This Ain’t Your Father’s Klezmer

“Many contemporary Jews are seeking a way to connect to their culture but have lacked the right formula for their lives,” says Adam Davis. For Davis, an actor who’d left the theater for a desk job, the natural way to connect seemed to be through the arts, but he couldn’t find enough of the nontraditional events that most appealed to him. So he decided to create some, with a concert series he calls “Tzitzit: Voices From the Jewish Fringe.” (Tzitzit are the tassels, or fringe, on Jewish ceremonial garments.) Its second season opens Sunday night at HotHouse with a performance by Pharaoh’s Daughter, a Jewish world-music ensemble from New York.

Davis, who grew up in Deerfield, earned a BA in theater from the University of Cincinnati in 1994; after moving back to Chicago he started performing in off-Loop musicals, often working temp jobs at marketing firms to pay the bills. He met “other young Jewish artsy folk” in the theater scene, and it looked to him that there was a community just waiting for something to bring it together. His desire to take action grew as his own involvement in the arts began to wane; by late 2001 he had stopped working in theater and taken a full-time marketing job with Jim Beam Brands back in Deerfield. “I realized that I was pushing paper and traveling an hour to work in the suburbs, and this was not what I signed up for,” he says.

He started compiling a list of Jewish-themed events going on around town–exhibits, concerts, plays, movies–and e-mailing it a couple times a month to his friends. Before long, artists were approaching him to include their shows. Within a few months Davis had given the list a name–Kfar, Hebrew for “village”–and was seriously examining the possibility of presenting his own events. He had long been impressed by the new-Jewish-music scene that emerged in the early 90s in New York–with performers playing highly publicized festivals organized by John Zorn and recording for labels like Zorn’s Tzadik and the Knitting Factory offshoot Jewish Alternative Movement–and felt that Chicago, which has the fifth largest Jewish population in the country, would also support the artists that pushed the boundaries of the traditional. He quit his job at Beam in March 2002 with the aim of turning Kfar into the arts hub he felt Chicago needed.

That spring Davis learned that an Australian punk band called YIDcore was touring the U.S. Seeing his chance to launch a music series, he booked them a July gig at Chase Cafe in East Rogers Park. He expected to draw maybe 30 people; about 150 showed up. “There were kids with payos [the long side curls worn by some Orthodox Jewish men and boys] and kids with piercings,” says Davis. He produced more events that season, including shows by the Latino-Jewish hip-hop group Hip-Hop Hoodios, the New Age folk group Simply Tsfat, and the Israeli rock band Reva L’Sheva at venues like Nevin’s Live, Northwestern University, and the Prodigal Son.

Davis acknowledges that his marketing background influenced some of last season’s bookings. “I wanted to try and do something that would get some PR play, and groups like Hip-Hop Hoodios and YIDcore are out there enough that it worked” he says. “But at some point you raise your sights.” The projected slate for this season still has its share of wackiness, courtesy of acts like the spaced-out klezmer band the Rabbinical School Dropouts, but there are more serious performers as well, from Israeli free-jazz saxophonist Danny Zamir and his trio Satlah–who’ve recorded three fine albums for Zorn’s label–to pop singer Sarah Aroeste, who performs songs in Ladino, the Spanish-derived language of the Sephardic Jews.

Davis’s vision of the “Tzitzit” series as an alternative to mainstream Jewish culture hasn’t kept him from working with more traditional institutions. This season the Spertus Institute is cosponsoring a couple of events (including this Sunday’s), and for nearly every show he’s programmed Davis has landed the artists extra gigs at local synagogues or community centers. “I’m not trying to corner the Jewish music market as much as I’m trying to spread an awareness that there’s something new and contemporary that you can identify with,” he says. “In some respects the organized community has recognized that there’s value in what we’re doing.” For more information on the series go to

Ted Shen

I’m sad to report that longtime Reader critic Ted Shen died October 9 at the age of 53. He wrote about classical and Asian music in this section for many years. Hot Type in Section One has more on his life and death.


This week We Ragazzi head to New York to play a pair of gigs during the CMJ 2003 Music Marathon–the annual music conference presented by the college-radio trade publication CMJ–and they’re not coming back anytime soon. The trio will remain in the city to record their third album, the follow-up to last year’s The Ache (Self-Starter Foundation), and to be closer to labels that might release it. According to singer and guitarist Tony Rolando the band may work with Self-Starter again, but they’re also in discussion with other labels he declined to name. He doesn’t rule out an eventual return to Chicago, but he says the band will stay in New York at least through next fall.

“Highschool is an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural collective that focuses on broadening the discourse between community education and contemporary social understanding,” or so say its organizers, who hope to establish a series of free workshops in art, music, design, and direct action as well as low-cost semester-length classes and music performances. Lisa Flores will program the shows; she says they’ll be followed by Q & A sessions with the musicians. Highschool (1542 N. Milwaukee, third floor) opens Friday; at 7 PM it hosts a reception and discussion of ideas for workshops and classes; a benefit dance party follows at 9, with DJs and live performances by the Lonesome Organist and Mahjongg. Call 773-292-9255 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.