Krakow’s Jewish Fest Shows That philo-Semitism Is No Passing Phenomenon

With Poland now free for a quarter century, its medieval capital is an ever increasing hotbed of Jewish culture.

Pawel Mazur

KRAKOW, Poland — For 10 days Krakow’s Kazimierz district, the city’s Jewish hub before the Holocaust, was filled with about 30,000 people rocking to Israeli hip hop, learning about generations of rabbis and doing other stuff a Jewish mother would love. (Or as Israeli Jews say, a Polish mother.)

Krakow’s 24th Jewish Culture Festival attracted an eclectic crowd, proving that the Poles’ heightened interest in the country’s Jewish community isn’t limited to professors. It’s not a mere curiosity about a culture that was annihilated, it’s a living, learning laboratory. More than 200 artists and lecturers from Israel, Poland, the United States, Britain, Germany and elsewhere did their thing at the festival that lasted until July 6.

The event opened on a ship anchored on the Vistula River as hundreds of hipsters danced to music played by Israeli and Polish DJs. It ended with a seven-hour show in Szeroka Square attended by 20,000 people.

Shai Tsabari and the Middle-East Groove All-Stars performed, as did several Hasidic singers. Also appearing was Neta Elkayam, who taught the audience a few words of Moroccan Arabic, and the new Israeli band A-WA, which performed a Yemenite folk song spiced with a modern electronic sound.

Szeroka Square, where generations of rabbis and maskilim — proponents of the 18th- and 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment — lived, is surrounded by places linked to the past. These include the 16th-century Remuh Synagogue, the Old Jewish Cemetery and a batch of Jewish restaurants. One of these is in the lobby of the Hotel Rubinstein Residence; cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein was born there.

As the crowd danced to Jewish and Israeli music, you got the feeling that art could still nurture positive feelings, bring people together and create bridges between cultures. Kayah, one of Poland’s most beloved singers, told Haaretz about her successful tour devoted to Jewish and Israeli songs. At the festival’s closing show, she said she was moved by the warm reception of the guest musicians.

The show was entitled “Shalom,” but during a week when Israelis and Palestinians had embraced violence once again, the news from Israel was never far away.

“My country is burning now. Let’s sing for peace,” Tsabari told the crowd, mentioning that for hundreds of years, Jews and Arabs had lived together and even sung together in Middle Eastern countries. Then he belted out “Shalom lekha, dodi,” a poem by the 11th-century Andalusian poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol, set to music by an Algerian-Muslim composer.

The Krakow festival is one of Poland’s top cultural events; its organizers say it’s the largest Jewish festival on earth. But according to Janusz Makuch, the festival’s founder and director, the event back in 1989 was a small affair designed to sate the hunger for Jewish heritage that had been denied under communism. Makuch says Kazimierz was a sad, empty and dangerous place; the tiny Jewish community was largely made up of old people.

Makuch recalls the rapid changes. In 1989, the victory of the Solidarity movement in the first democratic election after communism spawned a cultural revival that bolstered the festival. Kazimierz was renovated in the mid-1990s and gradually became the host of trendy bars and cafes populated by young people. Krakow had gained another draw for tourism.

Makuch, who isn’t Jewish, was 29 when he launched the festival that became his life’s work. He says that at first the event concentrated on Hasidic melodies and Ashkenazi culture, but early on artists from Israel were brought in as a way to include Mizrahi culture as well. And Makuch is proud to have inspired the launch of other Jewish-culture festivals in cities throughout Poland and Europe.

The issue of Jewish identity has gained pace over the 25 years since Poland became a democratic country. Many Poles who hid their Jewish origins during the communist era are seeking to return to their ancestral roots.

In one discussion at the festival, Poland’s chief rabbi, New York-born Michael Schudrich, called on Jews abroad to help their Polish cousins rebuild their community. He said he was disappointed that the tens of thousands of Israelis who visit Poland every year don’t interact with local communities.

A major topic at the festival was Israel’s kibbutzim — their architecture, food culture and the overlooked story of the training kibbutzim in Poland, where young Zionists from Eastern Europe worked the land before immigrating to prestate Israel.

The Israeli writer Yael Neeman lectured about her book “We Were the Future,” published in Hebrew in 2011 and translated into Polish in 2012. Neeman spoke about her childhood and adolescence on Kibbutz Yehiam in the 1960s and 1970s.

She also showed excerpts from Ran Tal’s film “Children of the Sun,” a documentary on the attempt to create a “new human being.” The work explores the brighter and darker sides of communal child-rearing on many kibbutzim.

Pawel Mazur
Wojciech Karlinski