"Chorus pro Musica is not Jewish," says Ball, "but they approached Josh Jacobson about doing Ernst Bloch's Sacred Service — 'We did it 18 years ago and no one's done it since.' " So it became part of the BJMF program. Similar coincidences and acts of outreach will see BJMF events in communities as far flung as Framingham, Sharon, Waltham, and Needham.
One of the performers Baron is high on is legendary 88-year-old Ladino singer Flory Jagoda (March 9 at Gann Academy, Waltham), whom he describes as "a cross between Eubie Blake and Dr. Ruth." Then there's the young Israeli singer-songwriter Ruth Dolores Weiss (March 11 at Harvard Hillel, Cambridge), who sings in both Hebrew and English. "She doesn't have a traditionally pretty voice, but there's something beautifully raw and emotional about her. She's like a love child between Nina Simone and Tom Waits." (You can find Weiss's hair-raising cover of Nick Cave's "No More Shall We Part" on YouTube.)
Ball sees the BJMF as riding an explosion of Jewish culture — from Matisyahu and Heeb magazine to a revival of Yiddish theater at Harvard and even the comedy of Jon Stewart. "I mean, there's a whole Jewy sense out there now that's really grown nicely, and I think we're part of it."
RUTH DOLORES WEISS: Think the love child of Nina Simone and Tom Waits — but Jewish.
The coming couple of weeks of Jewish-related music will also include Israeli pop star Idan Raichel at Berklee on March 7, and on March 13 Jewish-music subversives the Klezmatics — an outfit that in essence spun off from the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Scholarly, comic, musically adept, the Klezmatics have always been politically aware. Shvaygn = Toyt ("Silence = Death"), their very first disc, on Rounder, was a radicalized Yiddish response to the AIDS crisis. Nonetheless, says trumpeter and founding member Frank London, they've always seen themselves as "rather conservative — klezmer being Eastern European instrumental music as it related to Yiddish culture."
At least, he adds, that's how they saw themselves for their first 15 years. But two projects began to change their conception. One was an invitation by Nora Guthrie to set some of her father Woody's more Jewish-themed lyrics to music — lyrics written when he was living with his Jewish wife (Nora's mother) on Coney Island. (A similar project produced the two Billy Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue CDs.) The result was two albums, the latter of which, Wonder Wheel (Frea), won a world-music Grammy.
The second project, 2005's Brother Moses Smote the Water (Piranha), marked a collaboration between the Klezmatics and the Jewish African-American gospel singer Joshua Nelson, who will join the band at Berklee. Originally conceived as a telling of the Passover story (it was recorded at a 2004 concert in Berlin), the album mixed traditional Jewish liturgical music with rafter-raising African-American gospel. The band's singer, Lorin Sklamberg, matched his clear, light, lyric-tenor klezmer chops with Nelson's powerful gospel tenor and Mahalia Jackson–inspired phrasing.
With these two experiences under their belt, says London, "we realized among other things that the Klezmatics could go out and be the Klezmatics — a band that has been together for more than 20 years and has a way of playing and a common language that has been informed on every level by klezmer and by the Yiddish language — but that we could do more and still maintain our band identity."