— by Mira Treatman
It was a brutally cold Thursday night at Old City Coffee as locavorish (who eat locally-produced food) arts appreciators piled into the forty-seat house to see harp-centric power folk bands: Liz and the Lost Boys and Snow Caps. The show, co-sponsored by Café Olam and Moishe House Philadelphia, was in celebration of Tu B’shvat, the birthday of the trees. This celebration is quite relevant to Café Olam because of its mission as “a cultural space that will serve as a source of engagement for the Jewish and general community to help strengthen connections.” Honoring the living things in our world, or olam in Hebrew, is a very direct way of furthering environmental responsibility.
More after the jump.
The woman behind this organization is founder and Jewish non-profit guru, Laurel Klein. This was and is a major passion project that was developed further by the Tribe 12 Fellowship in 2011. In an effort to support this emerging Jewish organization, proceeds from the concert went directly to Café Olam. Next steps for the organization are to secure a permanent home for on-sight on-site beer brewing and to continue to bring young urban Jews together. Andrew Keller, singer-songwriter in Snow Caps remarked: “The fact that the show was a benefit really made me happy. I wish Cafe Olam much success.”
Moishe House, the second of the two organizations, envisions itself as “the global leader of pluralistic Jewish life for adults in their twenties, so that they have the leadership, knowledge and community to enrich their Jewish journeys.”
Philadelphia’s house, of which your author is a resident, organizes at least seven events per month in exchange for a program budget, a rent subsidy, and other opportunities for professional and spiritual development. The concert at Old City Coffee is an example of a typical program in the sense that it celebrates a traditional festivity in an innovative way. It is unusual to an extent because it is an arts-focused event completely orchestrated by residents.
Over the last nine months, Moishe House Philly has increasingly organized arts events both at their home and at local venues such as the National Museum of American Jewish History and The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. One house show even featured Snow Caps, which was so very exciting!
Keller and his band mates — Spencer Carrow, Yianni Kourmadas, Darian Scatton, and Roger Martinez — opened the show with a set of original songs featuring lush string arrangements for harp and guitar and warm clarinet parts that were fittingly modal, neurotic, and introspective. Snow Caps as a full band often sounded nostalgic like twenty first century sea-faring pirate types sailing down Baltimore Avenue. Particularly haunting refrains stood out throughout the set, notably in Snow Caps’ finale song. Keller sang “make it sing, make it sing, sing a thing, make it sing” as Martinez echoed enigmatically with a wistful, rising clarinet. At times the songs sound like regal court dances while others get down with a funky stomp driving fast-paced lyrics. Harmonic complexity reigns throughout. Keller said:
It was a treat to perform at Old City Coffee. We were overwhelmed by the amount of people there, and everyone in the audience was very attentive and patient, even between songs. It was also nice to see some fresh faces. I knew a few people, but most of the audience was seeing Snow Caps for the first time. I also just think it’s really great that there is a Jewish holiday to celebrate trees.
Liz Ciavolino, singer-songwriter of Liz and the Lost Boys, is no stranger to the Jewish community. She reflected:
I don’t feel like an outsider in Jewish communities too often. My dad’s side of the family is Jewish and so I grew up around some Jewish culture. My aunt and uncle lead a klezmer band for a long time and I celebrated a handful of Jewish holidays. Though I’m not practicing, I definitely see it as part of my heritage and I enjoy participating in it. This event in particular was very welcoming and supportive
Ciavolino also shared that some of her songs even contain biblical themes. She “grew up in a Christian home and attended church weekly for (her) entire childhood, memorized a lot of scripture, and sang lots of hymns. It’s still a part of who (she is) and always will be.” One of her songs even has a few explicit Old Testament references. “Since I grew up with it from an early age, biblical references have a strong, deep meaning for me,” she continued.
Liz and the Lost Boys features Ciavolino on lead vocals and harp with mostly original songs composed with a mathy, jazz influence with sprinkles of heartache mixed in mostly on harp, minus the uber-feminine angel imagery. This is clearly evidenced in a medley with a working title “Whole Tone/Unravel”, composed on a twelve-tone scale that boasts the lyrics “only a good man can break your heart and only the best ones will leave a star”.
In addition to her harp and piano driven songwriting, one of Liz’s other signatures is that her band of lost boys is constantly evolving. They are often literally quite lost. Performing this time were Dane Galloway and Joel Sephy of My Son Bison, Will Wright and Matt Scarano. This particular iteration of the band was especially tight. Wright on bass and Galloway on guitar were really playing with each other and seemed to be very conscious of how their intricate parts drove the songs together. Liz, sporting a gamine but powerful pixie cut, is the diva.
So what made this show Jewish other than the sponsoring organizations? What was the connection between the music performances and the holiday Tu B’shvat? The point illustrated by this concert and other similar programming from Café Olam and Moishe House, is that the Jewishness of youthful community gatherings should be constantly evolving. While this is not completely true for all members of the young Jewish community, a significant handful does value innovation in programming and observance over tradition.
For example, at a recent Moishe House event co-sponsored by LGBTQ Jewish group Spectrum Philly, event participants openly talked about their frustrations with the typical Jewish singles events and how alienating they can be. How is the future of Judaism going to work if every single self-identifying Jew isn’t one-hundred per cent included? The artistic and social success of this concert is a testament to the fact that young Jews today can both celebrate a very traditional holiday, Tu B’shvat, while also celebrating the breadth of sub-identities within “Jewish”.
Check out the Café Olam website to learn more about it. To stay up to date with Moishe House Philadelphia events, connect with the calendar and social media here. Snow Caps albums can be listened to and purchased here. Their album “Baby Bird” is sold out, but the stellar “Moonbreak” is still available. Liz and the Lost Boys, who are releasing a new album in June, have music here. The host venue for this concert was coffee roaster and café, Old City Coffee. Check their website for information about beans and treats, happenings and tastings.