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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » September 30, 2011
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Jewish Culture Festival Draws Thousands
September 30, 2011   
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The 8th Singer’s Warsaw Jewish Culture Festival ended Sept. 4, having attracted a crowd of 30,000 and featured 400 artists and performers over nine days. The festival’s 150 events took Warsaw back to the prewar era when it resounded with Jewish songs, prayers and dance. The festival comprised a total of 35 concerts, 10 theatrical performances, dozens of exhibitions, workshops, movie screenings, lectures and meetings with writers.

The festival events were held on Grzybowski Square, Próżna and Chłodna streets and in several other locations across Warsaw’s Praga district. Tradition and nostalgia mixed with non-mainstream Jewish culture and club parties alternated with dances to klezmer music and rock’n’roll.

The festival opened with a concert performed by one of the greatest contemporary Jewish performers, Joseph Malovany, the cantor of New York’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue. In Warsaw, Malovany sang at the Nożyk Synagogue accompanied by the Choir of the White Stork Synagogue in Wrocław. Malovany treated Warsaw audiences to a combination of unusual arrangements and interpretations of familiar liturgical songs, psalms and daily and Sabbath prayers, including Psalm 150: “Hallelujah.”

During the opening ceremony, the Guardians of Remembrance awards were given out to Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Culture and National Heritage Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski, former Foreign Minister Władysław Bartoszewski, who is now a senior government advisor, and Zygmunt A. Rolat, chairman of the Friends of the Shalom Foundation of Warsaw.

One of the first and most anxiously awaited events was the premiere of 1666, a play by Michał Zadara based on the Satan in Goray novel which Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote at a time when Hitler took power in Germany. The play is set in 17th-century Poland and tells the story of a self-righteous community that struggles for power, succumbs to ideology and completely loses touch with reality. Zadara’s production retains the humor and irony of the original, but at the same time it asks difficult questions about contemporary times. The play was performed by actors from the Jewish Theater in Warsaw to background music by a young composer named Asa Horwitz.

Jewish Culture Festival audiences were also treated to a concert that Polish jazz singer Anna Maria Jopek gave at the large stage of the Jewish Theater together with the Kroke band from Cracow. The band, formed 15 years ago, play music that combines the klezmer tradition with oriental music and jazz.

The biggest star of the Jewish Culture Festival was Frank London, a New York-based trumpeter, conductor, composer and winner of the World Music Grammy Award. In Warsaw, London first appeared in a klezmer opera entitled The Night in the Old Marketplace and inspired by works by Kurt Weill and Tom Waits. Then, he showed a different side of himself during the Night of the Klezmers, teaming up with the Brass All Stars band and German clarinetist Christian Dawid for a captivating dose of energetic music.

A lot of interest surrounded the Ger Mandolin Orchestra project, which reconstructs a prewar ensemble of 11 Jewish mandolinists from Góra Kalwaria near Warsaw. The present-day group consists of 11 musicians from the United States, Canada, Israel, the Czech Republic and Germany. They include Avi Avital, a Grammy Award nominee from 2010. The idea for the project came from Avner Yonai who is a grandson of Dawid Rybak, one of the original band members. The Ger Mandolin Orchestra played two concerts at the former synagogue in Góra Kalwaria and the Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw and got a standing ovation several times.

Other attention-grabbing acts included Israeli pianist Dan Rank, whose concert was a treat for classical music lovers. Yiddish language enthusiasts could hear the language sung by Karsten Troyke with the Trio Scho from Germany and Ben Zimet from France. The Sisters of Sheynville from Canada sang energetic swing and klezmer songs during their first-ever concert in Poland.

Festival audiences heard works by Mieczysław Weinberg and Ernst Bloch during a concert entitled The Effect of the Holocaust on 20th-Century Jewish Composers, performed by American pianist Paul Dykstra, cellist Ian Maksin, violinist David Lisker, and soprano Rose Guccione.

This year was the first time that the Jewish Culture Festival crossed the Vistula River and brought Jewish music, culture, tradition and cuisine to the Praga district east of the river. Venues included the Academia Theater as well as clubs and cafés such as Hydrozagadka, Zwi±ż Mnie, Sens Nonsensu, Skład Butelek, 4 Pokoje, and La Playa. They hosted concerts, movie screenings, workshops, exhibitions, meetings with writers and tastings of Jewish cuisine. One of the most successful events in Praga was an outdoor concert that the Opa band from Russia played in a yard on 11-go listopada Street. Music by Opa is inspired by contemporary klezmer acts, ska, reggae, American swing and Balkan tunes. The musicians encouraged Varsovians to join them on an unprecedented musical stroll along streets in the city center and in Praga. Several hundred people took up the invitation.

Fans of Jewish literature could attend Jewish Literary Salon meetings with reporter and writer Hanna Krall, poet Dariusz Pado and other littérateurs, among them Radosław Kobierski, Joanna Mueller, Marek Groński and Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota. There was also a Jewish Culture Club that convened at the Próżna-Hoiz restaurant for lectures on Polish Jewish culture conducted by Yiddish literature researcher Natalia Krynicka (France) and Yiddish teacher Evita Wiecki (Germany).

The festival closed with an outdoor concert on Grzybowski Square entitled Tzadik’s Court and directed by Jan Szurmiej. It told a lively and witty story of a matchmaker and a tailor in love with the daughter of a tzadik, or a Jewish spiritual leader. The concert was performed jointly by actors from the Jewish Theater with many of the festival stars, including the Ger Mandolin Orchestra, Frank London, Brass All Stars, and Lenka Lichtenberg.

Special guests who attended this year’s festival events included former Polish President Aleksander Kwa¶niewski, Mazovia province governor Jacek Kozłowski, U.S. ambassador to Poland Lee Feinstein, and Israeli ambassador Zvi Rav Ner. The Festival was held as part of the official cultural agenda of the Polish presidency of the EU. The Warsaw Voice was among the media partners of the event.
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