One of these years I’m going to have to make it to the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. If there is a larger or more significant Jewish cultural event in the world, I’m not certainly aware of it.
This year the festival will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary and the line-up of international Jewish music, film, workshops and exhibitions is just breathtaking. Even more so when you consider that the overwhelming majority of attendees to the festival are not even Jewish. That’s right: the Krakow festival is one of the most powerful examples of the reinvention of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe – a trend that is being driven largely by non-Jews.
Sometime in the 1970s, as a generation born under Communism came of age, people began to look back with longing to the days when Poland was less gray, less monocultural. They found inspiration in the period between the world wars, which was the Poland of the Jews.
”You cannot have genocide and then have people live as if everything is normal,” said Konstanty Gebert, founder of a Polish-Jewish monthly, Midrasz. ”It’s like when you lose a limb. Poland is suffering from Jewish phantom pain.”
Interest in Jewish culture became an identifying factor for people unhappy with the status quo and looking for ways to rebel, whether against the government or their parents. ”The word ‘Jew’ still cuts conversation at the dinner table,” Mr. Gebert said. ”People freeze.”
The revival of Jewish culture is, in its way, a progressive counterpoint to a conservative nationalist strain in Polish politics that still espouses anti-Semitic views. Some people see it as a generation’s effort to rise above the country’s dark past in order to convincingly condemn it.
”We’re trying to give muscle to our moral right to judge history,” said Mr. (Janusz) Makuch, the festival organizer.
Roger Bennett, writing in Tablet in two years ago, offered this observation:
The only shame is that the festival is such a well-kept secret in the United States. Young Jews in particular would flock to this creative cacophony if only they knew it existed and there are no doubt thousands obliviously Eurorailing in the vicinity. In their absence, the festival is left to an audience of predominantly young Catholic Poles who lap it up voraciously. The majority were born four decades after the atrocities of the Second World War, coming of age in a post-communist Poland. Faced with myriad identity issues, they appear to be using the festival to work out their questions one song at a time.
When so many in the Jewish world look to Europe and see only incipient anti-Semitism, I’d suggest that this cultural resurgence is just as worthy of our attention. The reasons for the embrace of Jewish culture by non-Jews in Europe are powerful and complex. Ruth Ellen Gruber, in her book “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe” suggests several possibilities: atonement for the Holocaust, an expression of a multicultural ethic or, as she puts it, a redefinition of “personal identity and national histories.”
Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that the Festiwal Kultury Zydowskiej W Krakowie is currently one of the largest Jewish cultural events anywhere in the world. All it needs now is to attract as many Jews as non-Jews and this incredible Jewish cultural rebirth will truly be complete.
Click up top to watch Balkan Beat Box (their new album is just out!) performing in Krakow last year.