Making a scene

The 3rd annual Oyhoo festival reflects on cultural renaissance among Big Apple Jews in their 20s & 30s.

oyhoo festival 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Oyhoo)
oyhoo festival 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Oyhoo)
If you've heard of Matisyahu, Heeb magazine, the rejuvenated Forward or Blue Fringe, you're familiar with some of the most successful symbols of an ongoing cultural renaissance spearheaded by New York City's 20- and 30-something Jews. The movement's growth will be in greater evidence than ever this week at Manhattan's Oyhoo Festival, an event featuring roughly 60 Jewish arts performances that kicked off Sunday and concludes during the coming weekend. Officially known as the New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival, Oyhoo will showcase a wide variety of literary, musical, theatrical and comedy performances, including by jazz master John Zorn and up-and-coming rock performers Rav Shmuel, Blue Fringe and Moshav Band. At the helm of the festival is founder and executive producer Michael Dorf, a founding father of New York's edgy contemporary Jewish cultural scene. After two decades as head of Greenwich Village's Knitting Factory club - which he founded with money saved from bar mitzva gifts - Dorf helped to create a community of Jewish musicians whose regular club performances and collaborations laid the groundwork for today's rising set of alt-Jewish artists. Successful performers associated with the Knitting Factory include post-klezmer bands like Hassidic New Wave and The Klezmatics, storyteller Judith Sloan, the musicians of Pharaoh's Daughter and singer Neshama Carlebach. "I can't explain the momentum of the movement," says Pharaoh's Daughter frontwoman Basya Schechter. Raised in a traditional Jewish home, Schechter looked to traditional Jewish texts for musical inspiration in the early Nineties and felt her work gained muscle as a result. Not to mention an an audience. After forming Pharaoh's Daughter and tapping into the Knitting Factory's alternative Jewish arts community, Schechter and her band garnered media attention and regular gigs, also releasing three albums on an affiliated record label. Founded in 2004 to celebrate 350 years since the arrival of the first Jews in the US, the Oyhoo Festival has already become an institution, with events this year including a Lenny Bruce tribute featuring Daily Show satirist Lewis Black and two separate "Jewzapalooza" concerts. Also on the festival schedule is Jewbilation, which began as the Jewish component of the city's Howl Festival, a tribute to Allen Ginsberg's landmark poem. But with Howl taking the year off for restructuring, Alyssa Abrahamson, a Jewbilation organizer, decided to make the edgy series part of Oyhoo. Subtitled "Downtown Entertainment of the Hebrew Persuasion," this year's Jewbilation includes a beauty contest that will crown Mr. and Ms. JewSA, as well as the Big Jewish Quiz Thing and even a burlesque revue by the randy Kosher ChiXXX. According to Abrahamson, Jewbilation organizers want festival-goers to "reflect on their Judaism but also have fun with it." They'll have the opportunity to do so with Jewish Artists Workshop events, the quarterly Lights! Camera! Jews! film series, and Novel Jews literary readings co-sponsored by the Forward. "We have an East Village sensibility," she says, referring to the neighborhood's famous bohemian reputation, "and want to reflect that in our programs. It's been very exciting to be at the forefront of what's going on in the scene." For rising religious rock band Heedoosh, a set at one of this year's two Jewzapalooza concerts is an opportunity to bring its sound to a broader audience. According to Heedoosh frontman Yaniv Tsaidi, "Any time we have a chance to play in front of a secular audience with thousands of people, we'd like to do that. We want to make a difference in their lives spiritually." Having recently moved to New York from the Midwest, where he was involved in a number of Jewish bands before Heedoosh, Tsaidi says he's amazed and excited by the renaissance he sees taking place in New York. "People are getting into their roots," he says. "Secular rock and roll isn't enough, and these cultural initiatives reach people." Dorf expects to attract more than 25,000 people to Oyhoo this year, a number that may indicate that the scene has grown well beyond its original base. When he first started Oyhoo, Dorf funded the project himself and, he says, more or less broke even. Today, half of Oyhoo's expanding budget comes from merchandising and ticket sales, while half comes from philanthropic bodies like New York's UJA Federation, the Michael Steinhardt Foundation, the Bronfman family and the Educational Alliance. "I'm having a lot of fun with it. There's been a lot of interest lately in Jewish music, but I'm not sure where I am going with Oyhoo," Dorf says. For now, it's just a festival, not a full-time job, though he is already working hard to establish Oyhoo Records, with the label's first two discs slated for release this winter. Part of Dorf's confusion might stem from the breadth of his mission. He and the festival's other organizers want to help committed Jews feel cool and cool Jews feel committed by fostering an inclusive Jewish entertainment community - one not based on politics or religious observance. "For people who really care about the future of the Jewish community," says Abrahamson, the festival provides "fun and funky outlets, alternative outlets." "What I like about this festival is that it is very inclusive," says Schechter. "The idea is that different artists lay the ground work for other artists."