Ashkenaz’s building on San Pablo, modeled after eastern European synagogues. Photo: Jeremy Brooks
Ashkenaz’s building on San Pablo, modeled after eastern European synagogues. Photo: Jeremy Brooks

By Robert Mills

Berkeley newbies may have trouble finding a cold beer and clog-dancing lesson on a Friday night. Bay Area long-timers, however, know the old brown building on San Pablo Avenue is a good place to start.

Since 1973, Ashkenaz has bridged cultural divides, supplying Berkeley residents with world music performances and a variety of dance lessons on an almost-daily basis.

“Ashkenaz has been around for 40 years, and it’s definitely a unique institution,” said Aaron Simon, board president of Ashkenaz. “We’re a world music venue with roots in the Berkeley counterculture and protest movement. We’re a favorite venue with many national touring acts and an important stage in the local music scene.”

Music enthusiasts are hard-pressed to find a more diverse show calendar. Ashkenaz’s upcoming week boasts western swing, Cajun/Creole, alternative rock, east-coast reggae and conscious hip-hop.

Most concerts at Ashkenaz follow a dance lesson that fits the mood.

“We often have a full range of dance classes,” Simon said. “The diverse programming offers an opportunity for people throughout the Bay Area to experience everything from belly dancing to swing dancing and everything in between.”

The nonprofit venue thrives on community involvement, particularly the variety of causes brought to public awareness by forward-thinking Berkeley residents.

“It’s very much the living room for activists and progressives alike,” Simon said. “We have quite a large number of benefits monthly for a wide range of issues – more than any other venue. It ranges from supporting marginalized Native American communities, to protecting wolves, to responding to disasters like the earthquake in Haiti.”

Founder David Nadel with Berkeley’s proclamation on Ashkenaz’s 20th anniversary
Founder David Nadel with Berkeley’s proclamation on Ashkenaz’s 20th anniversary

Activism has been a staple part of the Ashkenaz diet since its inception, when now-deceased founder David Nadel first combined performance art with political outreach.

“David had a friend who told him folk dancing would bring him out of his shell, and that changed his life,” said Meigan Dadzie, a longtime Ashkenaz regular and current board member. “So he got with the idea of repairing and healing cultural problems with music and dance.”

A native of Los Angeles, Nadel escaped what he used to call “his L.A. mindset” when he transferred to UC Berkeley and found himself absorbed in the People’s Park protests.

It was a matter of time before Nadel and his dance troupe rented one of four studios on San Pablo Avenue. Shortly after that, he and six others pooled their money to buy the building.

The original building on San Pablo. Historic photos courtesy of Ashkenaz

“When David was an adult, he began to get curious about his roots,” Dadzie said. “His grandma told him they were Ashkenazi Jews. He had a book called something like Synagogues of Eastern Europe. It was a pictorial book of all these synagogues. The woodwork was a lot of shingling and onion domes. Every time he made a change to Ashkenaz, he modeled it after something in that book.”

Nadel and crew completed much of the work on Ashkenaz in the early 70s. Every Monday, he worked with friends to install a façade, a wooden archway and several stained-glass windowpanes.

“He wanted to create something that would not be destroyed,” Simon said. “There was quite a lot of David Nadel going into this venue.”

Nadel continued to host local and international bands for decades. His political activism continued on until 1996 when a drunken man — who was removed from the venue for harassing customers — shot Nadel in the face.

Ashkenaz before the addition of the “synagogue” facade
Ashkenaz before the addition of the “synagogue” facade

“David — being a Libra — always wanted to be fair,” Dadzie said. “So he often would ask people to step outside or take them out and talk to them to calm them down. So this guy said, ‘I’m gonna go get my gun and shoot you.’

“David was like, ‘Whatever’.”

“It was a Thursday night,” Dadzie said. “He went back in the club and shut and locked the door. A little while later, there was a knock on the door, and he happened to be closest to it. He pushed open the door and got a bullet right in the eye, right in the head.”

Nadel was rushed to the hospital and remained in critical condition until he died a few days later. Berkeley police never apprehended his killer. Dadzie believes he fled to Mexico.

A few months after Nadel’s death, Ashkenaz regulars pulled together to form the existing nonprofit. They purchased the venue, preserving his legacy.

“Ashkenaz is really close to a lot of people’s hearts,” Dadzie said. “It’s a big community place. There are a lot of people who go there for their entertainment. It’s home to a lot of people. It has a far-reaching community. There was a lot of impetus to keep it going with the same business model and the same philosophy.”

Nadel’s life impacted Ashkenaz both physically and philosophically.

“David was one of the people with the most ambition about things,” Dadzie said. “He really was into what he called ‘living low on the food chain’ – you know, a lot of low-impact stuff. These days they call it the green movement. He was into that 20 years ago. We recycled every scrap of paper in there.”

To this day, Ashkenaz board members and crew preserve Nadel’s sense of dogged conservation and sustainability.

“We’ve always kept this principle about lowest impact possible,” Dadzie said.

For the folks at Ashkenaz today, that means recycling everything and cutting down on usage at the source.

“We’ve reduced almost all our disposables down to zero,” Simon said. “We’re trying to be a zero waste establishment. Instead of plastic water bottles at the bar, we go with glass cups and filtered water.”

Looking ahead, the Ashkenaz board has developed new methods of sustainability as well as new ways to expose people to a wide array of musical cultures.

“We recently got a grant to start a TV show called Ashkenaz Live on Berkeley Community Television,” Simon said (there’s also a YouTube channel). “So we got a show where we’ve recorded quite a number of our performances. We edit them down and give the cultural background and talk about how all people from all walks of life come and connect with the community.”

The nonprofit recently made some cosmetic changes.

“We’ve revamped our café, which we’re really proud of,” Simon said. “We’ve finished the bar, and we have kombucha on tap. We offer organic beer too, which is nice.”

A new, kid-friendly style of programming is gaining momentum as well.

“One of the things we’ve launched that’s extremely popular is the Sunday Kid’s Series,” Simon said. “Every Sunday, during the day, musicians come and cater to children. It’s really beautiful. Mostly young kids come in with their parents, and they’ll be dancing up a storm while their parents socialize in a really safe environment.

“It’s actually pretty neat. You’ll have anything from a folk singer to someone who does kid’s hip-hop. Kids get into it because it’s a neat thing for them, and it’s a nice scene for the parents.”

For Simon, continuing the tradition of Ashkenaz is vital to the history of the city.

“We’re very much a Berkeley institution in a lot of ways,” Simon said. “In some ways, coming into Ashkenaz is a lot like coming into a museum about the history of Berkeley. It’s funny there isn’t a museum like that, so in some ways Ashkenaz is that.”

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