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Jazz Fest’s Big Shabbat

In New Orleans, celebrating 30 years of Jews and jazz on a trip Across the JEW.S.A

Tablet Studios
June 01, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Clad in a silk leopard-print shirt and matching shorts, Joe Gelini, the drummer and band leader of Grammy-nominated funk band Cha Wa, was about to perform in front of a full house in New Orleans. “This is a bucket-list concert for me,” he told us. “It’s a big deal to be invited and asked to do this.”

The concert he’s referring to wasn’t taking place at any of the venues that might come to mind when you think of New Orleans—especially during Jazz Fest, the annual music festival that draws hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. On this Friday night, Gelini was about to step onto the bimah at Touro Synagogue to play Jazz Fest Shabbat. In this installment of Across the JEW.S.A, we headed to the Big Easy to see—and hear—what the 30-year tradition of Jazz Fest Shabbat is all about.

If you’ve never made it to New Orleans or Jazz Fest, and are wondering what it could possibly have to do with Shabbat, here’s what you need to know: The festival is held at the New Orleans fairgrounds and runs over the course of two weekends—the last Friday through Sunday in April, and the first Thursday through Sunday in May. For those who observe Shabbat, there is a choice to be made: Stay for the headlining acts on Friday night, or book it to synagogue in time for Shabbat prayers. Fortunately, some New Orleans Jews figured out a best of both worlds scenario, a night that might even transcend the mainstage itself. But to understand how we got to Jazz Fest Shabbat, we first needed to understand the role Jews played in this Southern city’s iconic music scene.

We stopped by the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which opened in New Orleans in 2020. We learned about the Karnofskys, a Jewish immigrant family from Lithuania that employed a young Louis Armstrong and gave him $5 so he could buy his first cornet. (Armstrong wore a Star of David necklace throughout his life in honor of the family.) The Jaffes are another Jewish family who played a big part in the New Orleans music scene. We caught up with Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Alan and Sandra, started Preservation Hall, the venerated music venue in the heart of New Orleans. If you’ve never had the chance to visit, picture the following: a space about the size of a living room, much like a Quaker chapel with some wooden benches for seating. It holds about 50 people, with room for about seven musicians to play quintessential New Orleans jazz and blues. Alan and Sandra started Preservation Hall in 1961 as a place to preserve the African American and Creole jazz music traditions during a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws were making it increasingly difficult for this type of music to find a home. Preservation Hall was one of the places where everyone was welcome, to play music or listen, regardless of race or religion. You can draw a straight line from the spirit of Preservation Hall to Jazz Fest Shabbat, which today draws Jews and non-Jews alike, all excited to be part of a night of music and Jewish prayer.

In fact, Cha Wa, the band headlining this year’s Jazz Fest Shabbat, has no Jewish members, but considered it a bucket-list gig. Jazz Fest Shabbat features a full Friday evening Shabbat service, with the liturgy set to music across different musical styles, with more than 60 musicians, a volunteer choir, plus Touro Synagogue’s house band, The Panorama Jazz Band, and the headlining artist. It’s not for everyone, Touro Senior Rabbi Katie Bauman admits; there’s amplification, special lighting, and a lot of musical styles you wouldn’t traditionally hear in a synagogue. Still, it’s an unforgettable night, and a 30-year-old Jewish New Orleans experience. Have a listen:

Tablet Magazine
All That Jazz
Ep. 365: ‘Afghan Dreamers’ producer David Cowan, and a trip across the JEW.S.A. to New Orleans for Jazz Fest Shabbat
June 01, 2023
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Across the JEW.S.A. was created with support from the Jewish Federations of North America.

Tablet Studios is the premier destination for smart and entertaining Jewish audio content. Our podcasts include Unorthodox, What Really Matters, Take One, and the limited-run series Gatecrashers, Adventures with Dead Jews, Radioactive: The Father Coughlin Story, and The Franchise.