Ahavas Sholom, Newark’s 109-year-old Conservative synagogue, will play a vital part in celebrating the “intersections” of blacks and Jews before, during, and after the TD James Moody Jazz Festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Between the opening reception for the exhibit “Jazz, Jews, and African-Americans: Cultural Intersections in Newark and Beyond” on Oct. 18 and the closing reception on Dec. 13, the synagogue and its Jewish Museum of New Jersey will host five separate programs encompassing the theme.
The fourth annual jazz festival will run at NJPAC Nov. 4-15; the exhibit will also be a stop on the Newark Arts Council’s Oct. 15-18 Open Doors Citywide Arts Festival.
Live performances, films, a photographic exhibit, and a panel discussion held in connection with these events “can’t help but bring the two communities closer,” said NJPAC CEO John Schreiber.
“The fact that there is a functioning synagogue in Newark is really important to me as a Jew who cares about Newark,” he said in an Oct. 7 phone interview. “The idea of turning the synagogue into not only a gallery but a performance space is something that I love the idea of. Working with the synagogue and the Institute for Jazz Studies and some of the neighboring churches, this series of events we’ve put together will turn the volume up on an important part of our community that deserves recognition.”
The Institute for Jazz Studies is housed at Rutgers University’s Newark campus. Its research director, Tad Hershorn, created the panels illustrating black-Jewish musical connections that will be on display at the museum.
“We will show interactions between Jews and African-Americans over the course of a century,” he told NJJN. “Jazz is through-and-through an African-American art, and in the glory years of American popular music, there are people of all races, colors, and creeds. One of the more notable examples is the Jewish songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. People like Irving Berlin, Dorothy Fields, George and Ira Gershwin, Jule Styne, and Arthur Schwartz were major creators of the American songbook.”
The exhibit will focus on figures like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, Jews who led the first racially integrated big bands.
Max Herman of Jersey City, president of the museum and chair of the program’s planning committee, recalled that Louis Armstrong wore a star of David around his neck for most of his adult life. It was a tribute to Myer Karnofsky, a fellow native of New Orleans who launched the 10-year-old boy’s historical career as a trumpeter by paying for his first cornet.
Other key figures include stride pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith, who had a Jewish father, grew up in Newark, became a bar mitzva there, and worked as a cantor for a black-Jewish congregation in Harlem.
And among the best known jazz promoters is the pianist George Wein, a self-described “Jewish kid from the North” who founded the Newport Jazz Festival.
“Throughout the history of jazz, Jews and African-Americans have always played together, worked together, and built bridges and set examples for the rest of us,” Schreiber said.
Maintaining and strengthening those bridges has been a key goal of Eric Freedman, president of Ahavas Sholom. “I have spent a lot of time trying to forge personal relationships with the African-American and Latino people and their churches in Newark,” he said. Four of Newark’s churches are also involved in the programs.
The inspiration came when Freedman happened to meet Schreiber at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany in September of 2014 at the “Great Shofar Blowout,” an event sponsored by the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life.
“I went up to him and introduced myself as ‘your friendly neighborhood synagogue president,’” recalled Freedman. “I invited him to use our shul as satellite space and said, ‘Call me.’ He offered to host a program at the synagogue.”
NJPAC’s Schreiber will be a panelist in a Nov. 22 discussion on the cultural relationships between African-Americans and Jews. He has had more than 20 years of connections with jazz, largely through his close association with Wein.
“I think the programs at the synagogue and the churches can’t help but bring the two communities closer,” Schreiber said. “Music is and always has been a healing force.”
The exhibit’s producing partners are the museum, the institute, Ahavas Sholom, NJPAC, and radio station WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM; cultural partners are Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church, Project Hope, Iglesia El Sembrador Pentecostal Church, Mount Zion Baptist Church, New Jersey City University, and the Newark Arts Council.