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The Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture has become so important that it is listed on Poland's national calendar of events and is even used as a marketing tool for tourism.
This year, the Yiddishpiel theater will be taking part in the 16th annual festival, touring Polish cities including Zamosc, Krakow and Bilgoraj, birthplace of Yiddishpiel founder Shmuel Atzmon.
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Atzmon, who turns 77 this year, will celebrate his birthday on the theater troupe's Bilgoraj stop along with Israeli journalist Israel Zamir, son of Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Zamir will also be turning 77 in the presence of Israel's Ambassador to Poland David Peleg, the first secretary of the US Embassy in Poland, members of the Sejm, the Polish parliament, prominent Bilgoraj personalities (Zamir's grandfather also lived in Bilgoraj) and Friends of Yiddishpiel, who are accompanying the tour.
Apart from performing Yehoshua Sobol's Gebirtig and Bashevis Singer's Last Love in Bilgoraj, the theater troupe will also participate in the second annual conference for the perpetuation of the legacy of Bashevis Singer, which is scheduled to open on July 1 in Bilgoraj.
In addition to its Bilgoraj dates, Gebirtig will run for four additional performances - two outdoor and two in closed auditoriums in Zamosc and Krakow. The latter will be part of the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture which opens on July 1 and continues through to July 9.
INITIATED IN 1988, the festival has grown in scope and size, with more than a 100 events taking place in a period of just over a week. Performers and speakers from many parts of the globe, including Poland, America, Israel and Russia, will participate.
Though conceived and run primarily by non-Jews, the Festival has become one of the largest and most important events of its kind in the world, aiming to preserve and enhance the synthesis of Polish and Jewish cultures.
Prior to the Holocaust, Poland had the largest Jewish community in the diaspora. Now, according to the Polish Jewish Community Web site, there are 12 active Jewish communities in Poland, with the largest in Warsaw, plus some 40 foundations and institutions dedicated to perpetuating the Jewish history and culture of Poland.
In pre-war Warsaw, every third person was Jewish. It is unlikely that this ratio will ever exist again, but nonetheless the Jewish community is growing, partly because people who may not be halachically Jewish but are of Jewish descent choose to identify as Jews.
The Festival was the brainchild of Janusz Makuch who, as a teenager, heard from an old man about what Jewish life was once like in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of the city.
Makuch was so impressed with what he had learned that he wanted to share this knowledge with other Poles.
Kazimierz has since been restored to its former state, although most of the synagogues are now concert halls and museums and are not used for religious services. There are signs in Yiddish all over the place, and one of the features of the festival is a Yiddish cabaret.
There are also workshops on Yiddish language, Hassidic song and dance, Klezmer music, calligraphy and Jewish cooking.
Every Krakow Jewish Festival culminates with Shalom on ulica Szeroka - an open air concert in the main street of the Jewish Quarter, featuring dozens of performers from classic liturgical singers through to Yiddish nostalgia, Klezmer and more.
At the 15th festival, some 13,000 people sang and danced to the music in what could best be described as a semi-kosher Woodstock. The Festival receives wide television coverage both in Poland and around the world.
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