It’s easy to be ambivalent about the portrayal of stereotypical Jewishness at historic Krakow gathering.
KRAKOW POLAND- First-time visitors to the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival might have a hard time imagining that almost two decades ago at the same event, lines of riot police with water cannons faced off against angry skinheads.
Such a raw-edged scene today would be unthinkable given the redevelopment of Kazimierz, Krakow's former Jewish quarter founded by King Casimir the Great in the 14th century. Despite the centuries-old buildings, the feeling of a stage set still pervades the area, which Steven Spielberg used as a location for Schindler's List.
Facing the main square, Jewish-themed restaurants offer traditional Yiddish food, caricatures of Hasidic Jews decorate the walls, and klezmer bands play for the guests. Along one small street, imitation 1930s merchant signs hang above souvenir shops selling wooden figurines depicting elderly Orthodox Jews.
From its beginning in an old repertory theatre in 1988 as a conference on Polish-Jewish relations, the Jewish Cultural Festival has grown into one of the largest events of its kind in the world, with more than 200 concerts, lectures and exhibitions on Jewish music, dance, literature and architecture over 10 days.
It's organized by local Poles and its success reflects their growing interest in the legacy of the 3.5 millions Jews who lived in Poland before the war.
According to Michael Alpert, a key figure in the contemporary klezmer and Yiddish folk music revival, founder Janusz Makuch had fundamental doubts about his project from the start. "He was unsure if he had the right to hold such a festival on the largest Jewish graveyard in the world, to be seen to be dancing on the bones of the dead."
But Makuch persevered, using the festival as a challenge to the era's officially imposed silence on the place and fate of the Jews in Polish history. His goal, he has said, was to educate Poles about the forgotten culture that existed in their country for hundreds of years.
On the opening Saturday evening, seats fill quickly at the majestic Tempel Synagogue. People find spaces against the back wall.
Clad in traditional Hasidic garb of long black coat and round fur-trimmed hat, Rabbi Edgar Gluck, chief rabbi of Galicia, sits at the head of a long table set down in the main aisle. Greeting his friends in English with a Brooklyn accent, he marks the official end of Sabbath by lighting a braided candle and extinguishing it in a bowl of wine.
A choir takes to the stage, followed by a series of other performers. The music becomes progressively lively. At one point, Rabbi Gluck links arms with another man and the two begin dancing in circles at the front of the stage. Rows of faces, both respectful and amused, look down from the upper galleries.
The most theatrical musical performance of the festival features the songs and arrangements of Leopold Kozlowski. Born in a small town near the Ukrainian border, the 80-year-old, who spent part of World War II hidden in a graveyard tomb, has outlived the traumas of the 20th century and now resides in Krakow, part of the city's remaining Jewish community of 150.
A series of Polish performers in period costumes come out to sing sentimental Yiddish ballads like Mein Yiddishe Mama. Some of the loudest applause greets Andrzej Róg, a well-known film actor dressed as a Hasid in a long black coat and a painted beard.
The figure of the dancing Hasid reappears frequently, almost as a festival motif. While such a caricature might make some foreign visitors uncomfortable, at least one merchant has decided to embrace the more cartoonish aspects of his identity.
To attract customers to his display of handmade jewellery, Motti Levi, a young non-religious Israeli, has dressed up in traditional Hasidic clothing. The strategy seems to be successful; he's doing a brisk business, surrounded by people wanting to be photographed with him. "It's strange," he says, "but [the Poles] seem to have a hole in their lives they need to fill."
Chicago-based dance instructor Steven Weintraub is slightly more ambivalent about what he calls "the irony of the event." When a picture of him performing a dance balancing a bottle on his head was featured on the cover of the festival program, he admits he had second thoughts about acting as "a professional Jew in that context, performing ‘stupid Jew tricks.'"
Yet he sees an important role for himself as a "cultural ambassadorship, not to induce guilt but to repair the rift between us."
Midday Sunday, as people enter the hall for a lecture by the Israeli ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, five teenagers stand by the entrance holding signs and a banner with a graphic logo of an upraised arm holding a cross. The NOP, or National Revival of Poland, is a nationalist organization of a few hundred members opposed to immigration and closer ties with Europe.
A young volunteer for the festival tells me that, despite their innocent appearance, they are racist skinheads who last year protested the festival on the outskirts of the city but now have dared to come closer.
Fast-forward to Thursday morning. In a schoolroom, 15 people sit in a circle of chairs. In the centre, a stone, a feather and a book make up an altar of sorts. Going round the circle, people comment on the theme "Between the generations," referring to their relationship with the pre-war Jewish population. After a week of good-natured entertainment, the atmosphere is emotional and electric.
One woman speaks of the discovery of her family's Jewish roots, kept hidden for a generation. Others confess to feelings of guilt and even hallucinations about the fate of the Jews. Far from being forgotten, in this group the loss of the Jewish population is a barely suppressed trauma.
The rain comes just as the first performers head onstage at the climactic event of the festival, the outdoor concert in Szeroka Square.
People crowd into doorways and squeeze together under umbrellas. The rain ends and dancing begins. Toward midnight, as the crowd thins, a line of teenagers remain. Forming small circles in large circles, breaking off into couples, crashing into one another and falling to the ground, they abandon themselves to a kind of pure enjoyment, to an experience beyond the particulars of history or culture, beyond irony and cliché.