Michael Rubenfeld, one of the four co-founders of Festivalt, which runs concurrently with the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival (Photo/Sharon Eshel Gloster)
Michael Rubenfeld, one of the four co-founders of Festivalt, which runs concurrently with the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival (Photo/Sharon Eshel Gloster)

Krakow diary, day 2: An edgier take on Jewish life in contemporary Poland

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

The Jewish Culture Festival that annually takes over the streets of the old Jewish quarter of this city for 10 days has become such a well-established part of the calendar that it has spun off an alternative festival.

Whereas the main festival is in its 30th year and draws 30,000-35,000 people to the Kazimierz district to attend concerts, lectures and demonstrations at the ornate Tempel Synagogue and the JCC, Festivalt is in its second year and draws a handful of devoted followers to small performance spaces, parks and art galleries — and the apartment of one of its co-founders.

While most of the performers in the main fest are American or Israeli, Festivalt tries to feature Polish Jews and focus on the role of Judaism in 21st century Poland. That often leads to offbeat performances at Festivalt, rather than the popular fare of the main festival.

“Contemporary Judaism in Poland is very complicated and we didn’t feel like the festival was providing many critical spaces for this conversation,” said Michael Rubenfeld, one of the four co-founders of Festivalt. “The perspective we’re offering is not necessarily part of the main festival, it’s a bit more provocative and it’s more edgy.”

The main festival features klezmer workshops and bagel-making contests for kids, lectures on Polish-Israeli collaboration and nightly concerts showcasing performers ranging from a string quartet to a klezmer orchestra.

This years Festivalt poster
This year’s Festivalt poster

The lineup of Festivalt events includes Yiddish lesbian love songs, a Jewish feminist cabaret and a look at the medicinal plants that now grow on the site of the former Plaszow concentration camp, where the Nazis murdered thousands of Jews from the Krakow ghetto. There is theater, performance art, photography, music – and of course plenty of discussion around Jewish identity, memory and place.

Rubenfeld, a Canadian playwright who married a Polish woman and moved to Krakow two years ago, said Festivalt started last year in part as a response to the main festival. They both run during the last week of June, though few in the international crowd attending the Jewish Culture Festival even know Festivalt is taking place around them.

One of Rubenfeld’s plays was performed at the main festival three years ago, and he says that experience made him aware of things missing from its programming.

Among the other founders of Festivalt is Maia Ipp, formerly the associate director of creative writing at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. One of the people who helped create content for Festivalt is Adam Schorin, a 2017 Stanford University graduate who is living in Krakow while working on a novel about the descendants of Holocaust survivors and also gave a lecture at the main festival.

“Festivalt fills in the gaps where people have perceived the main festival might be missing things, particularly in art,” Schorin said. “It’s to have more stuff around contemporary Jewish Polish art and more diversity around Israel and around what Jewish life in Poland is like today.”

Many of the Festivalt events take place in Rubenfeld’s apartment, where dozens of attendees watched a couple of performances this week of “Strangers,” a play he co-wrote with Jonathan Garfinkel. The Festival program says the play’s “creators ask whether Poland is actually an important contemporary place for the Jewish people, or whether its fractures are too great for Jewish culture to bear.”

Rubenfeld told J. that Festivalt is “very much rooted in Poland,” adding that the main festival has been “very Israel-focused the last couple of years, which I find to be odd (especially since) there’s no conversation about the current political situation in Israel.”

Indeed, the theme of this year’s Jewish Culture Festival is “Zion” and the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel.

The main festival has major financial support from corporations and philanthropic foundations, including Bay Area-based Taube Philanthropies and the Koret Foundation. Rubenfeld acknowledges “we don’t have a ton of money” at Festivalt.

Festivalt also offers “alternative golf cart tours,” which take visitors around the city showing less familiar sites and offering a vision of what Krakow would look like today if the Holocaust had never occurred. They are a direct response to the plethora of carts, not connected to the Jewish Culture Festival, that throughout the year show tourists sites including the factory where Oskar Schindler saved the lives of about 1,200 Jews.

“Those horrific tourist tours are factually incorrect. There’s a lot of Jewish tourist traps in town,” Rubenfeld said. “We’re also Jewish and we focus on what the festival doesn’t necessarily focus on. It’s all about asking our audiences to ask hard questions.”

Rob Gloster

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