The Orthodox mastermind behind ‘Jewish cool’
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Interview'I love art in all its manifestations'

The Orthodox mastermind behind ‘Jewish cool’

Shemspeed founder Erez Safar helped popularize Matisyahu and promotes Kosha Dillz. But his own music might be his biggest passion

Erez Safar at Scope, a New York showcase for artists. (Madison Margolin/Times of Israel)
Erez Safar at Scope, a New York showcase for artists. (Madison Margolin/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Along a shadowy side street lined with galleries and cafes in Manhattan’s posh Chelsea neighborhood, artists, photographers, fashionistas, and locals flock to a large pavilion toward the end of the block.

It’s a chilly Sunday afternoon in early March, the final day of Scope, an annual three-day exhibit. Dozens of gallery representatives from around the world flew to New York for the weekend to showcase their art. Among them was Erez Safar, co-founder of Gallery 38 in Los Angeles.

On the three walls in one of the many open-faced cubicles throughout the pavilion, Safar has installed colorful graffiti-style collage paintings by artist Raheem Saladeen Johnson, known professionally as King Saladeen, originally from West Philadelphia. Saladeen grew up with Badir McCleary, who co-founded Gallery 38 with Safar in a gritty, muraled corner of LA’s West Adams neighborhood.

King Saladeen’s art represents the meaning and feeling of living in the inner city, McCleary says, which is part of why it represents the gallery so well.

“Because we’re part of the community in the inner city, in a developing neighborhood,” he says.

On a boulevard dotted with hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints, auto shops, vintage clothing outlets, and organic cafes, Gallery 38 occupies a neighborhood in flux, one that weaves together various strands of LA’s ethnic life.

Erez Safar, or 'Diwon,' at work DJ-ing. (Courtesy)
Erez Safar, or ‘Diwon,’ at work DJ-ing. (Courtesy)

Only since Safar and McCleary opened the gallery two years ago did muralists begin decorating the immediate surroundings and other small galleries start popping up, all bringing the neighborhood together around art.

‘Muslims and Jews can work together — this is my brother from another mother’

Amidst the long list of projects Safar has executed that successfully merge business and creativity, bringing seemingly dissonant elements together through art and music has been a consistent theme.

For starters, McCleary says, “the gallery is evidence that Muslims and Jews can work together — this is my brother from another mother.”

Gallery 38 in Los Angeles, co-founded by Erez Safar. (Courtesy)
Gallery 38 in Los Angeles, co-founded by Erez Safar. (Badir McCleary)

Scope wasn’t Safar’s first foray into New York. He lived in Brooklyn until almost five years ago, when he settled down with his wife and children in Pico-Robertson, LA’s well-known “Jewborhood.”

Throughout the aughts, he had made a name for himself in New York’s Jewish music scene, working with artists like Matisyahu, Y-Love, Moshav Band, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Shi 360, Electro Morocco, and others.

“When I moved to New York [after college], I was booking these kinds of interesting, weirdo Jewish events right at the beginning of the Jewish thing being cool,” says Safar.

“When Matisyahu’s band manager called me, all I knew was there was this Hasidic guy who could beatbox. He opened for me DJ-ing cantorial music with drum and bass, and then Matis jumped on with two Chabad guys, one on the hand drum, one on guitar. Everyone who was there was like, ‘what just happened?'”

From there, things began to pick up quickly, he says. Safar began making and DJ-ing his own music — a melange of hip hop, dance, Middle Eastern canon, and klezmer punk — as well as producing music for other artists. In booking shows, releasing music, and promoting, he founded his Shemspeed music label and Bancs Media, a production company and branding agency serving Jewish and non-Jewish artists, alike.

To this day, he continues to make music under various creative identities, including H2The, his latest ’80s-style synth project, and his better known stage name Diwon.

Erez Safar borrowed the stage name Diwon from a Yemenite book of songs and prayers. (Courtesy)
Erez Safar borrowed the stage name Diwon from a Yemenite book of songs and prayers. (Courtesy)

He borrowed the name from the “Diwan,” a Yemenite book of songs and prayers.

“I reinvented myself,” Safar says. “When I did a residency at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, I produced and performed in full Yemenite henna style garb. But I also took the name mainly because I didn’t want something that sounded too much of one thing, since I knew I would produce all sorts of music.”

‘I didn’t want something that sounded too much of one thing, since I knew I would produce all sorts of music’

He’s been called the “hardest working man in the Jewish music industry,” but in the decade since that particular accolade, he’s branched out into so much more.

“Music is my biggest passion,” Safar says, “but the truth is I love art in all its manifestations.”

From 2005 through 2015, he produced the Sephardic Music Festival, bringing together art, music, food, and fashion derived from Mizrahi and Sephardic tradition — often overshadowed by “Ashkenormative” tendencies in New York and throughout the United States.

Sephardic Judaism had always been a constant theme in Safar’s life. Having drawn influence from his Sephardic roots in Yemen, he eventually helped popularize a Semitic keffiyeh, a type of scarf usually worn by Palestinians. Designed by Boruch Chertok, the Semitic keffiyeh was decorated with blue Stars of David. It caused an uproar.

The Semitic keffiyeh, invented by Erez Safar. (TheSemitic.com)
The Semitic keffiyeh, invented by Erez Safar. (TheSemitic.com)

“People don’t know the shared cultural history between Arab Jews and Arab Muslims,” says Safar. “We have a lot more similarities than differences.”

Many of these similarities were regional in terms of clothing and food, and not divided by religion. Keffiyehs are popular in nearly two dozen Arab countries — countries where Jews have resided, too, Safar explains. Only recently the keffiyeh became most strongly associated with Palestinians, but the regional scarf is used widely to block sand and sun.

“People who don’t really know the background view it as only a Palestinian thing, but that’s not the reality,” says Safar. “You can look at it as kind of cool, educating people about the similarities. It’s something that unifies Jews and Palestinians.”

Wearing a keffiyeh doesn’t feel foreign, he adds. Yemenite on his mother’s side, Safar says that his Mizrahi heritage — the clothing, the culture, the food — is closest to how original Jewish practices before the Diaspora.

‘It’s something that unifies Jews and Palestinians’

“We were indigenous to the Middle East, not Eastern Europe,” says Safar, whose father is Ashkenazi. “So I think it makes sense to gravitate towards it way more.”

In many ways, Safar can be credited with making Jewish cool, continuing today to promote artists like Kosha Dillz, helping them have equal parts mainstream and Jewish appeal. He made Jewishness accessible outside its traditional scope. And in the scope of the mainstream, he’s a practicing Orthodox Jew who brings his eclectic background to his current projects.

“Art and music and whatever other elements, I don’t want to be in this little niche,” Safar says. “I’m constantly reinventing myself.”

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