What a difference four years can make. In 2002, Aaron Bisman was a 22-year-old New York University graduate with the unlikeliest of goals: to nurture a Jewish community through music. Four years later, Bisman, along with his partner, Ben Hesse, sits at the helm of one of the most promising ventures in contemporary Jewish culture: JDub Records.
But the ride hasn’t been entirely smooth. To begin with, the mission seemed radical compared with the established principles of organized Jewish life. But Bisman managed to corral sufficient financial support, including a Joshua Venture grant of $60,000 and a UJA-Federation of New York grant through the commission on Jewish identity and renewal. Then, earlier this year, the star of their stable, Hasidic reggae celebrity Matisyahu — whom they had shepherded to fame and genuine crossover appeal — decided to seek out new management. “He said, ‘I don’t know if you guys are old enough or have enough experience,’” Bisman told The New York Times. At the time, some observers worried that the loss might inflict a critical blow to the not-for-profit record label.
Less than a year later, it seems those worries were unfounded. For proof, one need look only at Bisman’s current schedule, which is pulled between organizing a prominent Hanukkah concert Jewltide in Brooklyn, and running a new fellowship for emerging Jewish artists — not to mention managing a growing number of progressive Jewish artists, including Balkan Beat Box, an electronica-folk band; the six-piece klezmer-punk band Golem; Yiddish rapper DJ Socalled, and the rock band The Levees. It may have been too small for one artist’s growing britches, but JDub has managed to emerge as the perfect fit for a host of others.
“[JDub] has always given us lots of attention and support,” said Annette Ezekiel, lead singer and founder of Golem. “They were just as committed to us before the whole Matisyahu thing as after.” (Golem, the first female-fronted project on JDub’s roster, put out its first album, “Fresh Off Boat,” in August and has sold almost 1,000 albums, thanks to a national tour and to brisk sales from online stores. And the group is headlining JDub’s Vodka Latka shows in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, as well as the Jewltide tour through Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.)
Creating a market for these “niche” artists takes work, on the part of the musician, as well as on those of the Bisman and JDub. Artists commit to intense touring and connecting with fans, in addition to working with JDub to build a strategic plan of development. “What we can offer an artist is a larger mechanism to expose potential fans to their music,” Bisman said. JDub does that largely by working with an extensive network of journalists, bloggers and publicists to target listeners and raise awareness of each artist by getting albums reviewed, securing TV and radio performance bookings, and disseminating music to DJs, coffee shops and radio stations.
Bisman feels that the music he produces and promotes can have a direct impact on Jewish listeners — be it Balkan Beat Box singing in Hebrew and Arabic at Bonaroo, or more than 400 people coming together to celebrate Hanukkah through live music at Jewltide. “Whether it’s what you take from the lyrics, or the melody, or who’s on stage, singing — or even from who you experience the music with, who you’re dancing with in the crowd, where it is you hear the music — all of these factors have the potential to affect your identity. And when the context, content or venue is authentically Jewish, it can be nurturing Jewish identity,” Bisman said.
When not working with his current slate of talent, Bisman — a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., who studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University and at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a not-for-profit denominational religious institution — spends much of his time working on Six Points Fellowship, a collaboration among JDub, Avodah Arts and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. The two-year fellowship program will provide 12 New York-based visual, musical and performing artists with financial support, professional development workshops, and ongoing peer- and professional-led mentorships. And Bisman convinced the United Jewish Appeal — not exactly known as the most cutting-edge Jewish institution around — to allocate $1 million for the initiative, the largest grant that the UJA has awarded to individual artists in the history of the organization.
“JDub has been involved with Six Points for over a year now. I spend a lot of time on it, and have committed a lot of my staff’s time to launch this,” Bisman said. “It’s a pretty unique opportunity, and meets our goals of nurturing new Jewish creative expression.”
And, though JDub is based in New York, part of Bisman’s goal is to build a community focused on not a limited geography but on love of Jewishly identified music. “The ultimate goal is to find new, indigenous talent in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston,” he said, adding that JDub is planning four to five events a year in other cities, in order to establish a national presence.
“There are different voices, different sounds out there,” he said. “I want JDub and Jewish culture to be part and parcel in those local scenes.”
Dan Levin is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.