In 1980 Skokie, Ill. lawyer Michael Lorge and about 20 of his friends were trying to create a positive Jewish community response for what they saw as an identity in trouble. Though Israel and Egypt had established diplomatic relations in January, only three months later five Palestinian Arabs from the Iraqi-backed Arab Liberation Front raided the north Israel Misgav Am kibbutz nursery, killing one child and one adult then holding the other children hostage until the IDF killed all five Arabs though two kibbutzim and one soldier died. In July the Knesset faced intense international criticism for a law affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“We needed to do something to portray an authentic Jewish-American identity that was beyond the politics of the time,” Lorge, now 58, says, remembering the idea of “promoting Jewish culture and spirituality in an accessible way. That’s what became the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival.” Every member of that core steering committee still works on the festival. “Half don’t come to all the meetings but they do show up at every event ready to work along with between 250-300 other volunteers,” he says.
Lorge claims the bi-annual Chicago gathering, which is being held this year on June 5, is not only the oldest but also the largest Jewish festival in the U.S., estimating that 20,000 attended in 2014. Lorge and his colleagues chase down any and every type of Jewish organization in metropolitan Chicago and offer them a space or tent of some kind.
This year, Lorge is trying something a bit different — designing 25 fiberglass pomegranates that are being painted by a variety of Jewish organizations — but music remains the main component. “Part of our mission is to find the best local Jewish talent — artists and artisans as well as musicians — so we can stage them with recognized performers, all toward offering a complete experience of being Jewish in Chicago,” Lorge says.
The bi-annual festival has a broad music lineup that taps the city’s estimable roots in blues and jazz as well as klezmer and traditional Israeli folk music. It also shares a performer and dovetails with the fourth Israeli Jazz and World Music Festival from May 26 through June 2, seven performances at high-profile venues such as Buddy Guy’s Legends club, Fitzgerald’s, and the venerable Old Town School of Folk Music.
Looking and sounding like a member of ZZ Top, the dexterous guitarist Lazer Lloyd (Eliezer Blumen) goes from hard blues to straight jazz and occasionally into deft interpretations of eminent rock guitarists with fluidity. He joined the Jewish-American emigré jam band Reva L’Sheva in Israel in 1996 after making aliyah and stayed for ten years before starting his solo career. Lloyd is performing May 29 at Fitzgerald’s in nearby Berwyn, Ill.
The Chicago Tribune’s longtime jazz writer Howard Reich says the festival is “remarkable.” It has a curatorial touch provided by Kevin Fine, the cultural affairs associate of the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest and a drummer himself. Consul General Roey Gilad calls it his “flagship event.”
“When we started I really did not know what to expect,” Gilad says. “Now it’s a wonderfully successful commodity for us in all kinds of communities in Chicago as well as reaching out across the Midwest (his territory is 11 states) to build an appreciation of Israeli culture. These musicians will be going into a Baptist church, a Latino church, and other events in Chicago neighborhoods serving people who aren’t often able to come to events downtown.
“This consulate is here to build bridges,” he continues. “And it’s often the case that cultural events are the best bridge we can build from Israel, 6,000 miles away, with America, just as other foreign consulates do.”
The Israeli-American blues guitarist and singer Guy King will play both Chicago festivals and lives in Chicago, which was something of a pilgrimage for him after his stint in the Israeli military in 1999. His Chicago credentials were certified this year when he recorded, “Truth,” for Chicago’s renowned Delmark label.
At the relaxed end of the guitar world at the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival June 5 is folkie Shuly Nathan, most famous for “Yerushalaim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”) that launched her career just after the six-day war.
In the aura of many of these festival performers across the U.S. — especially Lazer Lloyd, whom he convinced to make aliyah, and Nathan — is the enormous influence of the late rabbi-musician Shlomo Carlebach, the peripatetic and charismatic teacher and singer-songwriter raised Orthodox in Berlin but became famous for mainstreaming Hasidic music in concerts and synagogue services in several countries, recording 27 albums including live shows at New York’s Village Gate (1963), Tel Aviv (1976) and Johannesburg (1986) along with Sabbath services.
Carlebach seems embedded in the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival as well. “Since the beginning we’ve tried to make the festival grow organically and, in an innovative way across generations, create a special experience that reflects the complexity of the Jewish way of life whether you’re Reform or Orthodox or whatever. Even if you’re not Jewish,” Lorge said.