It’s mind-boggling to think I covered my first Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival (JFEST) in 2012 when I was introduced to Women of Valor. I feel like I experienced the festival’s adolescence and now it has become a full-fledged adult! And just as with people, with those rights come responsibilities. The 30th JFEST is taking its role seriously and delivering a far-reaching Jewish festival replete with speakers, new music, award-winning theater and so much more. Every facet of this extravaganza has exceeded expectations and shows no sign of slowing down.
I spoke with Artistic Director Todd Salovey about this milestone year. He concurred that the festival has grown like the amorphous Blob of the sci-fi film we watched in the ‘60s — only in a good way! Salovey told me that JFEST began as a single Sunday festival at the Lyceum Theatre.
“Two years later we grew it to one week in one location,” he said.
Today, the festival runs from June 1 through July 16 in more than eight venues. Aligned with Salovey’s vision of making the next step easy, the festival is held in many spaces throughout San Diego’s abundant and diverse communities. I assumed that the pandemic had put a kink in operations, but was told that “because everything was digital, it enabled us to work with amazing artists like Tova Feldshuh, Joel Gray, the cast of Fiddler on the Roof and to collaborate with artists nationally, forming relationships.” Salovey told mem that the goal wasn’t necessarily to make the festival bigger, but it expanded organically as programs grew and were developed to a greater extent.
“When something comes our way and is important, it’s hard to refuse,” he said.
The disparate nature of the programs draws audiences from a host of places. When the Union Tribune announced that Witnesses had won two San Diego Critics Circle awards for Best Musical and Best Directing, tickets sold immediately. This musical treatment was inspired by diaries of five teenagers who perished in the Holocaust. Through social media, emails, brochures, and word of mouth, San Diegans are discovering programs and bringing friends.
JFEST is unique in that its focus is on developing original programs, rather than restaging previously performed works. There are stalwart partners with whom the artists work closely. The festival is an “originator and nurturer, incubating many new projects.” The undercurrent is to present proudly Jewish work that also invites non-Jews to take part. For instance, the band SoulFarm plays Grateful Dead, thus appealing to Jewish music lovers as well as Deadheads.
Is there an untapped audience Salovey wishes JFEST could attract? Young family audiences have been the focus this year. With Becca Myers producing The Whole Megillah New Jewish Play Festival, they are making serious inroads, attracting high schoolers and families. More on this in just a moment. Just as the festival is extending a hand to younger audiences, the co-writers and assistants of prior years are being handed the baton and a great deal more responsibility. I congratulated Salovey on the nachas he must reap from Ali Viterbi, Becca Myers, Leah Salovey and so many more, who’ve taken the leap into ownership and leadership of the festival.
“Nothing is more gratifying as a mentor than to see your mentees doing work which exceeds your own,” he said. “These people are such bright lights in the arts communities and in their Jewish communities.”
Sheila Lipinsky, daughter-in-law of Bernard and Dorris, original naming underwriters, spoke with me via the telephone and shared her gratitude and excitement for the continued growth and success of JFEST. As an educational therapist and an advocate for children and adults with learning differences, Sheila learned, early on, the mitzvah of giving back. Her parents and grandmother, Rose Smith, shaped her views on tzedakah and Yiddishkeit. This led to a lifetime of volunteering and philanthropy.
“With the help of our wonderful community, we have been able to continue the legacy,” she said.
What aspect of JFEST most excites Lipinsky? Is it the music of Leonard Cohen in House of Cohen, the 22nd Klezmer Summit with Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz and Hot Pstromi? Could it be reaping the wisdom of Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik? Or perhaps it’s the Matisyahu concert, Yale Strom’s film, or The Merchant of Venice Annotated? Well, yes, to all of the above and more importantly, “sharing the culture of our small Jewish population with the rest of San Diego. So many cultures create a richness here, and this is a beautiful opportunity to share and learn about each other.” Lipinsky appreciates the new creative team and credits Salovey, whose vision it was to bring this event about 30 years ago. She sees him as the heart and creative director of this program.
As promised, back to Becca Myers, actor, producer, writer, Esther and Girl Wonder. Becca began acting with J*Company when she was just 12. Since the age of 15 she has been co-writing “Women of Valor.” She credits Todd Salovey, her amazing mentor, with encouraging her and helping her identify and achieve her goals. She stated that “he took a chance on us and mentored us every step of the way so we’d be successful.” Currently a producer at the Old Globe, Becca told me that she wouldn’t have even considered this career path had Salovey not brought her in.
I wanted to know how the subjects are selected for Women of Valor and learned about the process of researching our seemingly interminable wealth of incredible Jewish women, right under our noses! Each interviewee is represented by an actor who has some connection to the honoree, making it more authentic and touching. I also asked about The Whole Megillah Festival. Myers produced plays that “haven’t yet had a life” with the hopes of getting them workshopped and gaining exposure. The submissions, which came from national and international theatres, had to be full-length plays that were unapologetically Jewish. Myers was specifically interested in stories that dealt with Sephardic Jewry, a less oft-represented side. “Hereville” is a tale of an Orthodox Jewish teenager, dealing with death, trauma, and family making it a universally relatable story. “Red Beads” is a story of unrequited love with an unexpected ending. Finally, “Chagall”, a play that has been in process, is filled with music, movement, and unique relationships.
Another new and dynamic feature, and a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it addition of the 30th JFEST is the Eco-Jewish Play Fest — 7 plays. 24 hours to create, 1 night to enjoy! which is held at Coastal Roots Farm at Leichtag Commons. This ambitious program combines the pillars of the farm with Jewish tenets. Seven writers, 21 actors, and just 24 hours will produce short plays inspired by our uniquely Jewish values and concerns.
From the Mishnah, we learn that 30 is the age of strength. JFEST 30 proves this!
For more information and tickets to any JFEST performances, visit sdjfest.org