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Hate-Free Zone

The Jewish Arts Festival celebrates cultural creativity in a challenging world.

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HEYMANN BROTHERS FILMS
  • Heymann Brothers Films

It might be reasonable to wonder, in a year when rallies by hate groups have made national headlines, if the Salt Lake City Jewish Community Center's annual Jewish Arts Festival would focus any of its attention on such issues. Festival coordinator Rita Skolnick, however, takes a practical and somewhat wry approach to that question.

"On the outside looking in, that might be something that's just coming to the forefront," Skolnick says. "For Jews, that's always at the forefront. We had a bomb threat here, so that's obviously on people's minds in the community. But I don't want to dwell on negative things; I want people to come here and have an experience to maybe learn things about people they don't know."

That focus on cultural education is a centerpiece of the festival's mission, even if the event draws a relatively small crowd compared to other ethnic and cultural festivals in Utah. The logistics of the Jewish Community Center's space makes for more intimate individual events—"If we set up a gigantic tent, we could probably pack the house," Skolnick says—but she adds that the goal is to "draw in people who might not otherwise come into the Jewish community. We want [to program] things with a broad appeal, but still representative of modern Jewish life."

As is true of other cultural festivities, that often means an emphasis on distinctive food and music. The festival's opening night features a concert performance by The KlezBros—traditional klezmer-style music by clarinetist David Asman and accordionist Steve Keen—with a catered dinner by Feldman's Deli. Israeli tapas with wine pairings are on the menu on Monday night, leading up to a free screening of the documentary Mr. Gaga, Director Tomer Heymann's profile of Ohad Naharim, artistic director of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company and pioneer of the gaga dance style.

That documentary also indirectly led to a partnership with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company that ultimately had ripples into the company's 2017 season. Once they decided to program Mr. Gaga, the JCC approached Ririe-Woodbury and artistic director Daniel Charon about presenting a piece that would fit into the festival's themes.

For Charon, that presented both a unique opportunity and a challenge. "As a company, we don't do gaga technique," Charon says, "and we don't have any pieces in the repertory. I was very clear from the beginning that we don't represent that [style], and I'm not a spokesman for it."

Charon does, however, come from a Jewish background, and found that the invitation by the JCC got his creative juices flowing in interesting directions. "Once we knew we were doing this, I started doing the work I was doing at that time around Jewish-inspired dances ... using a lot of klezmer music. It reminds me of my family or my community growing up, along the lines of embracing my own history"

The result was Exilic Dances, a piece that Charon and Ririe-Woodbury world-premiered at the Rose Wagner Center in September built around themes of finding oneself in a place of transition, or in a new environment. But the piece as performed for the world premiere wasn't even the extent of what Charon created.

"The exciting thing for me is, it inspired me to do a little bit too much," he says. "The piece became too long, and it became impractical for us to do the whole thing." As a result, there are sections of Exilic Dances—what Charon describes as "B-sides, or outtakes"—that will appear for the first time during the Jewish Arts Festival performance on Nov. 4, while other segments from the originally performed version will be removed, for reasons ranging from time constraints to the height of the JCC space's ceilings. Tickets for that performance include a dinner provided by Mazza restaurant.

These three evenings of showcase events introduce different facets of creative work within and inspired by contemporary Jewish culture. Skolnick appreciates the fact that in a typical year, only around half of those who attend might be members of the local Jewish community, with some traveling from Ogden or Utah County. "We certainly see faces we never see otherwise," she says.

And for those visitors, as well as those in the local Jewish community, there's an opportunity to celebrate cultural creativity without an emphasis on darker political realities. "Certainly the past influences all of this kind of art," Skolnick says. "The Holocaust, pogroms and other things make us who we are today. When people think of Jewish movies, we do show movies about those subjects, and there is a time and a place for them, but we want to show what day-to-day Jewish culture is like around the world, and bring that to the forefront. It's kind of like a little holiday."

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