Krakow festival revives Jewish tradition

This year, there will be lectures on Sephardi musical traditions as well as concerts of Sephardi music.

krakow festival 88 298 (photo credit: )
krakow festival 88 298
(photo credit: )
If you're a spontaneous traveler - the type who just picks up and gets on a plane without weeks and months of prior planning and preparation - and you're also interested in Jewish tradition without necessarily being observant, you might want to think about flying to Poland in the last week of June for the 19th Krakow Jewish Festival. The first of these festivals began in 1988 with the waning of Communist rule in Poland. Not that Jewish culture was entirely absent from Poland under the Communists. Jewish visitors to Warsaw, whether they spoke Yiddish or not, made a point of visiting the Warsaw Yiddish Theater, whose actors were largely non-Jews performing Yiddish classics such as Mirele Efros. In recent years, there has also been an annual Warsaw Jewish Film Festival as well as well as other cultural activities with a Jewish orientation. Aside from this, Jewish studies have long been taught at Krakow's Jagiellonian University. But none of that equals the joy, the diversity and the huge attendance at the Krakow Jewish Festival, the brainchild of Janusz Makuch, a Catholic who until his teens had never even heard of Jews. Once made aware of what Jews had contributed to pre-Holocaust Polish culture, Makuch developed a fascination for all things Jewish, especially Jewish songs, dances and literature, which he wanted in some way to restore in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow in which seven synagogues as well as a Jewish cemetery have been preserved. Szeroka Street, the main thoroughfare in Kazimierz which today has kosher-style restaurants serving up traditional Polish-Jewish fare and stores that sell Jewish books, CDs and ritual objects, was once home to Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetician who established a beauty empire in the United States and became an internationally recognized brand name. The house in which she was born in December, 1870, still stands and has become a landmark of the city. Szeroka Street is naturally the major venue of the close to 200 events that are incorporated in this year's festival, which opens on June 27 and runs till July 5. Included are lectures, workshops, films, concerts, cabaret nights, dance performances, art exhibitions and a whole lot more - all on Jewish themes. Well-known and lesser-known Jewish scholars and performers from all over the world are scheduled to participate in the program alongside Polish scholars and performers who specialize in one form or another of Judaica. The final night of the festival in which Szeroka Street is flooded with people dancing to Hassidic music, is one of the most incredible "Jewish" happenings in the world, particularly when one realizes that the majority of the merry-makers are not Jewish. The festival has been expanding in scope from year to year. In the past, the main music focus was on Ashkenazi music. This year, there will also be lectures on Sephardi musical traditions as well as concerts of Sephardi music. Another new aspect of the festival is the opportunity to visit neighboring areas that were once vibrant with Jewish life. These guided tours will include Bobova, once an important center of Hassidism, Nowy Sacz, Oswiecim (Auschwitz) which is a town surrounding what the Nazis turned into one of the most horrific examples of human atrocity, and Lelow. Remnants of some of the Hassidic dynasties which flourished in these towns were transplanted primarily to the United States and Israel, where they have grown to almost the dimensions of pre-war Poland. One of the important but less highlighted aspects of the festival is that it has brought Poles with Jewish roots out of the woodwork. Some have since identified as Jews, without necessarily converting. Others have delved further and on discovering that they were not halachically Jewish, have decided to convert, so as to be able to be counted among the bona fide Jewish population. Activities of the Lauder Foundation, Chabad and Shavei Israel have stirred an ongoing revival of Jewish life in Poland - and not just in Krakow and Warsaw, but in other parts of the country where Jews live. In addition to Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich, there are several other rabbis serving in the country. The presence of Chabad in Poland, especially in Warsaw and Krakow, has also contributed considerably to the revival of Jewish life, with the provision of kosher food, additional mikva facilities, Shabbat hospitality, yeshivot and other educational outlets. Shavei Israel has three rabbis in Poland, including one who serves in Krakow. The Shavei Israel rabbis conduct seminars and symposia on Judaism in the hope of finding hidden Jews, namely those who are the offspring of Jewish children who were taken in by Polish Christians during the Holocaust and raised as Catholics. Shavei Israel has also published a Polish-Yiddish dictionary. Anyone visiting the Krakow Jewish Festival can get a lot more than nostalgia and entertainment out of it. It can be combined with a search for roots journey or with the discovery of contemporary Jewish in Poland - or both. The charming hotels around the Kazimierz quarter are probably booked up, but almost all hotels within a three kilometer radius of Kazimierz are conveniently located near public transport leading directly to the festival area, and public transport in Krakow is quite efficient. But don't use it unless you're tired or going on a long distance ride, because it's so much fun walking the streets of Krakow and seeing the integration of old and new. For people who don't care about kashrut, Krakow is filled with coffee shops and an enormous variety of restaurants. And of course there are the shops. When I was in Krakow some 18 months ago, the fashions didn't particularly appeal to me, but the jewelry and the porcelain, crystal and glassware were outstanding. If you do go to the festival and you happen to meet up with Janusz Makuch, you might be convinced that he too was a hidden Jew. For one thing, his knowledge of things Jewish, including recitation of prayers, is quite amazing. He visits Israel regularly, has close contact with several Israeli organizations and has created extraordinary awareness in Poland of the Jewish heritage and what the loss of Jewish creativity means to Poland.