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9 Can’t-Miss Shows at Kulturfest

Hard as it is to believe, KulturfestNYC is the first ever international festival of Jewish performing arts of its kind to be held in the Big Apple. These sorts of multi-disciplinary, weeklong events take place all over the world — from Toronto to Krakow — but never before in one week under one umbrella could a festivalgoer take in the depth and breadth of Jewish arts — including music, film, theater, dance, family programs, food and learning — in Manhattan.

The festival boasts the top names in Yiddish and klezmer entertainment that one might expect. The kickoff concert features a veritable international all-star team. But there’s plenty to check out beyond the marquee names on the program. Here are nine performances you don’t want to miss:

Merlin and Polina Shepherd:

This dynamic husband-and-wife duo ties together klezmer and Yiddish music from East and West, emphasizing both virtuosity and spirituality. Merlin Shepherd, a native of Wales, is simply one of the greatest exponents of klezmer clarinet in the world, whether playing in the style of the 19th century (he almost singlehandedly invented the “period music” movement in klezmer) or 21st-century jazz- and rock-infused Yiddish music. Together with Siberian-born, Tatarstan-raised Polina Shepherd, a virtuosic vocalist, pianist and composer who embodies the survival of Yiddish music in the lands of the former Soviet Union, Merlin Shepherd performs new and traditional Jewish music from Turkey, Greece, Romania, Russia and the Pale of Settlement. (Thursday, June 18, 7 p.m., Joe’s Pub)

Ger Mandolin Orchestra:

Once upon a time, mandolin ensembles were ubiquitous in Jewish Eastern Europe and North American immigrant communities. With authentic instrumentation and repertoire that includes klezmer, Yiddish and co-territorial music, the Ger Mandolin Orchestra is led by acoustic music innovator Mike Marshall, a multiple Grammy nominee and winner for his work over the last 35 years with such American roots music superstars as David Grisman, Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer. Marshall is joined by 10 mandolinists, including such well-known artists as Barry Mitterhoff and Jeff Warschauer. This is not something you’re going to see every day. (Thursday, June 18, 8 p.m., Skirball Center for the Performing Arts)

Glass House Orchestra with Muzsikás:

The Glass House Orchestra is an international supergroup made up of American and Hungarian musicians led by Grammy Award-winning trumpeter, bandleader and composer Frank London of The Klezmatics, and including Lou Reed’s former guitarist Aram Bajakian; Argentine jazz giant Pablo Aslan; and Israeli jazz drummer Yonadav Halevy, among other American and Hungarian artists playing what London calls “Astro-Hungarian folk-punk.” They’ll be playing with world-famous Hungarian group Muzsikás, which brings its Hungarian-Jewish collection from Transylvania and presents the Máramaros material with vocalist Ágnes Herczku, soloist of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. (Wednesday, June 17, 8 p.m., Skirball Center for the Performing Arts)

Shura Lipovsky:

This international star of the Yiddish theater and concert stage performs “The Magid of Amsterdam,” a program of Hasidic stories, Yiddish songs and commentaries of a lets, an old Yiddish clown. (Wednesday, June 17, 7:30 p.m., JCC Manhattan)

Yiddish Soul:

A Musical Leap of Faith”: Contemporary cantorial music is where some of the most creative and radical strides are being made in Jewish music, and this program offers an all-star presentation of what’s happening in that genre. Cantorial and Hasidic stars including Avraham Fried, Netanel Hershtik, Yanky Lemmer, Joseph Malovany, Lipa Shmeltzer and neo-Chasidic band Zusha will be featured in a rare performance of both sacred cantorial music and that of the secular theater and klezmer world, with participation by musical supervisor Zalmen Mlotek of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and top klezmer musicians including Frank London of The Klezmatics and Michael Winograd of New Yiddish Trio. (Tuesday, June 16, 7 p.m., Central Park Summerstage

Daniel Kahn:

Wherever and whenever he performs, the Detroit-native-by-way-of-Berlin Daniel Kahn always leaves a trail of wonder and outrage: wonder over his immense talent as a singer, songwriter and performer, and outrage over his provocative antics and his radical, in-your-face politics. Think of him as the Johnny Rotten of contemporary Yiddish music. (Tuesday, June 16, 9 p.m., Joe’s Pub)


No mere ethnic novelty group, the Japanese quartet Jinta-la-Mvta can play straight-ahead klezmer and then take it to the nether reaches of jazz, experimental and avant-garde music, not unlike New York’s own John Zorn. Or as my daughter says, “How many Japanese klezmer bands are there?! You must go.” (Monday, June 15, 9 p.m., Joe’s Pub)

Lerner & Moguilevsky:

From Buenos Aires, César Lerner and Marcelo Moguilevsky play a style of klezmer and Yiddish music that evolved in the Eastern European Jewish immigrant community of Argentina, with elements of South American folk, jazz, and tango spicing up its Yiddish stew. (Sunday, June 14, 2:30 p.m., Museum of Jewish Heritage)


From a firm foundation in klezmer tradition, Klezmerson, a Mexico City-based septet, infuses its Jewish music with elements of prog rock, hip-hop, electronica, and danzón, resulting in a genre-defying hybrid. (Friday, June 19, 7 p.m., Joe’s Pub)

For complete schedule and ticket information visit the KulturfestNYC website at

Seth Rogovoy is a frequent contributor to the Forward’s culture pages. He is the author of “The Essential Klezmer” (Algonquin, 2000) and the artistic director of YIDSTOCK: The Festival of New Yiddish Music, which takes place annually in mid-July at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.


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