A Jewish Spring In Atlanta

Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Travel Writer

With Twelve Oaks pillars in mind, I arrived in Atlanta humming “Marching through Georgia,” the Civil War Yankee hymn I grew up square-dancing to at summer camp.

I was soon humming a different tune — something a bit more modern. That’s because instead of heading for antebellum plantations, I found myself exploring several of Atlanta’s hippest urban neighborhoods, Little Five Points and Virginia-Highland. And they reminded me more of Haight-Ashbury than of Tara.

Atlanta is already warming up in late winter: the month-long Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is on right now, magnolias are blooming, and the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival is a mid-March highlight. Meanwhile, sports nuts everywhere are counting the days until March Madness, when the city will host more than 100,000 basketball fans for the NCAA Men’s Final Four Weekend.

Much of the Jewish Music Festival (March 14-16) takes place in and around Little Five Points — L5P for those in the know. Longtime Atlantans say the neighborhood has arrived at a sweet spot: less scruffy than it used to be, L5P still has edge and an artsy tinge.

Maybe it’s the streetscape of Victorian houses and brightly-colored murals that remind me of San Francisco; maybe it’s the tattoo parlors, bearded vegan types and vintage record stores. Whatever the case, it’s one of those rare Southern neighborhoods with a good concentration of street life, and thus an opportunity to explore local culture block by block.

It’s sort of ironic that the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum is located in Atlanta’s most counter-cultural corner, but it is the local institution – worth a visit for its lovely garden setting and provocative exhibits.

More emblematic, though, are the numerous theaters that call L5P home. Among them are 7 Stages, noted for its contemporary social focus, and the Horizon Theatre Company, a champion of new Southern plays owned by husband-and-wife team Lisa and Jeff Adler. On view through March 17 at the Horizon is “The Waffle Palace,” a comedy by Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee that just got a rave review in the Atlanta Jewish Times.

The nearby Variety Playhouse is the main venue for the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, which features three days of concerts by Israeli, American and international artists. There’s no shortage of Jewish music at Atlanta’s many shuls and concert halls, but the Festival hopes to connect, through culture, with the city’s younger, less-affiliated Jews — the kind who flock to music festivals more regularly than minyan.

Patrons are encouraged to nosh at the “official non-kosher restaurant”: Front Page News, a New Orleans-themed pub with a discount for festivalgoers with a ticket stubs. (Kosher diners should head a few miles north to Broadway Café and Pita Palace in the Toco Hills area, which has a high concentration of Jewish life.)

Virginia-Highland is a short jog north and also pedestrian-friendly, with a slightly more upmarket vibe.

Its sidewalk cafés and offbeat boutiques are a weekend magnet for the brunch crowd; a local favorite is Alon’s Bakery and Market, an Israeli-owned business famous for its desserts (and the caterer for the Jewish Film Festival’s closing reception this week). Alon’s has been around for over two decades; it’s a pioneer in a local food scene that has lately blossomed with global variety.

In a city of neighborhoods and close-knit suburbs, houses of worship reflect strong local and historical roots. For Virginia-Highlanders, Congregation Anshi S’fard is the neighborhood shul (though just one of many, of course, in greater Atlanta).

Anshi S’fard is a small Orthodox congregation founded by prewar Ashkenazic immigrants; its congregation today reflects the neighborhood’s diversity, with professors and artists sharing pews with elderly Holocaust survivors. The shul, situated on the edge of Virginia-Highland, offers home hospitality for Shabbat visitors.

If you’re in Virginia-Highland this spring, you’d best cross Piedmont Park and visit the High Museum of Art, where a landmark exhibition runs through late May. “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting” is a rare opportunity to view together the works of iconic Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, whose art and life were entwined in ways this show illuminates.

Many of the works come from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, the Russian-born Jewish emigré and his Czech-born wife who championed Rivera and Mexican 20th-century art.

So to sum up: Atlanta is the place to see a Mexican artist’s portrait of a Czech immigrant married to a Russian Jew, then go out for Israeli salad — all in Jimmy Carter’s neighborhood. What more could you ask for, really?  

For those in the boutiquey Virginia-Highland section, Congregation Anshi S’fard is the neighborhood shul. Kevin C. Rose

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