(This post also appears on my Jewish Heritage Travel blog)
I’ve been writing about the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow for about 20 years, maybe even longer…so I have some historical perspective and memory in its regard.
Here’s my latest piece, a first-personer published in The Forward. People who also have long experience with the Festival and with the Jewish development of Krakow praised it for presenting a nuanced view….other people, predictably, didn’t get what I was getting at…
ARTS FEST SHOWS TRANSFORMATION IN POLAND’S REPUTATION
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
July 19, 2013
KRAKOW — In the sultry darkness of a summer night, a tall, skinny figure with close-cropped hair and a purple T-shirt threaded through a beer garden during Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, the annual nine-day extravaganza of performance, exhibition, debate and intensive interaction that for a quarter of a century now has been a catalyst of Krakow’s Jewish cultural revival.
Bridging the open space between the city’s lively Jewish community center, which hosted dozens of festival events, and the grandiose Tempel Synagogue, venue for many of the concerts, the garden served as an informal salon where public and performers, Jews and non-Jews alike, could shmooze.
Whispers trailed in the newcomer’s wake: “Matisyahu’s here!”
The American singer, much less recognizable since he shed his Hasidic garb, blended with the dozens of other folks sipping their drinks as he made his way through the slatted wooden tables and sat down with a group that included Jonathan Ornstein, director of Krakow’s Jewish community center, and Janusz Makuch, the bearded, non-Jewish Pole who co-founded the festival in 1988 and is still both its director and its main driving force.
Matisyahu wasn’t on the program, though he has performed here in the past.
This time, en route to a gig in northern Poland, he had simply dropped in to hang with the festival crowd in Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish district.
Over the past two decades, Kazimierz has famously been transformed from a rundown slum, the quintessential Jewish graveyard, into a major tourist attraction: a burgeoning hub of revitalized Jewish culture, life, consciousness and commercial kitsch — as well as the city’s liveliest center of clubs, pubs and other late-night venues.
“We must have been out till 5 in the morning,” Ornstein told me the next day.
I’ve been writing about Kazimierz since 1990 and about the festival itself for nearly that long, returning each summer, at least for a few festival days, to monitor changes in the place, the program and the issues that swirl around both of them.
To me, Matisyahu’s under-the-radar appearance brought home one of the most striking of these changes. Clearly for him — and for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other Jewish tourists who now flock here — the long post-Holocaust taboo on visiting Poland for pleasure has been broken.
This is no mean feat and has taken years to come about. Auschwitz is just an hour’s drive from Krakow, and the new attitude is by no means universal. But I heard it echoed clearly by a Canadian woman staying in my hotel.
“There’s no downside to Krakow,” the woman told me over breakfast. “As for the festival, it’s great. I’m doing as many activities as I can, and I’m already planning to come back with friends in two years.”
One of the factors in this change has been the increasingly high profile of the JCC, which opened five years ago as a neutral Jewish space accessible to all streams and forms of Jewishness and Jewish expression, normative or not.
Now one of the hubs of the festival, the JCC is, importantly, recognized as a “Jewish” Jewish space, in contrast to most of the city’s other Jewish-oriented venues and institutions. Its involvement has changed radically the dynamics of an event that long was viewed as a Jewish festival produced by non-Jews for a non-Jewish audience. Non-Jewish Poles still make up the vast majority of the festival’s attendees.
Among the JCC’s annual festival offerings is a kosher Sabbath dinner. This year, hosted in the 17th-century Izaak Synagogue, the dinner drew nearly 400 people.
“Visitors to Krakow now understand that they are not coming to a museum, but rather to a place with a small but increasingly active Jewish community,” Ornstein told me. “Understanding that fact puts the festival in a different context from a Jewish point of view. It is not only connecting Poles to Jewish culture, but helping create an environment in which the local Jewish community feels welcome and can thrive. This festival can make a claim that few others can: It is helping to rebuild a Jewish community long thought by many to be without a future.”
(more at web site)