It’s nearly 60 degrees as I write this column. Spring is on the way and school will be out before you know it, which means now is the ideal time to start planning a European summer vacation. Book in March, and you’ll snare the best airfares (and they are good right now), the best lodging values (the Airbnb steals go fast), and take advantage of an incredibly strong U.S. dollar.
This year, rather than simply touring, why not organize your travel around a local Jewish festival? Celebrations of Jewish music, art, film, food and culture erupt across the Continent all year long, providing memorable, immersive experiences.
The following are some of the more reliably user-friendly events. Some festivals are less appropriate for tourists — with activities primarily in the local language, for example — while others are in limbo, like the hugely popular Berlin Jewish Days of Culture, abruptly cancelled in 2015 after nearly 30 years for financial reasons. With European politics and economics in flux, it’s wise to confirm well in advance — then let loose and dive into Continental Jewish life.
Budapest, Hungary: The Jewish Summer Festival, Aug. 30-Sept. 6. Now in its 19th year, this event is centered on the Continent’s grandest synagogue, in a city whose European Jewish heritage runs deep. All week long, participants can enjoy concerts of Jewish music — ranging from klezmer and string quartets to fusion jazz, cabaret and pipe organ — at the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, the second largest in the world, and at the Rumbach Street Synagogue. Or sit in the seats of your ancestors at the historic Goldmark Hall, which was the citadel of Jewish cultural life before and even after World War II; during the war itself, the hall was packed every night, since it was the only venue where Jews were permitted to take in opera and theater.
International Sephardi Music Festival, Córdoba, Spain: You don’t need an excuse to spend nights in the gardens of Spain, especially in June, when twilight lingers until 10 p.m. This festival is a lightweight compared to others, but it’s hard to beat the spine-tingling enchantment of Spanish guitar and Ladino laments under the stars, amid the lush, palm-dotted greenery of the Córdoba’s Royal Botanic Garden. Scholars and culture-lovers mingle during a week of concerts and talks on Sephardic music, which are interspersed with Sephardic cooking workshops and tapas in the taverna. This year’s schedule has yet to be confirmed — but as part of Spain’s new Sephardic heritage initiative, the festival is more relevant than ever.
European Days of Jewish Culture, Week of Sept. 4. I write about this event every summer, but this year I’m giving you plenty of notice, which you’ll need to optimally experience this Continent-wide celebration; it spotlights tiny, distinctive Jewish places as well as big-city Jewish life across nearly 30 countries, from Lisbon to Latvia. Over two decades, the onetime “Day of Jewish Culture” has evolved into “Days,” plural, with many communities hosting an entire week of events focused around an annual theme. This year, it’s juicy: “Jewish Languages,” giving visitors the opportunity to explore Ladino and Aramaic, Yiddish, Ethiopian and Judeo-Italian dialects — all through the prism of concerts, lectures, open houses at synagogues and historic Jewish sites, exhibitions and more.
Krakow: Jewish Culture Festival, June 25-July 3. The granddaddy in this category — and a fun, memorable way to anchor a Poland trip — is the Jewish Culture Festival in picturesque Krakow, which began in 1988 in the historic Jewish district of Kazimierz and has evolved into an annual summer rite throughout the city center. From June 25 through July 3, thousands will bop to klezmer in the cobblestoned streets, join English-language tours of Jewish Krakow, eat their way through pierogi workshops, catch the latest Israel pop and poetry in cafés, and generally savor Jewish culture in its myriad modern and historic incarnations. The Festival now has a year-round base at Cheder, a Jewish café and cultural center, which hosts everything from challah workshops to Israeli pop singers.
Copenhagen: Jewish Culture Festival, May 31-June 6. A relatively new event, the sixth annual Copenhagen Jewish Cultural Festival is a chance to hear Jewish music and mingle with local Jews in one of Europe’s most festive cities. Early June is the ideal time to visit Scandinavia: days are long, weather is mild and plazas are filled with open-air revelers. The Festival expresses the multi-ethnic, emphatically cosmopolitan spirit of modern Denmark — with concerts of Persian-Jewish flamenco, Sephardic song, Yidpop and plenty of klezmer. The 12-year-old sponsoring organization, Jewish Culture in Copenhagen, also hosts a monthly Jewish film event (with whisky and chocolate!), concerts, and Jewish heritage trips around Europe.