Twenty-seven years ago Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival started as a grassroots initiative to reintroduce and celebrate Jewish culture in Krakow’s Kazimierz district. In its twenty-seven years, the Festival has grown immensely and now is attended regularly by crowds both Jewish and non-Jewish who filter into the district from all over the world. This year, a new festival opened its doors to Kazmierz’s curious masses. Festivalt, created by Michael Rubenfeld, Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska, Jason Francisco, and Maia Ipp, fostered a new space for festival-goers to explore, consider, and reclaim Jewish culture in the unique cultural landscape that has arisen in the Kazimierz district.

Festivalt’s programming included discussions and performances followed by dinners, an art exhibition entitled Greetings from Płaszów, a performance in Plac Nowy called Lucky Jews, an innovative piece of theatre called We Keep Coming Back featuring Michael Rubenfeld and Katka Reszke, as well as what was called 150 Small Interventions.

On June 27th, Festivalt featured Women on Women, a night of story-telling in which three female artists—Zuza Ziółkowska-Hercberg, Jacqueline Nicholls, and Maia Ipp—investigated women’s roles in areas that are traditionally examined through a masculine perspective: battle brigades, Torah, and desire. Ziółkowska-Hercberg started her performance by asking that attendees introduce themselves through their matrilineal lineage before introducing Jewish women who were members of the International Brigades in 1936 through 1939. Nicholls created space for the intersection of feminism and the Talmud in her discussion of the Talmud’s nameless women, and Ipp reclaimed female sexuality in her story of rediscovering Jewishness in Vilnius. The evening was hosted in Michael and Magda’s home and was followed by a catered buffet dinner.

Festivalt’s 150 Small Interventions invited festival-goers to question Kazmierz’s landscape, in particular, the contemporary use of Jewish property. On June 29th, Festivalt invited the public into Chewra Thilim Synagogue at the corner of Bożego Ciała and Meiselsa—which now serves as a café—to daven together and to consider the place as it once was. In converting the former synagogue into a café, the wall facing east towards Jerusalem where the Torah arc was once placed was demolished in order to make a second entrance to the café. The café staff, without being asked, voluntarily turned down their music for the intervention.

Lucky Jews, which echoes Erica Lehrer’s 2013 exhibition Souvenir, Talisman, Toy, humanized Poland’s wooden and clay Jewish figurines. Michael Rubenfeld, Jason Francisco, and Menachem Kaiser each took turns playing the role of the lucky Jew from behind a window which resembled a money counter with “Żyd na szczęście / Lucky Jew” inscribed below. The performance allowed visitors to the district, who by now are accustomed to interacting with inanimate Jewish figurines, to interact with living Jews who happened to be dressed in costumes resembling the stereotypical depictions. Visitors to the booth were invited to have a conversation with the performer on the problematic and complex nature of the place of lucky Jews in Polish folk culture and to give money to a real Jew rather than purchase a figurine, thereby deconstructing the mythology around the figurines through the performance.

"As frequent patrons and at times participants of the Jewish Culture Festival, we felt that there was an absence of certain art forms and we wanted to create a space where the complexities of contemporary Polish-Jewishness could be explored in bold, brave, and sometimes frightening ways. This is also why we chose the intimate setting of our home ... to communicate that this is the conversation we are having in our own homes and we want to welcome people into them with us as an extension of the psychological realities we ourselves are investigating as Jews in Poland,” explain the creators of Festivalt.

Festivalt injected Kazmierz’s festival atmosphere with what it had been missing: the intimate, communal, Jewish atmosphere that is fostered around Shabbat tables every week which allows people to discuss and question the world around them. Festivalt provided a venue for festival-goers to explore contemporary Jewish culture in Kazimierz and in Poland from a unique perspective with Jews from Poland and abroad, allowing for Jewish culture to be simultaneously problematized and revived. 

Lizy Mostowski