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For 20 years, the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow has been attracting thousands of visitors from all over Poland and abroad, including leading writers, poets, artists and filmmakers from many parts of the globe including Israel. This year, from June 23 to July 1, the city's historic Jewish quarter (called Kazimierz) will fill once more with music, art, dance, lectures and exhibits - all celebrating the 900-year history of Jews in Poland.
The festival was launched in 1987 by Janusz Makuch, a non-Jew who ardently believes that Krakow and Poland in general must do everything possible to preserve the memory of Jewish culture in the country.
Makuch fired the imaginations of fellow Poles including members of Poland's post-Communist and newly emerging Jewish community, as well as Jews around the world - especially those of Polish background. Over the years, the festival has grown in size and scope, as more entertainers from abroad have sought to participate. More visitors arrived from far-off Polish cities and from around the world, making Krakow the place to be during the week of the festival.
Makuch, who remains the festival's director, also inspired the creation of the Friends of the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival Society, which helps to support the festival's many activities including lectures, symposia and conferences, art and photo exhibitions, cabaret nights, concerts, dance recitals, poetry readings, Yiddish and Hebrew language workshops, Hassidic dance workshops, Jewish cooking demonstrations, book promotions, synagogue tours, films and almost anything else of a cultural nature that can be related to the Jewish experience.
This year there will also be a religious experience with Sabbath services and other spiritual Sabbath-related events. Of the conferences, one of the most important will be on urban regeneration in the historical Jewish quarters of Eastern European cities.
The festival is particularly popular with Klezmer bands, which flock to play in Kazimierz. They fill the synagogues that remained standing after the war, although with two or three exceptions, these no longer function as places of worship. The klezmer groups also play in nearby theaters and cafes, and on the final night of the festival they join in the grand finale, an open air concert in the wide expanse of Szeroka Street attracting thousands of people.
A partner in this year's festival will be the recently opened Galica Museum, whose permanent exhibition is dedicated to the Jewish legacy of Poland, and whose premises have been placed at the disposal of Festival organizers for various events.
Among the highlights of the festival will be a concert by famed stage and screen actor and multi-lingual singer Theodore Bike, and Greek-born Sephardi cantor Alberto Mizrahi, who is currently the cantor of the Anshei Emet synagogue in Chicago. Often referred to as "the Pavarotti of the bimah," Mizrahi will sing a series of duets with Bikel in Ladino, Yiddish, Hebrew, Serbo-Croat, Greek and other languages.
Israelis are invariably among the festival's participants, both as performers and as spectators. Makuch regularly comes to Israel to get a sense of what is going on in Israel's culture entertainment scene. One of the features of the festival will be an art exhibition inspired by the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Among the Israelis on the festival program are Polish-born author Miriam Akavia, who heads the Israel-Poland Friendship Association, and Cantors Chaim Adler, Yaacov Motzen and Israel Rand, together with the Kolot Min Hashmayim Choir, conductor Rafael Bitton and accompanist Menachem Bristowski.
Although Poland, as a member of the European Union, does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the invitation for the cantorial concert bears the emblem of the 40th anniversary of the city's reunification, along with a statement that the concert is within the framework of the 40th anniversary celebrations. Not surprisingly, the concert will be presented under the title "If I forget thee O Jerusalem..."