Forest and I had a difficult time staying on track, in the best possible way. Our conversation meandered and wandered, digressed, circled back on itself, and kept tumbling into stories within stories, in what felt like an ode to a lovely tradition of Jewish storytelling and Forest’s own pursuits within Yiddish literature.
Over Zoom, I spoke with Forest, the Arts & Ideas Program Coordinator at the JCCSF, about his teenage band, working at the JCC, making the world’s only dreidel slot machine as a LABA BAY Fellow, and the respectable canon of villains in Yiddish literature. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity (returning the conversation to some semblance of order!).
Jason: Before your current job at the JCCSF, you had a lot of audio-related roles — when did you fall in love with sound?
Forest: I’ve been a musician most of my life and grew up playing in the local music scene here. When I was a teenager, I bought a tape machine on Craigslist with money from working at a sushi restaurant and used that to record the first band I was in, a surf rock group called Cross Talk. I played guitar and did vocals, with my buddy Gavin on bass and Conner on drums.
What was the vibe of Cross Talk? Were you in a basement?
There was definitely a basement involved, and I can remember the smell really distinctly. You kind of had to rely on a basement if you had a band at that age, and we even played a show in Conner’s. I want to say it was cool [laughs]. Conner and I actually still play together. These days, I’m in a few bands. I play in Celadon with my girlfriend. I’ve also been playing with Sadie Alan, a great local singer-songwriter, and I play slide guitar in a country group called Country Risqué, a queer Jewish country group!
Can you give us a glimpse into one gig from your sound engineering era?
I went to UC San Diego and became a recording engineer for the school. The department was known for avant garde classical music, which I’ve now heard more than any human being should probably have to endure [laughs]. That job led me to archival work and preserving early digital recordings from the department that were disintegrating. I got to hear a lot of studio sessions, which was really cool because in addition to the music, I heard the musicians talking to each other. By the time I was doing the restorations, many of them had passed away, so it was almost like hearing ghost conversations.
What have you been enjoying about being the Arts and Ideas Program Coordinator at the JCCSF?
It’s super great; I’ve really enjoyed getting behind the scenes with interesting cultural organizations, being able to support great artists, and getting a better idea of the breadth of Jewish cultural stuff that’s going on.
We do a lot of cookbook talks, which is really interesting and what’s getting people out of the house these days. I love food and cooking and especially doing interesting things with historical Jewish foods. Recently we were lucky to have Leah Koenig, whose new book, Portico, dives into the history of Jewish food in Rome and Jake Cohen, who has fun Jewish approaches to popular food like his “Moses in a Blanket” recipe (challah-wrapped hot dogs).
You took Yiddish classes during a grad program at UC Santa Cruz with Nathaniel Deutsch and Yankl Levitow. What called you to pursue those studies?
There’s this amazingly rich culture in the Yiddish literary, theater, and music tradition. If you study the language, you can have a deeper level of access. So much is untranslated, so there’s a lot to discover.
Studying Yiddish also allowed me to learn more about my family. We have letters preserved from the early 20th century, so it’s been rewarding to get more insight into the lives of my ancestors. I found out the first members of my family to come to America worked at a Yiddish radio station in Detroit, which is pretty neat.
Going back further to shtetl life, you get a lens into different kinds of Judaism than many of us have experienced and a totally different world.
Any little discoveries from your Yiddish explorations that might be worth sharing?
I remember finding a letter with a rabbi writing about musical melodies coming from the same place where souls come from, which he described as “under the throne of God.”
I worked with a big, amazing team to build this kind of mystical Jewish-Yiddish-Kabbalistic slot machine. When you play, you’re essentially running 15 simultaneous dreidel games. Dreidel is a fun game, plus I was eager to explore the mystical alphanumeric interpretations of the different sides. When you “cash out,” you get a voucher with a quote and a grouping of Hebrew letters that are either a word or phrase from the Torah that’s derived from your score.
I’m interested in casinos, and slot machines already have a strange kind of beautiful, mystical experience to them, so it seemed like a fun combination, plus a natural framing to embed stories. Part of the idea is that the game mirrors the intergenerational experience of playing dreidel with friends or family and that exchange of stories, advice, and sayings that are shared across the table.
And somehow Meyer Lansky [the infamous Jewish gangster] is involved?!
There’s a lot of villainous gangster characters in the Yiddish canon, and I got interested in Lansky, too, who has this whole fascinating history with the Cuban Revolution and his long-term investment into Cuban politics to turn Cuba into a gambling haven. One goal of the revolution was to stop gangsters like him and the corruption they brought. So he became this counter-revolutionary figure working with the American government to try to stop Castro from taking power!
That’s wild. I love that you built this mystical rabbit-hole maker. Now, onto our in-house Proust Questionnaire. Tell me a poem, book, movie, play, piece of music or art or media that you love.
Ansky’s Tog un Nakht, which is a great unfinished Yiddish play way ahead of its time about evil and taboo. That play was in my head when I was working on my slot machine project—so fascinating and disturbing with a lot of multi-world Kabbalistic stuff.
What’s the Bay’s best-kept secret?
The local music scene! I’ve been deeply appreciating the music I’ve gotten to be around the last few years. Bands like Hit Me, Harold, Star 99, Secret Secret, Ray Storme…There are so many incredible, top-notch musicians around here; I feel lucky to both listen and play with them.
What was a recent time you felt a spiritual connection?
Playing the slide guitar is a deeply spiritual experience. I’m thinking of my relationship with the instrument itself. It’s the easiest one for me to have that kind of Kabbalistic reception going on, where it feels like I’m not choosing the notes, but it’s a lot easier for them to be almost told to me. With the slide guitar, I can hear what I’m supposed to play before I play it.
GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.