Onward and Upward with Matisyahu in Krakow

Arts Fest Shows Transformation in Poland's Reputation

Poland’s New Tune: Matisyahu, seen here before he shed his Hasidic garb, attended this year’s Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.
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Poland’s New Tune: Matisyahu, seen here before he shed his Hasidic garb, attended this year’s Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Published July 19, 2013, issue of July 26, 2013.
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In the sultry darkness of a summer night, a tall, skinny figure with close-cropped hair and a purple T-shirt threaded through a beer garden during Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, the annual nine-day extravaganza of performance, exhibition, debate and intensive interaction that for a quarter of a century now has been a catalyst of Krakow’s Jewish cultural revival.

Bridging the open space between the city’s lively Jewish community center, which hosted dozens of festival events, and the grandiose Tempel Synagogue, venue for many of the concerts, the garden served as an informal salon where public and performers, Jews and non-Jews alike, could shmooze.

Whispers trailed in the newcomer’s wake: “Matisyahu’s here!”

The American singer, much less recognizable since he shed his Hasidic garb, blended with the dozens of other folks sipping their drinks as he made his way through the slatted wooden tables and sat down with a group that included Jonathan Ornstein, director of Krakow’s Jewish community center, and Janusz Makuch, the bearded, non-Jewish Pole who co-founded the festival in 1988 and is still both its director and its main driving force.

Matisyahu wasn’t on the program, though he has performed here in the past.

This time, en route to a gig in northern Poland, he had simply dropped in to hang with the festival crowd in Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish district.

Over the past two decades, Kazimierz has famously been transformed from a rundown slum, the quintessential Jewish graveyard, into a major tourist attraction: a burgeoning hub of revitalized Jewish culture, life, consciousness and commercial kitsch — as well as the city’s liveliest center of clubs, pubs and other late-night venues.

“We must have been out till 5 in the morning,” Ornstein told me the next day.

I’ve been writing about Kazimierz since 1990 and about the festival itself for nearly that long, returning each summer, at least for a few festival days, to monitor changes in the place, the program and the issues that swirl around both of them.


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