What makes music Jewish?
Sonoma State University’s fifth annual Jewish Music Series, a collaborative effort between the university’s music and Jewish studies programs, attempts to answer that question by hosting six Thursday evening performances between Sept. 5 and Nov. 21.
The artists and their genres come from many corners of Jewish life, from Yiddish songwriting to Armenian folk singing.
“One of my primary goals is to present a wide variety of what we call ‘Jewish music,’” said series organizer Brian Wilson, director of the Jewish studies program and an SSU music professor. “Most people think klezmer. I love klezmer music. But there’s a lot more.”
The series begins Sept. 5 with “Yiddish Songs at an Exhibition.” Cantor Sharon Bernstein, a Palo Alto native and hazzan at Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco since 2007, will perform a multimedia show that includes projected images of paintings by Toronto-based artist Mayer Kirshenblatt, whose works showcase life in Poland before the Holocaust.
On Sept. 19, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell and Dmitri Gaskin will take the stage as Tsvey Brider, Yiddish for “Two Brothers.” The duo will play songs about modern life and explore a variety of genres, including classical, cabaret, blues and pop.
In “Days of Awe” on Oct. 3, Old World trio Veretski Pass will add the sound of a shofar (by Wilson) to its regular lineup of accordion, violin, cimbalom and double bass instruments. This concert will take place between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
On Oct. 17, “Love Songs and Lullabies to Lost Homelands” will feature Hasmik Harutyunyan and Kitka in a salute to Armenia, where lullabies take on historical, cultural and linguistic meaning — beyond their main purpose of helping someone to fall asleep. Harutyunyan is an Armenian folk singer who earned praise from the New York Times for her 2004 release “Armenian Lullabies,” and Kitka is a U.S. women’s vocal ensemble inspired by the musical sounds and techniques of the Old Country.
On Nov. 7, soprano Carol Menke will perform songs from “Breath in a Ram’s Horn,” a song cycle by composer Daniel Asia that includes words from American poet Paul Pines. The lyrics carry themes of Jewish identity and family life.
The series will wrap up Nov. 21 with a showing of the 1920 silent film “The Golem: How He Came into the World” while an ensemble plays a jazzy score that was written about a decade ago. The 91-minute fantasy-horror film is set in 16th-century Prague, and the ensemble is a quintet of clarinet, violin, trombone (euphonium), contrabass and piano.
Each concert begins at 6:30 p.m. and will run for about 90 minutes. The venue is Schroeder Hall at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center in Rohnert Park. Admission is free; parking is $5. For more information, visit music.sonoma.edu. or call (707) 664-2324.