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Joburg Jewish artists jam on Sukkot

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STEVEN GRUZD

The Sukkot tradition of ushpizin, an Aramaic word roughly translated as “guests” or “hospitality” follows a Kabbalistic tradition in which various biblical figures are invited symbolically into the sukkah each night to dine with the family. The fourth night’s guest is Moshe, and on this occasion, the matriarch, Leah, joined him. The evening of musical performance was a collaboration between two relatively new organisations in the city’s art scene – 9th Street and Creative Gatherings.

Singer and artist Leigh Nudelman said that the seeds for 9th Street were planted when she attended the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Saldanha Bay in May 2018. There, she had some profound discussions about what it means to be a young Jew in South Africa today. “How do Jews fit in?” she asked, “Where do we locate ourselves? We live in bubbles, inside and outside the Jewish community.”

She also felt a distinct generation gap, with older people not understanding the dislocation and dilemmas facing Jewish youth. To carry on these conversations, she invited Jewish artists and friends to her house, and 9th Street was born to promote Jewish artists in the city.

The name refers to the 9th Street Shul in Orange Grove, nestled between Paterson Park and the bustling Louis Botha Avenue.

“Art and culture play a huge role in finding ways of belonging, and narrating Jewish identity in Johannesburg today,” Nudelman said. “We want to nurture high-quality Jewish artists and their art. 9th Street provides a vehicle to present their work, get feedback, and provide support.”

Nudelman says it has about 70 members, with roughly 20 attending monthly meetings. Ushpizin was its first major public performance.

She and guitarist and singer, Farryl Roth, presented a reinterpretation of the story of Leah, the sad sister that Jacob was duped into marrying. The Azuri Street Orchestra summoned its African ancestors into the rooftop sukkah with its mesmerising melodies.

Roth, whose day job is in physiotherapy, said, “Joburg lacks cultural centres for lots of mediums. We want to create a cultural hub for Jewish artists to collaborate. We all feel isolated as artists in the city. I think we’ve found a home in 9th Street. It’s important that artists use Joburg as a creative local space.

“We want to walk in the city, reclaim its spaces. We want to explore and rejuvenate old Jewish buildings, interesting shuls. Some are deserted, unused. We want to use them again, reignite them through music and art.” In future, they hope to do “curated” walks in Johannesburg, where participants will encounter performance and exhibitions on their journey.

For the ushpizin performance, 9th Street partnered with Creative Gatherings, a network that gives ideas and support to artists, inside and outside the Jewish community. One of its founders, the aptly named Moshe Singer, describes Creative Gatherings as “a community-building art and music project”. It was started two years ago by Singer (a drama teacher), music therapist Yael Shapiro, and Alon Cohen, who handles the technical aspects.

“Creative Gatherings has a simple philosophy of bringing people from all backgrounds together through collaboration to build community. Its goals include professional development and forming a social and support group.”

This was its first joint gig with 9th Street, and all agreed it was a tremendous success, showcasing amazing artists deep into the night. “Everything we do is an experiment,” said Nudelman, “and from each thing we do together, we learn and develop as individuals and as a group.”

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