Neranenah, the Atlanta Jewish music festival, launches its fifth season next month with executive director Joe Alterman. Under his leadership, the festival has built a diverse audience base, grown its financial support both with individual donors and philanthropic grants, and provided Atlanta audiences with a broad survey of contemporary arts programming, with a strongly Jewish flavor.
For Alterman, the last five years has been about putting Neranenah on America’s cultural map.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to present in town. I think it’s filling a gap that I think Atlanta once had. There’s always been great art in Atlanta, but we needed a place for that great art to live. And I think that’s what Neranenah has been able to do.”
The new season, which was just announced, will open not with music, but with comedy. On Saturday evening, Nov. 11, Neranenah — in partnership with the Book Festival of the MJCCA — will present an evening with Judy Gold, the Emmy Award-winning comedian, playwright, and author who will also be signing her new book, “Yes I Can Say That, When They Come For The Comedian, Then We’re All In Trouble,” which is a humorous and at the same time serious jab at attempts to silence or censor comedians who are critical of today’s political landscape.
The book, inspired Gold’s Off-Broadway production and written with Eddie Sarfaty, debuted last spring. It alternated Gold’s abbreviated history of American comedy, including her place in it, with her defense of the importance of poking fun at many of the national issues that have preoccupied us.
“They are taking away women’s rights, they are banning books, we have mass shootings,” she was quoted as saying in the production, “and people are furious if you mistakenly use the wrong pronoun?”
Neranenah’s co-sponsorship of the event is another example of how the festival has diversified both its programs and its audience with Alterman at the helm. According to Alterman, who has combined his leadership of Neranenah with a busy schedule of performances as one of America’s most talented young jazz pianists, there is only one thing that dominates all his work, both artistically and organizationally — the search for quality.
“I’m an artist. So, for me, the most important thing is the quality of the art that we’re bringing in. And what we’re bringing in is great. The quality of what we’re presenting has meaning behind it. So, it’s good and meaningful. And I think that’s really adding something to our city.”
In December, the series features two programs that bookend the celebration of Chanukah. The first, on Dec. 10, is “An Evening of Light,” with Cantor Gideon Zelermyer, who, for the last 19 years, has been with Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. The congregation was the spiritual home of Leonard Cohen,
the great poet and songwriter. Cohen’s father and great- grandfather were presidents of the congregation.
Zelermyer and the synagogue choir worked with Cohen on his last project, “You Want It Darker,” before the singer died in 2016. The recording, which won an Emmy in 2017, has echoes of the Mourner’s Kaddish and the words of Hineni, which speaks of service to G-d. Zelermyer officiated at Cohen’s funeral in Montreal. Alterman is hoping to include several of Atlanta’s cantors in the performance.
And on Dec. 17, shortly after the end of Chanukah, Alterman will team up with Dara Starr Tucker for an exploration of the synthesis of the African American and the Jewish experiences in popular music.
On Jan. 13, Neranenah will welcome the Afro-Semitic Experience, a jazz group founded by Black and Jewish musicians in New Haven, Conn., who during the last 25 years have explored the connections between the two religious cultures.
Then on March 17, An Evening With the Bill Charlap Trio is scheduled at the Atlanta History Center. It was five years ago that Charlap was Alterman’s first concert as head of the festival.
Like many arts organizations, Neranenah has weathered the challenges of the pandemic and bounced back stronger than ever during the past year. Among the highlights was s one-man show by Hershey Felder about George Gershwin. It brought the large audience at the City Springs Theatre to their feet for a long-standing ovation. For Alterman, the thrill was one he felt he could share with Felder.
“Watching one of our successful concerts is an emotional experience for me as well as an opportunity to learn something new. I hope it’s the same for everyone who attends one of our performances. Neranenah makes me so proud.”