Inside Ashkenaz on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. Credit: Ashkenaz

The scaffolding and black plastic netting that has obscured the front of Ashkenaz since last fall is coming down. In the next few days, the refurbished redwood façade of the San Pablo Avenue building, which was designed to resemble an Eastern European synagogue, will be unveiled, beckoning dancers and roots-music lovers back onto the well-worn wooden floor. 

Closed for more than two years due to the pandemic, the nonprofit venue is reopening Sunday, June 5, with an all-day free event featuring five bands noon to 8 p.m. (full vaccination is required for all attendees). On a walk through the project last week with Sarah Travis, the newly appointed executive director, she pointed out all the familiar elements of the décor and the additions intended to “activate the space and lift up what makes Ashkenaz special,” she said. 

“We redid the entrance hallway to make it more accessible and we’re starting to move décor into the space, aiming for a 1970s-80s feel like when it first opened. Everything we’re doing is elevating the experience of artists and audiences.”

Due to the pandemic surge, the café isn’t slated to reopen until mid-summer, when beer, wine and some vegetarian food will be available. Until then, the counter will offer bottled water for sale “so we can make sure people stay well hydrated,” Travis said. “This is a dance hall, after all.”

The June 5 event focuses on the dance traditions that have kept Ashkenaz jumping for nearly five decades (next year marks the venue’s golden anniversary). The grand reopening features a roster of musicians and dancers more than capable of raising a sweat, including Julia Chigamba’s Zimbabwean band and dance troupe the Chinyakare Ensemble, and a Hawaiian/Pacific Islander music and dance ensemble led by Māhealani Uchiyama (who’s also deeply engaged with Zimbabwe’s Shona culture and music). 

YouTube video

Fanfare Zambaleta, the Balkan brass band that has also performed at Starry Plough over the past decade, and the Tri Tip Trio, which draws on the interrelated Louisiana idioms of zydeco, Cajun and New Orleans blues, represent traditions that have been part of the mix at Ashkenaz since the beginning. And with their celebratory repertoire of reggae, calypso and soca the Caribbean Allstars, the performances will be preceded by dance demonstrations. 

Despite the building’s facelift, the activities inside are picking up where Ashkenaz left off in March 2020. One change is that guitarist Mitch Polzak will be leading country music nights on the third Saturday every month with two-step dancing.

Tuesdays are devoted to zydeco and Cajun music. And until Stu Allen returns to in-person performing, Jordan Feinstein is hosting Grateful Dead Tuesdays starting June 22. The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, which runs Sept. 21-25, will be returning to the Ashkenaz for the popular square dance and other terpsichorean events, serving as a vital addition to the programming at Freight & Salvage. 

“We’re really focused on community engagement and reestablishing our ties to Bay Area acts,” said Max Lopez, Ashkenaz’s booker. “Once we’ve got some momentum, we’ll be looking to add some of the national and international touring artists into the schedule.” 

The fact that Ashkenaz not only survived two years of dormancy but is returning with an improved facility is a testament to the board of directors, said Travis, who relocated from Los Angeles, where she spearheaded the Songwriters of North America’s Songwriter Fund for pandemic-idled tunesmiths. One mark of the respect Ashkenaz has earned is that it received several major grants to stay solvent, including funding from the Live Music Society.

“We also got funding from SVOG (Shuttered Venue Operators Grant), Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the city of Berkeley, the county of Alameda, and a number of generous individual donors,” Travis said. “We also have a number of volunteers who made substantial in-kind donations by showing up all throughout our closure, consistently spending many days and hours for two years managing the facility. We are so appreciative of everyone who supported us during our closure.”

Ashkenaz’s survival is all the more remarkable given the tragedy that has shadowed the venue for more than half of its existence. On the evening of Dec. 19, 1996, a drunk and unruly patron who had been ejected from the club barged back in and shot Ashkenaz’s charismatic founder and guiding spirit David Nadel, who died two days later. The primary suspect, a Mexican national named Juan Rivera Pérezwould be 46 years old and is still at large. He remains on the Berkeley Police Department’s most wanted list with an outstanding arrest warrant. 

Launched by Nadel with a devoted cadre of folk dance enthusiasts, Ashkenaz reflected his community-building ethos by fostering an environment where lovers of Balkan, West African, Cajun, Caribbean, and other rootsy dance traditions could joyously stomp, swing and groove together. Living in a small room in the attic, the ascetic Nadel and a group of friends gradually transformed the neglected building into a vital cultural hub that hosted hundreds of fundraisers for an array of progressive causes and organizations. He was also a leading advocate for preserving People’s Park and engaged in a long-running legal battle with the UC Regents.  

Designing Ashkenaz façade so that it would look at home in a Polish shtetl seemed to speak to Nadel’s sense of defiance in the face of daunting odds. After his murder, Ashkenaz supporters organized to purchase the building from his family and transformed it into a 501(c)(3). Over the years, the booking policy has moved back and forth in terms of scope, sometimes including touring acts from out of town but always centering on the Bay Area’s international array of artists. 

The venue’s impact resounds far beyond the region. In an interview for Ashkenaz’s 40thanniversary, which opened with a performance by the Mickey Hart Band, the Grateful Dead drummer explained to me why he was determined to “shine some light on the beauty of this small organization. The best way to learn about another person’s story is through his music. Ashkenaz isn’t just a club. It’s a nexus that brings together people who need to be brought together.” 

Avatar photo

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....