Jewish Journal

Passover Fest Offers Many Paths to Fun

by Robert David Jaffee

Posted on Apr. 6, 2006 at 8:00 pm

At a time when hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded downtown chanting "Let My People Stay," Passover may be resonating more acutely across all racial and ethnic groups than it has in recent years.

It is not only illegal immigrants for whom the Passover tale holds appeal. The story of the Exodus can be easily updated for any of the numerous people in the Third World seeking freedom from oppression. That is why Craig Taubman, who has produced events like Sunday Funday at the Ford Theater, has broadened the scope of Let My People Sing, his inaugural Passover festival, to include a seder on behalf of those suffering in Darfur. That is also why he has included musicians like Ani, a Malaysian Muslim, and Joshua Nelson, an African American who says he descends from the Jews of Senegal.

Every program is free, except for the seders, the profits of which go to building medical and water facilities in Darfur, said Taubman, who adds that at all the events people will receive gifts.

The eight-day festival actually takes place over 12 days. It kicked off on April 4 with a Clippers basketball game. Some of the festival participants sang the "National Anthem" at the Staples Center; others will play in basketball tournaments on the last day of the fest, April 16, at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, a recreational property that Genie Benson, one of the organizers, refers to as "the best kept secret in L.A."

Benson, executive director of Keshet Chaim, an Israeli folk ballet dance ensemble, is spearheading Let My People Rock, a full-day finale at Brandeis-Bardin. While some kids play hoops, others will replicate the Exodus by going on a trek through the 3,000-acre hilly property, led by an individual resembling Moses. Benson says that there will be a number of surprises along the way. That's not including the different "culture" tents, such as a Moroccan tent and a Persian tent that simulate a Middle Eastern village. Or the giant sand sculpture being carved by Kirk Rademaker, an interactive environmental artist. Or the performances by the Israeli rap group, Hadag Nachash, and singers Rick Recht and Nelson.

Nelson may hail most recently from East Orange, N.J., but he traces his Jewish ancestry back to the West Coast of Africa. The 29-year-old singer, who sings and composes what he calls kosher gospel, soul music with Jewish liturgy, has been performing since his bar mitzvah. He was 18 when he released his first CD.

Nelson says that Jews of African descent, by which he means not only Falash Mura from Ethiopia but also Ugandan Jews, Nigerian Jews and Lemba Jews from Southern Africa, view Passover as the New Year because it celebrates aviv, or the spring. Because of the obvious parallels to black slavery, Nelson says that African Americans, irrespective of their religion, identify with the Jews in the Passover story.

So do many Muslims of different racial backgrounds. Ani, who will be singing passages from the Quran with the backing of the A.M.E. Church Gospel Choir at the Islamic Center of Southern California, said that, "Islam is very inclusive of all faiths, especially of the Abrahamic faiths."

Ani has performed at many interfaith gatherings in the past, including a Muslim-Jewish seder at Wilshire Boulevard Temple; she points out that all faiths have a version of the Passover story, a story about struggling for freedom. In a phone interview, she reads a passage from the Quran in which the Israelites flee Pharaoh so that they can worship Allah.

Beyond the inclusion of non-Jews in the program, Taubman has also planned events all around Los Angeles, whether it's Koreatown, the locale of the Islamic Center for Ani's event, UCLA Hillel for the Darfur seder, Pasadena for a Raise the Roof performance by Rick Recht's band, or the West Valley for the Let My People Rock freedom walk.

Nor is he limiting the entertainment to song, dance and basketball. There will also be comedy. Comedian Joel Chasnoff will perform on Friday and Saturday, April 14 and 15.

Chasnoff, 31, hopes that attendees "come out with a different view on Judaism" than they had before the show. For Chasnoff, the humor, even absurdity, of Judaism is in its "strange details." For instance, he likes to talk about the hilarity of keeping kosher in the modern era. Boiling calves and milk may have been routine in 1906, but these practices sound almost alien in 2006.

If these kind of observations remind one of Jerry Seinfeld's brand of humor, that is not surprising because Chasnoff admires Seinfeld's dedication to writing. Chasnoff, who once opened for Jon Stewart and cites the "Daily Show" host as another comic influence, will also regale audience members with tales of Jewish guilt. One favorite line of his mother's: "If my son worked just a little bit harder, I, too, could have an honor roll student."

Like Chasnoff, many of the organizers and performers cite family as the common theme to Passover. Benson, the organizer of the finale at Brandeis, points out that Passover is uniquely participatory for everyone, children, adults, even strangers. She remembers how her father "always rented a room and invited everyone. No one had to pay. Just like now."

Everyone may have participated, but she says that her father, in not charging anyone, was not being altruistic so much as trying to control the nature of the seder.

As her father would say, "When everyone contributes, everyone has an opinion."

Let My People Sing, which opened with a Clippers game on April 4, continues through April 16. For more information, visit www.letmypeoplesing.com or call (818) 760-1077.

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