A Krakow Jewish Culture Festival attendee hamming it up at a Malo Orkiestra concert, June 25 (Photo/Michal Ramus)
A Krakow Jewish Culture Festival attendee hamming it up at a Malo Orkiestra concert, June 25 (Photo/Michal Ramus)

Krakow diary, day 1: Listening to klezmer with 30,000 of my closest friends

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First in a week-long series of dispatches from the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival

The Jerusalem Quartet took over the bima Tuesday evening at the Tempel Synagogue for one of the musical highlights of this city’s annual Jewish Culture Festival.

Playing to a packed audience that included many men wearing kippot, the Israeli ensemble filled the ornate 19th century synagogue with a polished performance that included works by Antonin Dvorak and Leos Janacek.

The Jerusalem Quartet, which will be performing Oct. 13 in Berkeley as part of the Cal Performances series while on a two-week North American tour, was making its debut at the 10-day festival — which annually draws more than 30,000 people to Krakow, more than four times the size of all of Poland’s current Jewish population.

On Wednesday, a staple of traditional Jewish music was the focus as a schoolroom full of violinists, clarinetists, accordionists and a cellist participated in a workshop of klezmer music. Though most of the participants came from Krakow, some were from other Polish towns and from Spain, France, Ukraine and the U.S.

Deborah Strauss, a New York violinist who with husband Jeff Warschauer performs klezmer music around the globe — including at the Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley a few years ago — led the workshop.

Strauss used dancing, singing and foot stomping as part of her lesson, which started with the group playing “Freytog Nokhn Tsimes” and led into other klezmer pieces, such as a soulful doina in which she encouraged the class to forget about the rigid rules of Classical music.

Deborah Strauss leading a music workshop at the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, June 25 (Photo/Rob Gloster)

“Even though it has a rhythm, it is a free rhythm,” she said of the piece they were improvising. “It has a pulse, but the pulse changes. It is for listening, not for dancing.”

It is the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Krakow festival, and this year’s event comes amid a national spasm of anti-Semitism sparked by a law making it a crime to accuse Poland of complicity in the Holocaust. The law went into effect March 1 but hasn’t been enforced pending a court review, and the lower house of the Polish parliament voted Wednesday to eliminate penalties that threatened violators of the law with up to three years in prison.

The annual festival, whose financial supporters include Bay Area-based Taube Philanthropies and the Koret Foundation, promotes a revival of Jewish culture and life in Krakow and is based in the city’s historic Jewish quarter, Kazimierz.

Authorities say only about 7,000 Jews now live in Poland, though many non-Jews — some of whom have discovered they have Jewish roots that were hidden or severed during the Holocaust or during post-war Communist rule — are experiencing growing interest in Jewish heritage.

The festival, which runs through Sunday, July 1, includes everything from lectures on Zionism to bagel baking competitions as well as many forms of dance, music and art. Every year, on the final Saturday, the festival hosts a giant outdoor concert called “Shalom on Szeroka Street.”

“Culturally, it is like the World Series of Jewish life in Poland,” said Adam Schorin, a 2017 Stanford University graduate who has been living in Krakow since October while researching and writing a novel focused on a family descended from Holocaust survivors. “For people that work in the Jewish world here, it’s like a party.”

The festival has become such an established event that it has even spawned an alternate festival called Festivalt that also is going on now. Whereas most of the speakers, performers and workshop leaders at the mainstream festival are from the U.S. or Israel, Festivalt focuses on Poles and claims that it “brings wit, skepticism and a bit of chutzpah” to an examination of Jewish life in Poland today.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.