music these days, saying “Yeah, it’s kind of like indie trip-hop with a soul pop vibe.”

Hannah Zale will be performing at AJMF 2015

Hannah Zale will be performing at AJMF 2015

Is that going to help me enjoy it more? Probably not. But hey, if it works for you, great.

Ultimately it’s up to the listener to decide how their musical roadmap is paved and in what direction it’s going. Do you want to listen to nothing but one type of music the rest of your life? Be my guest. Am I going to feel sorry for you? Absolutely.

Music is constantly evolving, and we’re lucky enough to be able to see and hear it with our eyes and ears. It’s true in the secular music world—and it’s true in the Jewish music world. One of the current trends is multi-platform music festivals. It supports the idea that you can have something for everyone, educates your audience on new music they might not have heard before, and allows music lovers to interact socially, in real life and through hashtags and Instagram and more.

It’s something I’m passionate about. And it’s something I feel I can help contribute to the Southern Jewish scene.

Being a co-chair of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival (AJMF) means being on the forefront of musical trends, from artists to festival fun to amazing social interaction and emerging music-interaction opportunities. As the Southeastern Jewish community changes, AJMF seeks to represent that change with our festival offerings. The festival aims to transcend what can often be blurry lines between religion and culture and provide a space for people to appreciate and learn about not just the music itself, but also how it relates to the world around them.

We don’t know what the future of music looks and sounds like. But to me, that makes the whole thing more exciting—and I’m also proud that right here in Georgia, we’ll be a part of that future, whatever it may bring.

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Posted on February 17, 2015

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King (Cakes) & Queen (Esther)


The King Cake I enjoyed this year, courtesy of my (Jewish!) friend Ann in New Orleans

If you’ve never lived in the South, you might not be familiar with King Cakes. The brightly colored yellow-green-and-purple treats start popping up in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Though most prevalent in New Orleans, they are popular throughout the South. They’re delicious, they’re often shared at offices and parties– and yes, it’s Catholic in origin.

The name “King Cake” refers to the three kings, or three wise men. It emerged as a treat associated with pre-Lent celebrations, connected closely to Easter. Sometimes, there’s even a little plastic baby hidden somewhere in the cake – representing that same baby the wise men went to visit.

So it’s understandable that a friend recently asked me: “Um… is it weird for Jewish people to buy King Cakes?”

When asked this question, I resisted the urge to laugh it off and instead did a little reflecting (while munching on a delicious cinnamon-swirl piece of this tasty treat). Does the symbolism behind a food mean it’s proprietary to a certain group? Putting aside logistics that would obviously factor in for some observant folks, such as the laws of kashrut or halal – should foods be avoided simply because they’re associated with someone else’s tradition?

I recalled a few years ago, when a local bakery in Jackson, Mississippi, began promoting their all-new seasonal specialty: Purim baked goods. Yes! Fresh-baked, made-to-order sweet  hamentaschen in multiple flavors — and savory bourekas, too. I was beyond excited that my favorite local bakery was offering Jewish treats, and so were my Jewish friends… and so were my non-Jewish friends. We all went out and bought those Purim treats in droves. (And thank goodness – if only the small Jewish community of Jackson had shown up to buy the baked goods, that wouldn’t have been very marketable.)


My Jackson bakery haul last Purim

But one person did ask me: “Um, is it okay for a non-Jewish person to eat those triangle Purim-cookies?”

I assured them, without hesitation, that they were welcome to a cookie.

The question is not ludicrous. Eating is sometimes related to a statement of faith, whether it’s by following rules as to what we do and do not eat, or accepting a communion wafer at a Catholic mass.

But there is a difference between foods with ritual meaning and foods with cultural symbolism. Eating hamentaschen doesn’t make you Jewish, but it does give you an opportunity to learn a delicious tidbit about Purim and the story of Esther. Sharing a King Cake with co-workers is a delicious opportunity to enjoy Mardi Gras and share in a communal celebration. It’s a sharing of cuisine that has become a low-barrier sharing of culture.

In fact, I think the story of Esther itself makes the case for sharing in the culture around us. Esther was a nice Jewish girl who managed to save her entire Jewish community, not by avoiding the culture around her– but by fully immersing in it. She married the king, held on to her identity, and stopped Haman. Let’s remember she also did this over an extended dinner party, and now we recall Haman’s defeat by eating cookies shaped like his hat and named for his ears. (Creepy.)

Lots of special-foods have stories unique to one culture or another. Learning about them is fascinating, and feasting on them is even better.

In other words, let all of us eat (king) cake. And yes, I promise, in a few more weeks… I’ll share my triangle Purim-cookies.

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Posted on January 26, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

How To Have Your Own Southern Jewish Experience

Tent Map 2013 outline6It’s been a busy few months here in Jackson. We’ve welcomed Jewish visitors from all over the country, arranging experiences for them to discover this place I call home. This fall, I’m looking forward to a new type of tour experience that, through a partnership with The Yiddish Book Center, will bring the Southern Jewish Experience to a new group of explorers.

The TENT program is an incredible idea: a series of week-long seminars that immerse 21-30 year old Jews in full-impact experiences of culture, cuisine and community. The best thing about TENT? In addition to being fun and often profound, these programs are free to the participants.

The ISJL will host Tent: The South from October 19-26, 2014. This dynamic program will be a week-on-wheels, traveling from New Orleans to Memphis, and spending several days in Mississippi along the way. Tent: The South will explore the Jewish experience in one of this nation’s most distinctive, complicated, and fascinating regions, discovering the best that the South has to offer. Music, art, food, and visits to Jewish communities large and small will make this a week participants will never forget. (You may even start saying “Shalom, y’all.”)

It’s special for me to be involved with a project like this because as a Northern transplant to this region, I take my responsibility as a Southern advocate and promoter very seriously. (Just check out my particularly joyful expression in at :40 of this video. If that doesn’t make you want to come join me us on bus for week, I’m not sure what will.)  Tent: The South is such a great opportunity to gather people here with adventurous spirits, who are curious to experience the South.

Students from American University visiting one on my favorite Memphis spots for Southern Jewish history...Beale Street!

Students from American University visiting one on my favorite Memphis spots for Southern Jewish history…Beale Street!

I’ve put together itineraries for many groups, but this trip is especially fun because it’s built to engage my own demographic! We will get to stop (and eat!)  in some of my favorite places. Po Boys in New Orleans before visiting historic congregations. Fried chicken in Natchez before touring Antebellum mansions. Sweet tea while stopping between Civil Rights sites in Jackson. Local beers on the porch of the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. We’ll also be experiencing Southern arts culture. Listening to the blues while traveling between small towns like Indianola, Clarksdale, and Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta and touring the homes of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.

For those interested in social justice work, the South is a place with a great legacy of Jewish activism. I’ve had the fortune of inviting the best scholars and experts to lead sessions– our presenters will be from amazing organizations like the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss in Oxford, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, and the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis. There will be learning. There will be eating.

And dancing. There will certainly be dancing.

Sold? Great! Participants must apply to Tent: The South by August 1st, 2014. Only twenty applicants will be selected for each session. Again, Tent is offered free to accepted applicants– that means program costs, lodging, most meals, tickets, and more! Participants are responsible only for the cost of transportation, from wherever they live to New Orleans and back home again from Memphis. Space is limited, so apply now!

If you are interested and have any questions, please contact rmyers@isjl.org or 601-362-2357.

(Not eligible yourself, but know someone who is? Forward this post, share the website, spread the word!)

See you in The South!

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Posted on July 18, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy