For numerous reasons the most active time for Jewish events in Poland is the summer. The beginning of the season is kicked off with the Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow in July and ends with the Singer Festival in Warsaw in September.
This year’s Singer Festival, the fifth since the festival’s inception on September 7, to correspond with the European Jewish Culture Day, has grown into one of the major cultural events in Warsaw. The idea of the festival as explained by the festival coordinator Golda Tencer, was inspired by the success of the Krakow festival.
Warsaw is the center of the Jewish community with a long history, both good and tragic. At one time it is said that there had been 400 synagogues in Warsaw celebrating all walks of Jewish life. The festival seeks to show the world that the Jews were, and still are, a proud part of the life of Warsaw.
Activities at the festival include concerts, plays, movie showings, workshops, dances, shops, lectures, book signings, photo exhibits and much more. There are also tours of the synagogue, ghetto area, cemetery and other sites of Jewish interest in and around Warsaw.
Over the years the festival has attracted many internationally famous stars that have come to perform, including Joseph Malovany, one of the greatest cantors in history, came to the festival from New York. Other great cantors Benzion Miller, Israel Rand, Yaacov Motzen and Yechezkel Klang have also participated. Adam Makowicz, piano virtuoso, Vadim Brodski, violin virtuoso, and Tobias Morgenstern, accordion virtuoso have played at the festival. Giora Feidman, a legend of Klezmer music, gave a concert here.
Lea Koenig, the unquestioned “First Lady of the Israeli Stage,” has performed twice at the festival. The public has met Judy Bressler, Adrienne Cooper, Bente Kahan and Tova Ben Zvi. Gienady Iskhakov from Kazachstan and the Rajfer Sisters from Israel sang in a prewar dance hall. Guests have also included Mike Burstyn, a man who won two so-called “Israeli Oscars.” Leon Blank from Sweden teaches Jewish dances each year.
Homegrown Polish artists have also performed at the festival – Slawa Przybylska, Hanna Banaszak, Ewa Bem, Urszula Dudziak, Golda Tencer, Maryla Rodowicz, Justyna Steczkowska, Alina Swidowska, Dorota Salamon, Danuta Stankiewicz, Bohdan Lazuka, Marian Opania, Szymon Szurmiej, Jacek Wójcicki, Waldemar Malicki, Janusz Tencer, Janusz Tylman and Czeslaw Majewski, Jurek Dancyger and Rafal Kmita’s Group.
There have also been many activities for children. Special art classes such as paper cutting with Jewish themes, synagogue and holiday art are especially popular.
One of the “Jewish actors” at a vendor’s stall on the Shtetl Street at the “The Singer Festival of Jewish Culture in Warsaw.”
The State of Israel is also very well represented at the festival every year with the embassy playing a major role in helping with the coordination of projects and the participation of the Israeli Ambassador, The Honorable David Peleg.
A Jewish festival would not be complete without religion and one of the most popular lectures is “A Hundred Questions to a Rabbi” with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland. At this venue questions are asked on any topic, a challenge for the Rabbi and a great learning experience for the audience.
Not part of the festival but also run by the Shalom Foundation in Warsaw was the International Seminar of Jewish Culture and Yiddish Language in Srodborow that was held in August. This year’s six-week long annual seminar saw 60 new participants taking extensive courses in Yiddish, which gave them a basic working knowledge of the language, along with the history and culture of this uniquely Jewish language.
One of the favorite venues of the festival is the Shtetl Street. One of the only few blocks of houses left from the Ghetto era is taken over every year by the festival and transformed into the way it might have looked a hundred years ago. The shops are filled with traditional Jewish food, art and the street is covered with Yiddish signs. Sad to say that it is mostly actors that walk the narrow lane wearing traditional clothing, and that all the signs of Jewish life disappear from the street when the festival is over to be put away until next year’s festival.
If one is looking for true Jewish life in Warsaw today it can be found at the synagogues and community center, but it looks nothing like it did a hundred years ago.