Jews Do Jews sells out—twice!

Feb 28, 2024 | Article, Newsletter

Who had a better time at the “Jews Do Jews” performance in late February—the standing room only audience that packed the hall at Swallow Hill Music or the Jewish performers who rocked the room, covering numbers composed by Jewish musicians?

Rabbi Joe Black had the audience singing and swaying along to Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” Laura Berman lit up the room (and channeled her inner Dolly Parton) with her performance of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “Here You Come Again.” Eitan Kantor brought listeners to tears with his rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.”

Performance at "Jews Do Jews" 2024

Eve Ilsen opened the Great American Songbook and captivated the crowd with the Gershwin brothers’ “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The audience loved Sheldon Sands’s rendition of “What the World Needs Now.” And what’s a “Jews Do Jews” performance without Carly Simon? Singer-songwriter Liat brought a sense of humor to her performance of “You’re So Vain.”

Finally, we dare not forget Hal Aqua, the founder and impresario of “Jews Do Jews.” Eleven years after his first concert—”Jews Do Cohen”—Aqua went back to that favorite songwriter with his band, The Lost Tribe, performing Leonard Cohen’s “Different Sides.”

So who had a better time? It’s a toss-up.

Berman, a singer and songwriter with roots in New York City, speaks as a musician. “This is one of the coolest events I have done in my music career,” she says. “When we are rehearsing, there is such collaboration and musicianship, with Jewish folks from all walks of pulpit prayer and performance styles brought together by the music.”

Performance at "Jews Do Jews" 2024

As for the audience?

“I get a lot of feedback from people who tell me this is a great community event,” Aqua says. “The reason people keep coming back year after year is that it’s not political or denominational. You don’t have to choose sides. We are a mishpachah, coming together as a community.”

The “Jews Do Jews” origin story

Hal Aqua took up the guitar in high school for typical teenage reasons.

“I was this wimpy, skinny kid,” he says. “I wanted to be in a rock and roll band because I figured it would help me meet girls.”

In college, he studied graphic design but kept playing music in coffee houses and with folk and rock groups. When he came to Denver in the early ’70s, he worked as a graphic designer but spent his spare time at The Denver Folklore Center, playing everything from reggae to rock. What he didn’t play was Jewish music.

Then he got married, and his wife introduced her new husband, who had grown up in a “nominally orthodox” home, to reconstructionist Judaism.

“I discovered this community and started getting into Jewish music—Klezmer, Sephardic, Mizrahi,” he says. “It was like ‘Where has this been all my life!’”

In 2012, 78-year-old Leonard Cohen launched his “Old Ideas World Tour” and, as Aqua puts it, “People fell in love with him again.” Aqua was teaching classes in Jewish and world music and meeting Jewish musicians from around the Denver metro area. Suddenly, it hit him—why not marry his love for Cohen with his musician connections? And that’s how, in 2013, “Jews Do Cohen” was born. Swallow Hill got on board to host the event, and it was an immediate success.

“The musicians did not necessarily know each other, but there was an instant fun, loving, ecumenical feeling,” Aqua says “When it was done, everyone said, ‘Let’s do this again!’”

Year two, Aqua organized “Jews Do Dylan.” Year three, he produced “Jews Do Simon” (Paul, that is.) Year four, he focused on covering Jewish women singers. But by year five, the performers were encouraging him to expand the scope of Jewish musicians. “Jews Do Jews,” with its eclectic playlist, was born.

Sustaining “Jews Do Jews” now and in the future

“Jews Do Jews” started as a hit and has only grown in popularity with both the audience and performers. When the concerts outgrew Swallow Hill Music and several church venues, Aqua tried moving it to Temple Emanuel in 2020 and mounted a show with more than 20 musicians and an audience of more than 800 people.

But he missed the intimacy of Swallow Hill, and he wanted to give each musician ample opportunities to perform, so he moved back to his original venue and made one show into two, with a January and February performance. Both sold out this year.

Swallow Hill Music sign showing sold out "Jews Do Jews" Show

Pianist, composer, and singer-songwriter David Ross has been with “Jews Do Jews” from the start.

“We had no clue what it would turn into!” he says. “We thought it would be a one-off. But I was hooked, and I have been doing it ever since.”

Ross starts preparing months in advance for many roles, including serving as the arranger for many of the numbers. Every performer in the show must wear multiple hats—on one song they might solo, on another they play or sing back-up. In the February show, the aforementioned performers were joined by Rabbi Jamie Arnold, Francesca Rubin, Miriam Rosenblum, Andreas Schmid, Annie Aqua, Ben Cohen and violinist Zoe Aqua, who received a standing ovation for her performance. (Rabbi Jack Gabriel was on the program but was under the weather and missed the performance.) For the final number “The Weight,” a tribute to The Band’s Robbie Robertson whose Jewish father died before he was born, the stage was packed with every performer. But the glue that holds it all together is Hal Aqua.

“He is the consummate professional,” Ross says. “This project lives in his neshama—it’s part of his soul. He loves the collaborative spirit it creates and the friendships that have formed year after year.”

For Aqua, the logistics of pulling all the singers and musicians together is “ridiculous!” It’s not like he has loads of spare time. He is the music director at B’nai Havurah, presents music at Temple Micah a couple times a month, plays weddings and parties with his band, and still does graphic design work.

“I complain I am too busy, but there is nothing I want to stop,” he says. “What makes “Jews Do Jews” enjoyable is the camaraderie. And as long as that continues we will come back for another year.”