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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To me, Matisyahu’s under-the-radar appearance brought home one of the most striking of these changes. Clearly for him — and for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other Jewish tourists who now flock here — the long post-Holocaust taboo on visiting Poland for pleasure has been broken.

This is no mean feat and has taken years to come about. Auschwitz is just an hour’s drive from Krakow, and the new attitude is by no means universal. But I heard it echoed clearly by a Canadian woman staying in my hotel.

“There’s no downside to Krakow,” the woman told me over breakfast. “As for the festival, it’s great. I’m doing as many activities as I can, and I’m already planning to come back with friends in two years.”

One of the factors in this change has been the increasingly high profile of the JCC, which opened five years ago as a neutral Jewish space accessible to all streams and forms of Jewishness and Jewish expression, normative or not.

Now one of the hubs of the festival, the JCC is, importantly, recognized as a “Jewish” Jewish space, in contrast to most of the city’s other Jewish-oriented venues and institutions. Its involvement has changed radically the dynamics of an event that long was viewed as a Jewish festival produced by non-Jews for a non-Jewish audience. Non-Jewish Poles still make up the vast majority of the festival’s attendees.

Among the JCC’s annual festival offerings is a kosher Sabbath dinner. This year, hosted in the 17th-century Izaak Synagogue, the dinner drew nearly 400 people.

“Visitors to Krakow now understand that they are not coming to a museum, but rather to a place with a small but increasingly active Jewish community,” Ornstein told me. “Understanding that fact puts the festival in a different context from a Jewish point of view. It is not only connecting Poles to Jewish culture, but helping create an environment in which the local Jewish community feels welcome and can thrive. This festival can make a claim that few others can: It is helping to rebuild a Jewish community long thought by many to be without a future.”

This year, the concepts of “Jewish” and “Jewishness” — and the ways they are defined, perceived, described and enacted — formed one of the main themes confronted in the many festival lectures, workshops and discussions.

I took part in a public conversation at the JCC, called “Jewish. Jewish? ‘Jewish’ Jewish!” It addressed shifting definitions, particularly in Kazimierz, where the transformations have created a complex of new Jewish authenticities that are quite different from the Krakow Jewish world that was destroyed in the Holocaust but are still real components of today’s living city.


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