Home Arts & Entertainment The Arts The Ashkenaz Festival as a temporary shtetl

The Ashkenaz Festival as a temporary shtetl

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The final concert of the 2016 Ashkenaz Festival. PHOTO COURTESY DAVID KAUFMAN AND ASHKENAZ

I am still on a high from attending the 11th Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto – the most exciting place to be every two years on Labour Day weekend. It’s a blessing to live in the city that hosts the largest festival of global Jewish music and culture in North America. With more than 80 presentations spread across the waterside Harbourfront Centre over an immersive 2-1/2 days, together with events across the GTA leading up to the weekend, the Ashkenaz Festival offers the unmatched opportunity to experience and engage with a exhilarating array of Jewish artistic expression rooted in Yiddish culture and fanning out broadly.

But you don’t have to take my word for it (as LeVar Burton says on Reading Rainbow). Here are some Ashkenaz die-hards and seasoned performers sharing why the festival is important to them.

Amateur klezmer musician Ellen Rosenbluth emphatically declared: “It’s a fabulous opportunity to hear high-calibre and diverse Jewish music – from klezmer to Sephardi to classic to world to funk to edgy chassidic rock – with the artists mingling with the incredible community. The audience is so diverse. It’s a phenomenal, wonderful opportunity that is really unique. And it’s in this magnificent atmosphere where people want to celebrate. It’s a treasure!”

Retired counsellor Carl Lyons is a fixture on Toronto’s arts scene, and the Ashkenaz Festival is no exception. “If it was a bunch of general international arts and performances, I’d go anyway, because the quality is very high and varied: plays, movies, book launches, talks about food. It’s complete. It’s immersive.”

But it also offers a Jewish connection, Lyons said. “I call myself a secular, unaffiliated Jew. The Ashkenaz Festival provides a sense of belonging, which is why I go to the whole thing rather than pick and choose a few events. This kind of gathering brings people who otherwise wouldn’t meet each other together for a common experience, and that in itself is satisfying. It’s nice to feel a part of a human community.”

Having begun performing at Ashkenaz 10 years ago at the start of her musical career, Aviva Chernick also stresses the sense of community it engenders.

“On Sunday, I came off the stage for the fifth time at the festival. I was so struck by how supported I felt. I felt so much a part of the Jewish community and a Jewish community of artists and musicians. That moment allowed me to reflect on my role in the community, on my contribution as an artist and on my own development.”

Indeed, that development was informed by the festival, which was where Chernick first saw performances by her musical idols, including Flory Jagoda and Yasmin Levy. She recalls sitting in the front row and crying at an Ashkenaz concert by Levy after having first discovered Ladino music through Levy’s CDs. Seeing Levy on stage led to a profound realization that she wanted to become a vocalist herself.

“Ashkenaz has given me a place to grow,” Chernick said.

Performer Daniel Kahn asserted: “Every other city can look to Toronto and Ashkenaz to see how this can function – how there’s the potential for a large-scale, urban Yiddish music festival.”

This summer, the Detroit-born, Berlin-based Kahn was the festival’s inaugural Theodore Bikel artist-in-residence. “This week, I got to show all different sides of my work – as a theatre artist, band leader, translator, solo artist. It is great to explore all those different sides and then collaborate with other people here.”

Kahn underscored the importance of a gathering place for Yiddish culture.

“It’s a culture that often finds itself in a situation of needing to perform the context as well as the content. One thing that we’re performing is the possibility of performing Yiddish in the 21st century. A lot of Jews don’t realize how alive this culture is. You need to project a virtual shtetl around you.”

The festival is one of the few “temporary shtetls” globally that “allow that context to breath and grow and morph.”

As the Reading Rainbow sign-off goes: “I’ll see you next time” at the 2018 Ashkenaz Festival