Every year in early September, European cities explode in Jewish festivity as they simultaneously celebrate the European Day of Jewish Culture. From Bulgaria to Belgium, Norway to Luxembourg, Jewish art, music and food are in the spotlight.
But it doesn’t end there. In fact, throughout the chilly days of fall, cities across North-Central Europe host Jewish cultural festivals that go beyond mere street fairs to showcase finely curated klezmer, cinema and more.
As airfares drop and drab afternoons shorten, consider planning travel around these cultural events. A trip immersed in klezmer or Yiddish theater, say, will be more memorable than another tour of castles.
For aficionados of all things Yiddish, the 14th annual Week of Yiddish Music and Theater in Dresden, Germany, will take place from Oct. 17-31. Concerts, plays, lectures, and even Yiddish linguistics classes all explore the lingering influence of Yiddish in contemporary culture. The festival’s musical highlights include songs of the shtetl performed by a broad range of musical artists, from Yachad, a Russian-Ukrainian group, to Anakronic Okestra, which sets traditional klezmer tunes to hip-hop for an evening of dancing.
In addition to performances, the festival offers opportunities for visitors to engage with the local Jewish community, which is once again flourishing. Community Shabbat worship is held at Dresden’s award-winning New Synagogue; a guided tour of the synagogue is also on the program. There are also several café afternoons, when visitors can mingle over traditional German-Jewish cake with Dresden Jewish residents. (On that note, don’t be intimidated by the fact that lectures and discussions, as well as most festival websites, are in German: most urban Germans also speak English, music is universal, and Google’s Translate tool can help you figure out the website program schedules.)
Farther south, the Munich Festival of Jewish Culture is now in its 24th year, giving travelers yet another reason to enjoy this posh and charming city where Jewish life is enjoying a renaissance.
When it began sponsoring cultural activities like the festival back in the 1980s, the Society for the Advancement of Jewish Culture and Tradition originally aimed to reinvigorate the fragile community of local Jews in a city devastated by the Holocaust. But the Society soon discovered that young, non-Jewish Bavarians were flocking to Yiddish theater, Sephardic concerts and the like, intrigued and fascinated by Jewish culture.
“Jewish Berlin,” this year’s event, runs from Nov. 20 through Dec. 1 at venues around central Munich. Highlights include a concert by Chicago’s Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, a documentary film entitled “Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schonhauser Allee to Hollywood,” Berlin’s Karsten Troyke and Trio Scho performing Yiddish tango and Berlin-Russian songs that span a century, and a concert of Romantic choral music from the synagogues of Europe.
An exhibition at the new Jewish Museum of Munich, “Typical! Clichés about Jews and Others” complements the events. And while in town, visitors can arrange to visit the Jewish Center Cultural Complex, which officially ushered in a new era for Bavarian Jews when it opened in 2007.
Vienna’s Seventh KlezMORE Festival, which runs from Nov. 6-21, is true to its name: while there is plenty of klezmer, participants will also find lectures on Viennese Jewish figures, cabaret evenings, film screenings, and a guided tour of the Jewish cemetery.
This year’s theme is “Old Routes, New Ways,” and the programming has a heavily nostalgic bent, with an emphasis on the lost civilizations of both prewar German Jewry and old-time Vienna. The “new ways,” however, are evident in the festival’s multicultural lens, as well as the re-interpretations of both klezmer and cabaret by a younger generation.
From France, there is Rodinka, a group of five women from a Prague family that mixes Slavic, klezmer and gypsy sounds. The Lerner and Moguilevsky Duo represent a particularly Buenos Aires brand of klezmer, with sounds of the Ashkenazic diaspora in its Argentinean homeland. Brooklyn’s own Jessica Lurie Ensemble brings a fresh fusion sound, and from Austria come the Yiddish humorist Otto Taurig and the Klezmer Connection Trio.
A broader sampling of Jewish music – everything from Sephardic soul to Slavic rock — is offered by the 2nd Annual International Jewish Music Competition in Amsterdam. From Oct. 28-31, 24 ensembles representing 12 countries will perform and compete for prizes, bookings and recording contracts.
Anyone can buy tickets (there’s a discount for early birds) and hear the latest Jewish sounds from as far away as as Brazil, Indonesia, Hungary and Poland. All concerts are in the new auditorium of the Amsterdam Conservatory … and a surprising number of performers are Dutch.
From Nov. 4-21, Jewish films ranging from the cheeky to the provocative will be shown as part of the U.K. Jewish Film Festival. Taking advantage of both the large local Jewish population and the vibrant local film scene, the festival tours cities from Belfast to Leeds all year long, presenting Jewish and Israeli films and discussions.
To bring Jewish cinema into a wide variety of neighborhoods, the festival screens at 12 London theaters, with a mission to promote not only cinema but cross-cultural understanding and discussion. This year’s program is still being finalized, but if past years are any guide, the festival should be entertaining and engaging — a major highlight of the London Jewish calendar.
Munich Jewish Culture Days festival: www.juedischekulturmuenchen.de (site is in German)
KlezMORE Festival (Vienna): www.klezmore-vienna.at (site is in German)
UK Jewish Film Festival: www.ukjewishfilmfestival.org.uk
International Jewish Music Competition (Amsterdam): www.ijmf.org/Site/Welcome.html
14th Annual Week of Yiddish Music and Theater (Dresden): http://www.jiddische-woche-dresden.de/index_e.php (mostly in German)