Staff WriterFebruary 20, 2004–Adam Davis, founder of Chicago’s KFAR Jewish Arts Center, presented the first concert in the concert series Tzitzit: Voices from the Jewish Fringe and hoped it would attract 50 people. When 150 showed up to hear YIDCore–a group that Davis describes as “a weird little punk band”–he knew he was onto something.
Now, after two years of single-handedly founding and building KFAR, an endeavor to bring arts and culture to the Chicago Jewish community, Davis will present the Rabbinical School Dropouts as a Purim festival at The HotHouse. Past KFAR concerts at this venue have garnered so much interest that Davis has had to turn people away. The “esoteric space klezmer” band that mixes klezmer, jazz, funk, rock, and more is expected to attract a large crowd, many of them loyal to the endeavor that Davis describes as more of an adventure than a business.
KFAR is part of a growing movement of Jewish arts and culture organizations that are helping to fuel what Davis calls a “Jewish Renaissance.” A loose network of similar organizations is emerging, seeking ways to collaborate on major, national-scope Jewish cultural events focused on engagement through arts and music.
“We need these programs not just to reach people, but to reflect on and contemplate who we are as a people, where we’ve come from and where we’re headed in the future. I guess you’d call that ‘KFAR for art’s sake’,” says Davis.
Davis says his love for music is rooted in his childhood at Congregation Bnai Tikvah in Deerfield, where the rabbi and cantor believed the congregation should be the chorus. “On Shabbat I would go to services and sing along. When everyone was sitting in the back giggling, I was one of the kids who would sit up front. So from an early age I was harmonizing, and I was interested in not just music, but Jewish music,” says Davis.
Davis went on to receive a degree in musical theater and established a successful career in Chicago. But when it came to Jewish life, he was disconnected. “I was unable to connect to the Jewish community the way I wanted, because I didn’t have my Friday and Saturday nights free. I wanted to meet other young Jews that were like me.”
Though Davis left the theater scene, it was not until a marketing stint made him dissatisfied that he found his niche in the Jewish community. “I found myself working at a job that I wasn’t happy about and I said, ‘How did I get from doing what I love to doing this?’ I wanted to get back to it [the arts] and I wanted to do something that really involved something about being Jewish.”
At the same time, Davis says the Jewish music scene was growing on the coasts and there was nothing that mirrored it in Chicago. “I thought, this is a great town with a great arts scene and a sizeable Jewish population. There is no reason that we shouldn’t have something interesting going on here in terms of Jewish music and Jewish theater.”
Davis founded KFAR Jewish Arts Center by e-mailing a few friends information about Jewish cultural events. The list and events grew, and today KFAR presents a season of concerts featuring local bands and bringing in groups from around the country. Though the bands range in style, Davis has a good sense that if he likes the sound of their music, there are others who will appreciate it too. The center is working on expanding to include other cultural events, including theater and poetry readings.
Davis says KFAR has tapped into a population that previously was not being reached by the Jewish community. Many of the concertgoers are unaffiliated young people who, for various reasons, never set foot in a synagogue or a JCC, says Davis, who asks people about the other Jewish events they attend. “There’s a mix of people who are unaffiliated and affiliated. There are some people who are purely interested in music and some who are more spiritually motivated but looking for a connection through music. Among those who are “affiliated” it runs the gamut from all of the movements. There are people from West Rogers Park and Wicker Park.”
Realizing that the larger Jewish community strives to engage this unaffiliated population, Davis offers synagogues throughout Chicago an opportunity to have a second concert featuring the bands KFAR brings to town. KFAR subsidizes the events that would otherwise be too difficult and expensive for synagogues. “There’s a need to do the same kind of programming within the established Jewish world. Synagogues don’t know which acts to book and they can’t afford it,” says Davis.
Davis says the most difficult part of his endeavor is financial. KFAR is financed through Davis’s own pocket and ticket sales.
Still, he hopes his one-man operation will grow to include more help and financial assistance in the coming years. “I hope it’s heading toward a community that is further enriched by Jewish music on a regular basis. One that has access to different programming in a variety of different places and levels–from youth programs, to synagogue programs, to programs that take place at traditional arts venues like I’m already doing.”
As for the Purim concert, attendees can count on hearing some good music and enjoying hamentashen. Davis says no one should worry though, “We won’t be reading a megillah or anything.”
Rabbinical School Dropouts will play at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 7 at The HotHouse, Chicago $15 at the door, $12 in advance. More information is at the KFAR website.