New day: David Katznelson brings an all-night festival to the opening of the new Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF. (Posters courtesy Dawn)

Dawn and David Katznelson

Miriam Wolf June 2, 2008

Music industry veteran David Katznelson is a key force behind the fourth Dawn festival, an all-night baccanalia of the intellectual sort, with music, film, discussions, and performance, all coinciding with the Jewish holiday Shavuot. This year’s fest is an even bigger deal than previous ones on the local front: Its June 7 date means festival-goers get a sneak peek at the long-awaited, Daniel Libeskind-designed Contemporary Jewish Museum—along with a terrific collection of films, including the West Coast premiere of The Sons of Sakhnin United, about the only Arab-sector team playing in Israel’s Premier League, and silent Benya Krik, which is being presented with a live, original score.

Katznelson, a co-founder of the Dawn festival and this year’s co-chair (and the head of Birdman Recording Group), sat down to talk about Judaism, culture, film and the festival. What is the significance of holding an all-night cultural and arts festival on Shavuot?

David Katznelson: The significance of it being all night is in the Shavuot holiday itself. There are many reasons why Shavuot goes all night. My favorite is because at one point in time the Jewish people were supposed to receive the Torah at dawn—and we overslept! So we had to prepare all night long to make sure we didn’t oversleep so we could receive it the next dawn instead. And the way we prepared was by studying and talking and making sure we were present in every way and making sure we were there just perfectly right in our minds and in our beings to accept the Torah.

Shavuot is one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, and yet it’s one of the most overlooked holidays for most Jews. It’s a holiday that is the least known about. And what’s interesting about it is the all-night component, which is integral to it. It’s such an interesting ritual because the young adult generation right now is the generation that has thrived off of throwing all night events. So what this is doing is kind of infusing the concept of an all-night shindig with this true, deep, meaningful, spiritual stuff. Aside from Dawn and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, is there a person, place, or thing best embodies the intersection of contemporary Jewish culture and San Francisco?

Katznelson: That’s kind of hard to answer. Right now I feel like we’re seeing somewhat of a renaissance in the arts and in the reinterpretation and the rituals that are coming out of it and Judaism in general. And in San Francisco, there’s a lot of different places where that’s being found. Reboot puts on not just the Dawn event, but puts on other events during the course of the year, engaging holidays and other things with similar robust ideas. There’s also the JCC, which touches something like 50 percent of the Jewish population in the Bay Area, so that’s massive, and they’re constantly trying to plug in interesting elements of Judaism to try and attract Jews and non Jews to walk through their doors. There’s the Mission Minyan. There’s a plethora of stuff going on right now. It’s a marvelous time in that way.

Of course, it’s also a time of crisis for the Jewish people with where the state of Israel is at right now, and there are still many Jews who are feeling completely alienated. But I think that you have these two things working together, where you have that state of crisis and the reaction is this really vibrant, powerful thing. I think events like Dawn and magazines like Heeb have brought many younger Jews out of the closet, as it were.

Katznelson: One of the last times we had a Dawn event I led a conversation at about three in the morning asking why are we here? Why are we bothering doing this. About 90 percent of the crowd—there were about 60 people there—had never been to a Shavuot event before, or even known about the holiday. More people are talking to me about Shavuot this year than I’ve ever experienced. And it’s exciting. It’s a powerful thing to do and I’m hoping it’s contagious. Are there common themes that you see contemporary Jewish artists, musicians, and filmmakers grappling with?

Katznelson: I think that the beauty of the Jewish religion is the openness of the religion and the openness of thought. And I think that parlays into what these people are doing. There’s a spectrum of Jewish artists in the same way that there’s a spectrum of Jews: Some focus on religion, some focus on Israel, some focus on spirituality. There’s a big feminist movement in Jewish art. There’s a lot of reconstruction going on. There’s a new Haggadah being written. It runs the gamut. And that, by the way, is the beauty of Judaism to me. There’s so much and it’s so rich. Once you start diving in, there’s so much to attach yourself to. And it really is all about finding what you are interested in. Who are some of the artists and musicians that have inspired you in (putting together Dawn and in your career?)

Katznelson: The biggest inspiration is also the biggest tragedy, because he’s not going to be at Dawn this year. He’s going to be in Tel Aviv. He’s a guy named John Schott. He created an 8-hour Shavuot piece that he plays throughout the evening. He has this triptych that he’s created that matches history, his ideas, and philosophy all together in a web. And then he projects the music to his ragas or whatever you might want to call them, on the wall so you can just follow along, if you can read music. And he just does them over and over again. It’s almost like a mantra. I’m not a person who is a big pray-er. I don’t really go to temple in the traditional sense. But to me, that is the highest form of prayer. Watching him do his thing, and walking in and out of the room during the entire evening and having a chance to actually sit and listen is amazing. To me he’s the biggest influence.

And then there’s Amichai Lau-Lavie, a wonderful Jewish scholar from a long line of rabbis, from Israel. Listening to him talk about anything Jewish is really like basically saying I’m going to make Judaism so alive that you taste it on the tip of your tongue. How do headliners Dengue Fever with their reinterpretations of Cambodian pop songs fit into the ethos of the Dawn festival?

Katznelson: Interestingly enough, Dengue Fever has some Jews involved. But even more interestingly, you’re now going to have a Cambodian singer who’s going to be singing in Yiddish. Because they are going to be reinterpreting some Jewish songs for this event as well. You’re going to see an amazing sound that’s never been heard before: Cambodian surf groove rock Yiddish… And again that’s what it’s all about, throwing it around and having a good time with it and remaining very respectful, too. Is this the first year film has been included in the Dawn festival?

Katznelson: Film’s always been included. In fact, the first year we were short on time and on money and couldn’t pre-screen all the films. We had this lesbian couple who were filmmakers. They told us, ‘This is a very Jewish short, we’re very happy to be showing it.’ We walked in while it was showing and it was extremely explicit. In the most X-rated sense. My parents were at the event, but luckily they did not walk into the room. My jaw dropped on the floor. The film was done very well for what it was trying to do; it was definitely artistic. But, trust me, for better or for worse, there probably will not be anything like that at this Dawn.

Instead we have wonderfully curated films. The Tribeca Film Festival has been good enough to curate something for us. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has helped us immensely. We have a wonderful program: The Sons of Sakhnin United, about a soccer team in Israel made up of half Israeli players and half Palestinian players, is a wonderfully inspiring film to watch during kind of a dark time in Israeli/Palestinian relations. Dawn is the West Coast premiere and one of the producers will be out. Can you talk about putting together the original score for the silent film
Benya Krik?

Katznelson: Well, I can’t say I put it together musically but I’m one of the two people who roped in the players. Ann Cook who’s my co-producer—once again, I can’t emphasize enough how important she’s been to this thing. I snagged her into my Shavuot concept I think two years ago—she found one band, and I found the other two. We weren’t sure exactly the type of style of score we were going to go to. What we ended up doing is kind of dark; it’s going to be very groovy. The players are some of the top names in this new folk, psychedelic underground scene and it should be amazing. Do you think there is a market out there for a revival of Yiddish film and Jewish silent film?

Katznelson: There’s just as much of a market out there for that as there is for old movies in general. In San Francisco, the Silent Film Festival—which is phenomenal—gets bigger and bigger every year. There was a Yiddish film festival in Los Angeles when I was there, which was where I first saw The Dybbuk, that was just sensational. I think we’re in a place of sentimentality where people are craving this portal to look into the past and to see how things were done beforehand. Benya Krik is an amazing film and the way it’s shot is amazing. You’ll actually be surprised that some of the themes that it takes on that weren’t really taken on after the code was introduced in Hollywood. The pre-Code films really attacked certain subject matter and certain emotional themes that the post code films didn’t and Benya Krik is no exception.