The Eighth Annual Israeli JazzPhest, which runs Nov. 7 to 23, presenting the best the Jewish State has to offer in venues from Philadelphia to Cape May to Wilmington, couldn’t come at a better time.
Seemingly every day, you pick up a paper, turn on the news or click on your phone — and there’s some atrocity going on in Israel, leaving many to wonder how people are going on with their everyday lives. The answer, as countless Israelis would be quick to emphasize: like they always do.
One key to normalcy: enjoying the same kind of cultural and entertainment benefits as everyone else .
Which is why the Eighth Annual Israeli JazzPhest, which runs Nov. 7 to 23, presenting the best the Jewish State has to offer in venues from Philadelphia to Cape May to Wilmington, couldn’t come at a better time.
“It means the world to us,” said Yaron Sideman, Philadelphia-based Consul General of Israel for the Mid-Atlantic region, which also includes South Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. “It brings to Philadelphia and beyond an Israel not too many people are familiar with, but really is the true day-to-day Israel of vibrant culture and a very dynamic music scene.
“That’s the Israel you don’t normally read about. In the midst of all that’s going on now, we produce, innovate and we make music. We embrace life. Bringing Israeli jazz music to Philadelphia is an illustration of that.”
For one of the headliners, Shai Maestro, whose Nov. 7 performance in Cape May opens the festival — which is working in conjunction with New Jersey’s Exit Zero Jazz Festival — it’s an opportunity to let his personal side come out. “The process I’m going through recently is hard to describe,” said the 28-year-old Maestro, who lives in Brooklyn, though he spends at least half the year traveling the globe. “It’s the ability to say ‘It’s OK to be me.’
“Jazz is a kind of music that allows you to improvise; to dig deep and discover what’s unique about the individual and let that bloom. So our concerts are becoming more and more personal. It’s who I am as a person — good and bad.”
The JazzPhest is the brainchild of Deborah Baer Mozes, a native New Yorker, who migrated to the hinterlands of Winnipeg, Manitoba for “nine winters,” as she shudderingly recalled, before coming back to the United States to become director of cultural affairs for the consulate.
Since Baer Mozes first began working on the festival, JazzPhest has expanded its scope to the point this year’s event encompasses three venues in Pennsylvania, two in New Jersey and one in Delaware. It’s also the first time there has been a heavy emphasis on Jewish Latino music, with Sephardic artist Baladino and Argentinian Fernando Knopf heading that contingent.
“It’s the first time we’ve done a cultural collaboration with Philadelphia Latino organizations like Esperanza, APM, Taller and Concilio,” said Baer Mozes, who grew up Deborah Baer Quinn and was nicknamed “D.Q.” while attending YMCA camp in Stockton, N.J. “Israel is a dynamic country of great diversity. Throughout the years of our festival, we’ve been able to show many sides of Israeli culture. This year, we’re highlighting the South American and Latino influence.”
Shai Maestro, on the other hand, fits a different category. His trio, which is composed of fellow Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz and Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder, will make Cape May the kickoff of an ambitious concert schedule that will take them to Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and Paris within the next month.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that when I’m 65,” he laughed, “but right now I enjoy it. I love getting to meet a lot of people and performing for them.”
While he empathizes with the folks back home — having grown up between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — it’s hard for him to relate the situation there. “In 1991, when the Gulf War broke out, I was 4 years old,” said Shai, whose grandfather was an Israeli nuclear physicist who took a job in Seattle, where his mother was born. “It is a part of my reality, but I feel people in the south of Israel and at Gaza feel it more on an everyday basis.
“I still have family there and my older sister, Maya, lives in Switzerland. I only get home about 2-3 times a year, but it’s still home.”
“The thing I love about New York is no one really cares what you did before. You can’t impress them with that. Just play the best music you can every night — and if you don’t, there are many waiting to replace you.”
“What I find really appealing about Israeli jazz artists is, first of all, they draw from their own musical roots,” said Baer Mozes, who’s been at this virtually nonstop for the 10 years since her Canadian sojourn. “They draw from their Jewish roots. Israeli jazz has a real global feel to it and I feel like culture is one of the best ambassadors and storytellers for Israel — that’s what artists are.”
The idea of artists as storytellers goes back to the very beginning of Judaism. “In our Torah, we had songwriters, we had poets, we had dancers,” Baer Mozes pointed out. “So arts and Judaism — and therefore arts and Israel — it’s a symbiotic relationship in terms of identity and nation-building.”
But you don’t have to be Jewish to get something out of Israeli culture like that spotlighted during JazzPhest. “In many ways, it’s more exciting when I can introduce Israel to a non-Jewish audience,” said Baer Mozes, who has several other projects in the works. “We take an artist to perform at a university and for some of the students, it is the first time they have interacted with an Israeli. Through their encounter, they learn a lot about Israel.”
Not the Israel being seen every day on the news, but the country where business and culture thrive side by side. Sideman, who studied classical guitar at Jerusalem Academy before he became a diplomat, says it’s worth checking out.
“Israel has a very vibrant cultural scene across the board,” he enthused. “People don’t realize Israel is a fun place to live. It’s very far from the perception most people have, war-torn and bloody. We’re a very creative, innovative society.”
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