Annual Yiddish festival celebrates its 10th year with a big musical reunion

It’s not asked as frequently as “paper or plastic?” but “Litvak or Galitzianer?” is a common inquiry among Yiddish enthusiasts. Ask Jon Levitow and he comes down strongly on the Litvak side.

“Litvak is the Yiddish taught in schoolbooks,” says Levitow, a Stanford University professor of Yiddish, referring to the dialect that originated in Lithuania (Galitzianer originated in Ukraine). “It’s been that way for 100 years.”

He expects to shmooze with plenty of other Yiddish speakers — either Litvak and Galitzianer, he doesn’t discriminate — at KlezCalifornia’s 10th annual Yiddish Culture Festival, a three-day affair scheduled to begin Feb. 18 at the JCC of San Francisco.

Workshop leaders and performers this year include dance instructor Steve Weintraub, musician Gerry Tenney, educator Ken Blady, scholars Martin Schwartz and Francesco Spagnolo, Yiddishist Harvey Varga and Cantor Sharon Bernstein (who will lead a community sing-along).

Daniel Hoffman

Levitow will teach one of 50 workshops at the festival, which features nonstop music, dancing, kosher food and, if Levitow has his way, cursing. His workshop on Yiddish proverbs will include many classic curses.

He’ll run through some Yiddish blessings as well, but the curses, he admits, are “juicy and colorful.”

As in “Zol men a meshuganem oysmekn un dikh araynshraybn.” Or “May a lunatic be released so you can be committed.”

“Yiddish has always existed alongside other languages,” Levitow explains. “If you were a man you used [Hebrew] in synagogue. If you went to work then you used the language of the country. Yiddish is the language you come home to speak, and you get to release a little.”

Other workshops at the festival cover topics such as Yiddish literature, a history of the language and one called “100 Yiddish Words in the Average New York Puerto Rican Vocabulary.”

That’s the blithe spirit KlezCalifornia founder Judy Kunofsky wants to bring to the Yiddish Culture Festival.

“We’re not nostalgic,” she says, “and we don’t tell people they should come because Yiddish is in trouble. We want people to come because it’s fun.”

The fun comes in all ages and stages. For kids, there will be candlestick making, a collage project, storytelling and a sing-along. For all, there will be klezmer dance lessons. And this year, there will be a big musical reunion.

Klez-X, one of the Bay Area’s pioneering klezmer bands of the 1990s, broke up after violinist Daniel Hoffman moved to Israel more than six years ago. When festival organizers invited the band to headline this year’s event, Hoffman couldn’t resist. They perform the night of Feb. 18.

Six years after breaking up, Klez-X is getting together for a reunion concert. photo/peter samuels

For Klez-X accordionist Jeanette Lewicki, it’s a big deal. After all, Klez-X was the house band for ACT’s 1996 musical, “Shlemiel the First,” which was based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

In addition, the Oakland resident also will lead two workshops, one on Yiddish songs from Russia, the other on songs from the Yiddish underworld.

She calls the latter workshop “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.”

“There’s always been a Yiddish underworld,” Lewicki says. “They were the luftmenschen [people of the air], part of the underground economy. Because Jews were often shut out of the capitalist world, people survived in other ways.”

In her workshop, Lewicki will present a little-known Yiddish song about girls who get kidnapped from Eastern Europe and taken to Buenos Aires to work in brothels. Others are about boastful thieves with names like Zlatke with the Long Arms.

As much as she loves klezmer music as it has been played over the centuries, Lewicki says for her the music is not a museum piece.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a purist,” she says. “I’m not trying to recreate a culture that no longer exists or sound like an old recording. But I do think it’s important to listen to that stuff and be conversant with that culture.”

That’s where events like the Yiddish Culture Festival come in.

For Kunofsky, who founded the festival, the event provides an opportunity for Ashkenazi Jews to reconnect with their history.

“The phrase I always heard was ‘From Tanach to Palmach,’” she says, referring to the leap from Bible to modern Israel. “That history leaves out the 2,000 years in between. I’ve been to Israel. I’ve studied Hebrew. I love Israel, but the thing that gets my neshama [spirit] going is the Eastern European culture.”

And that’s why she promises the festival will be, in the words of the Yiddish expression, a “chasinah on machitonim.”

Or, as Kunofksy translates, “It’s like a wedding without the in-laws.”

KlezCalifornia’s Yiddish Culture Festival, noon to 11 p.m. Feb. 18; 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Feb. 19 and 20. See website for workshop times. At the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $25-$45. (415) 789-7679 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.