New Name, New Focus for AJMF

New Name, New Focus for AJMF

Joe Alterman says retired name was exclusionary to non-Jews and misunderstood by many in the Jewish community.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Atlanta Jewish Music Festival is no more. Make room for the Neranenah concert and culture series.

That’s Ne-ra-ne-nah, translated from Hebrew here as “Come, let us sing together.” Announcement of the new name was made Sept. 30 by Joe Alterman, executive director of the event now formerly known as AJMF.

Alterman expects there being a period of Neranenah “going from being the new name to just the name.” The jazz pianist, now in his second year at the helm of the event founded in 2009, said that the new name has been well-received in the presentations he’s made before the formal announcement.

But after a decade, why change the name from the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival? “I think it’s limiting to what we actually do,” in addition to being too similar to the Jewish film and book festivals, AND, Alterman said the AJMF name lacked “cool.”

The now-retired name was “exclusionary to anyone who’s not Jewish,” Alterman said. “A  lot of Jewish people hear ‘Jewish music’ and they think ‘Hava Nagila,’ and we’re not the ‘Hava Nagila’ festival.” (Yes, Neranenah can be found in the song ‘Hava Nagila:’ Hava neranenah ve n’smecha/Let us sing together and be happy.)

Alterman has fought the good fight against preconceived notions, referencing the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival and having to follow with “but it’s not what you think it is.”

So, Neranenah.

With its new name and expanded focus, Joe Alterman wants Neranenah to feel “like a national event that takes place in Atlanta.”

“My goal here is not really to make this feel like a hyper-local event, but make it more like a national event that takes place in Atlanta,” he said. “If Bonnaroo was called the Nashville Arts Festival, it wouldn’t be what it is.” Indeed, a single line in the promotional material reads: “Spoleto Lollapalooza Neranenah Coachella Bonnaroo.”

Alterman said that ideally Neranenah would include a couple of weekend-long showcases, perhaps one in spring and one in autumn, along with one-off events throughout the year.

The mission is to “celebrate Jewish contributions to music,” he said, distinguishing between that and what most people think of when they hear “Jewish music.” That was the thought behind 2019’s opening act, the Bill Charlap Trio performing works by Leonard Bernstein.

Along with the new name comes an expanded focus, to take in not only music, but also comedy and spoken word, along with educational programs and discussions of themes related to the music.

An example of the latter would be public conversation last year between jazz musician, educator and minister Rev. Dwight Andrews, and the acclaimed musician, composer, and author Ben Sidran, before an audience of about 250 at Andrews’ First Congregational Church in downtown Atlanta. The event, held in conjunction with the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, scratched an itch for Alterman, exploring how the Jewish and African American experiences intersected through music.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic eases to a point where medical and public health experts deem in-person entertainment a safe proposition, Neranenah will function in the virtual world.

Beginning Oct. 14, Neranenah will debut a series of livestream concerts from the homes of Atlanta musicians who have been performing “uplifting” music on AJMF’s website in recent months.

Alterman also plans a 10-part series of conversations with Sidran about various aspects of the Jewish contribution to music, which would be accessible on Neranenah’s still- under-development website and other social media platforms.

Meanwhile, wearing his other professional hat, Alterman and his trio (Kevin Smith, bass, and Justice Chesarek, drums) will perform — and back up Atlanta-based singers Karla Harris and Jon Liebman — Oct. 8 as part of the “Arts Across America” series sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The Kennedy Center selected performing arts organizations from regions across the country, Neranenah among those from the Southeast and possibly the only Jewish-themed participant nationally. “Arts Across America,” which began in July and runs into December, is available on the Kennedy Center’s website and social media pages.

The new logo for the rebranded Neranenah music festival attempts to up the “cool” factor to the event.

AJMF — er, Neranenah — is now an enterprise with a $300,000 budget for fiscal year 2020-21, which has allowed Alterman to bring on Raychel Robbins full-time as managing director.

The rebranding has been in the works for several months, in conversations with 3 Owl, an Atlanta-based creative agency founded by David Feldman, a graduate of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School with a dual degree in business and music. Other 3 Owl projects have involved the rebranding of the Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative (a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta) as JumpSpark. In the arts world, the agency has worked with the Center Stage Theater and the ATL Collective (where Feldman is board vice president), as well as restauranteurs Atlanta Bread, Mellow Mushroom, and Taco Mac.

Alterman said that the goal was to create a name that would “feel Jewish without having to say Jewish,” one that would appeal to both the Jewish community and a broader audience, people who have attended AJMF concerts over the years and funders.

As the promotional materials for Neranenah say, in branding speak: “We seek not to define Jewish arts and culture, but to embrace its diversity, subjectiveness, and personal nature to create a space open and inviting to all in the Jewish community and beyond.”

And, yes, feel “cool,” part of which is the distinctive-looking logo using a typeface designed especially for Neranenah by 3 Owl. And Neranenah comes with its own color palate: Maize Crayola, Air Blue, White, Cedar Crest, and Raising Black.

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