From his home in the Christian farm town of Grass Lake, which sits outside of Ann Arbor, research scientist Jack Zaientz is one of the Midwest's most prolific purveyors of Jewish music. His blog proves it.
Raised in Connecticut, Zaientz spent much of his youth hanging out in the punk clubs of New York and Boston. As he matured, he sought out traditional folk and jazz concerts. He even organized a few shows himself, working the fringes of the music industry. Zaientz is Jewish, however the connection between his religious and musical identities wasn't made until the mid-'90s, when the connection was thrust upon him like some holy revelation.
"The band that totally broke it open for me is called Kletka Red. They're a German group — I actually don't even know if any of them are Jewish or not — that came out of the punk and avant-garde scene in Germany," Zaientz says.
"They'd released a record called Hijacking on John Zorn's influential label, Tzadik, that was a punk exploration of Yiddish music."
He found the record in a used Jewish music bin at a San Francisco record store. "I was aimlessly looking around, curious if I'd find anything more than Fiddler on the Roof, and I was shocked at what I found," Zaientz says. "Here was this dark album cover with this guy holding a guitar, it looked sorta punk, it called out to me. I brought it home, threw it on, and that was it. I jumped down the rabbit hole."
One thing Zaientz learned through his formal education was in order to really learn anything, he'd need work and deadlines. "If nobody's grading me, if I don't have a project to work on, I never get anywhere," he says. "I suck at learning if I don't have homework." So to learn more about the music he'd just fell in love with, he did the inevitable. "I started the music blog thinking that it'd be a good way to always have homework."
That was five years ago. Since its inception, his site [teruah-jewishmusic.blogspot.com] has kept a close eye on modern Jewish music, both traditional as well as contemporary influenced by klezmer, of which there's plenty, he says.
"There's this very real renaissance happening right now; traditional music, the klezmer and Sephardic, but also punk, rock, hip hop, and avant-garde jazz stuff." He says the most significant revival is perhaps that of Sephardic Jewish music, which is born out of the Mediterranean basin. "There's music from Spain, Italy, and Greece as much as Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt," he says.
And there's a lot going on in Michigan too.
"From the Heartland Klezmorim out of Lansing, to the Red Sea Pedestrians in Kalamazoo, and the Kids Klez Band in the Detroit suburbs. And there's David Nefesh, and this guy called the Jewish Troubadour. There's another set of folks in the orthodox scene too."
Zaientz has become hands-on in helping foster the Jewish music scene in southeast Michigan, sitting on the steering committee for this year's Stephen Gottlieb Jewish Music Fest, where he was instrumental in organizing the progressive and local showcases.
The festival's headliners are composer Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line) and David Booza, who Zaientz likens to an Israeli Bruce Springsteen, "as far as populist folk-rock guys go."
Featuring the Chicago pop group Stereo Sinai, and the punkish group Pitom, who draw comparisons to a klezmer take on Queens of the Stoned Age, the progressive showcase will be headlined by Brooklyn rapper Y-Love. Born Yitz Jordan, Y-Love is a black orthodox Jew who intertwines English, Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic and Latin, working in scripture to songs about social consciousness.
On Thursday, March 24, Jack Zaientz will talk: "The Silver Age of American Jewish Music Is Happening Now — And Why We're Missing It!"
The 2011 JCC Stephen Gottlieb Music Festival runs March 23-April 3. All programs will be held at the at the JCC's D. Dan & Betty Kahn Building, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield, and the Jimmy Prentis Morris Building, 15110 W. 10 Mile Road, Oak Park. More info at jccdet.org; 248-432-5652.