MUSIC, SPIRIT, IDENTITY
Young Jews from Fort Bragg to Uganda gather
By Lisa Alcalay Klug
When J.J. Keki began leading classic Hebrew songs at a traditional Jewish Sabbath meal in Long Beach last weekend, his 400 lunch companions were transfixed. An African Jew and Grammy-nominated musician, Keki attended Jewlicious 3.0 @ the Beach, self-described as the largest Jewish youth festival. And whether he was singing or discussing his work directing the fair trade Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative for Jewish, Christian and Muslim coffee farmers in his homeland, Uganda, Keki had found his audience.
“I use singing and coffee to promote peace,” said Keki, a member of the Abuyudaya community in Uganda, whose ancestors converted to Judaism in the early 20th century. “Today, the world is in pain. We want to prove that a better way is to be proud of who you are, respect each other and make something great together. That is my work.”
It is also the work of the Thanksgiving Coffee Co. of Fort Bragg, which partners with Mirembe Kawomera (”Delicious Peace”) to bring its product to American synagogues, churches, mosques, youth groups and other grassroots organizations, including the San Francisco Interfaith Council.
Two representatives of Thanksgiving Coffee, Ben Corey-Moran and Holly Moskowitz, joined Keki and more than 30 Northern Californians at the Alpert Jewish Community Center for the third annual Jewlicious Festival.
Designed as an exploration of Jewish culture, innovation and spirituality, organizers call it “a celebration of “Jewnity: part music festival, part spiritual gathering, part international youth conference and totally unlike any other weekend in human history.”
“Young Jews are seeking unity, spirituality and new ways to celebrate their identity,” says Festival Director Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, whose mother lives in Berkeley. “Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Bu-Jews (Jewish Buddhists), feminists, Democrats, Republicans, agnostics, anarchists … anyone with any connection to this tribe of wandering, creative, passionate and uniquely Jewlicious people belongs at this festival.”
Indeed, the annual gathering attracts Jews from every denomination and political affiliation for 60 hours of workshops, festive meals, conference sessions, concerts and other expressions of Jewish creativity and vitality. From its beginnings in 2005, the Jewlicious Festival has grown from 100 attendees to more than 350 participants and some 30 volunteers and several dozen presenters who work in a variety of fields, from Hollywood screenwriting to activists working to stop the genocide in Darfur.
“We believe with all our soul and all our might in creating unifying events to celebrate Jewishness,” says Rachel Bookstein, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz who grew up in San Anselmo and Fairfax. The wife of Yonah Bookstein, she serves as director of Beach Hillel, which locally hosts and co-produces the event. “We are committed to celebrating life and diversity, learning from different people and experiencing different things that enrich and fulfill our Jewish lives.”
Participants from more than 40 colleges and universities were represented, including several score from Sonoma State University who made the trip together with local young professionals like Tomer Altman. The founder of an extensive online resource, Altman teamed up with Sonoma Hillel to contract the bus. After attending Jewlicious 2.0 last year, Altman was inspired to create his blog, Oy Bay, the Jewish Blog-by-the-Bay. “I had such a great time last year that I had to come again,” Altman said.
Other Bay Area attendees included musician Ayal Nistor, who recently relocated to San Francisco from Tel Aviv. His one-man band, A Second Surprise, performed Sunday night, and was just one among an extensive lineup of artists appearing at two peak Jewlicious elements, the Saturday and Sunday night concerts. Both shows were packaged in the festival’s student ticket price of $36, and $54 for nonstudents younger than 27. The cost includes indoor, sleeping-bag-friendly space to crash for several nights, generous kosher meals and snacks and nearly all-night programming.
The concert lineup featured cutting-edge special guests, klezmer-punk band Golem and New York folk-rocker Rav Shmuel, who teamed up with dance-fusion band the Bloodsugars to perform his signature song, “Protocols,” a spoof of anti-Semitism that appears in an animated video on MySpace.com and YouTube. Additional performers included actor-rapper-comedian Smooth E, Israeli indie band missFlag, the unique sounds of Tel Aviv-based Soulico Crew, Jewish heavy metal rockers the Makkabees, Rabbi Bookstein’s own Shankbone and DJ Eric Rosen & the Twelve Tribes Live Percussion Ensemble.
The festival grew out of the of the popular blog Jewlicious.com.
“The ultimate point of the Jewish Internet is to nurture and inspire Jewish life in the real world,” says Jewlicious.com’s co-founder, Laya Millman, a writer and photographer who lives in Israel and flew in for the festival. “Through the Jewlicious/Beach Hillel partnership, we’ve all been able to translate online inspiration into a high-impact, real-life experience. The energy is intoxicating.”
Cecile Merrin, 18, a junior majoring in business accounting and financial economics at Sonoma State and a first-time attendee, agreed. “I like the diversity, because (I haven’t met) any students who are Orthodox at Sonoma State. And I really like all the people I met.”
As a result of the conversations she enjoyed over the weekend, Merrin is resolute about her plan to join Birthright Israel, a free trip to the Holy Land for young Jewish adults. “I heard what a life-changing experience it was, and I really want to go and see what it does for me in terms of my Jewish identity and my faith.”
Her classmate Jordan Speizer, 20, a music major from Napa, is also considering a future Birthright trip. He also plans to return to Long Beach for Jewlicious 4.0. “Three hundred Jews in one room is an experience. If you’ve never experienced it before, it’s hard to explain, but there’s a contagious energy. It’s hard not to be uplifted, especially for someone who went to high school with one or two other Jews.”
For Keki and his Fort Bragg colleagues, it is this dynamism they are looking to attract. As Corey-Moran explained, “These are people who want to be a part of this project, and that for us is the market we’re trying to connect with: young people, inspired, motivated and pursuing social justice. Our purpose in coming to Jewlicious is to share this beautiful story and meet these wonderful people and invite them to become part of our work.”
Jewlicious.com (the blog).
JewliciousFestival.com (the event).
RavShmuel.com (Click on Links for the “Protocols” video on YouTube).