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Get Your Summer On at These Yiddish Festivals

It’s time to break out the fiddles and accordians, and lace up your dancing shoes

Rose Kaplan
April 08, 2016
Ashkenaz Festival / Facebook
A scene from the 10th Annual Ashkenaz Festival paradeAshkenaz Festival / Facebook
Ashkenaz Festival / Facebook
A scene from the 10th Annual Ashkenaz Festival paradeAshkenaz Festival / Facebook

“Summertime, and the living is easy…”

George Gershwin, a product of Manhattan’s early-20th-century Yiddish Theater District, wrote the lyrics to this classic Porgy and Bess aria in 1934, and at least one scholar believes its melody was borrowed from a Ukrainian-Yiddish lullaby. Now, you too can enjoy a summertime of livin’ easy by taking part in an upcoming Yiddish music and culture festival. Over the next few months, as the weather turns warm and delightful, consider attending one of the following Yiddish-centric events.

Yiddish Las Vegas
When: Saturday, April 9 and Sunday, April 10
Where: Temple Sinai, Las Vegas, Nevada
Cost: $40 for an all-weekend pass

At first glance, a Yiddish festival might seem a strange fit for the City of Sin. Then again, it almost seems like the word “kitsch” must have been created for the sole purpose of forever describing this metropolis of plastic Elvis statues and faux-everything architecture. (Just don’t tell that to Sheldon Adelson.) Hosted by a local Reform synagogue, Yiddish Las Vegas will feature music, food, dancing, and cultural workshops—check out this recent NPR story for more info. At $40 for the weekend, YLV is a steal. Should you be tempted by the glitter and glitz of the Las Vegas Strip, just make sure to hold onto your gelt.

Celebrating a century of Yiddish at UW-Madison (various events)
When: April 14 and 15; May 1—4
Where: Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin
Cost: Free, mostly

In 1916, the University of Wisconsin-Madison became the first university in the United States to teach Yiddish; now, a century later, UW’s Mayrent Institute is a world-renowned center for Yiddish culture. Festivities kick off with World Records Symporium, a conference on sound archives featuring early wax cylinder Yiddish recordings and a performance by fiddler Cookie Segelstein and accordionist Joshua Horowitz of rural Polish-Yiddish music. Then, in May, Madison hosts the only American session of Performing the Jewish Archive, an international effort by researchers on four continents. Best of all? Thanks to the miracle of publicly funded universities, most events are free.

Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music
When: July 14—17
Where: Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, Massachussetts
Cost: $230 for an all-concert pass; tickets for individual concerts and events are also available

Though it’s only in its fifth year, the Yidstock festival exhibits centuries of Yiddishkeit as it’s hosted on the campus of the Yiddish Book Center, where a million volumes of Yiddish literature are available in its archives. This year, Yidstock will feature luminaries including Frank London, Lorin Sklamberg of The Klezmatics, and master Yiddish dancer Steve Weintraub, among many others. The weekend also offers ample opportunities to build your own Yiddish performance skills, with dance and song workshops.

Yiddish Summer Weimar Festival Week
When: Monday through Saturday, August 1—6
Where: Various locations in the city of Weimar in Germany
Cost: Many (but not all) events are free

The Yiddish Summer Weimar festival is huge, offering theater, cooking, dance, a conference on Yiddish performance, and more. This year, Festival Week will feature world premieres of two new Yiddish dance and theater projects—so much for Yiddish being a dead language, huh? And Festival Week is fun for the whole family, too, with a five-day klezmer workshop for teenagers and a dedicated children’s program.

When: August 15—19
Where: Vernon Square Campus, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, London, England
Cost: £250 (discounted passes are available)

Hosted by the UK’s Jewish Music Institute, KlezFest is an annual klezmer summer school, with workshops on history, improvisation, ensemble performance, dance, and more. Folks like Alan Bern (founder of Yiddish Summer Weimar) and Frank London will make appearances as faculty members—after already putting in work at some of the previous festivals. KlezFest is perfect for budding klezmer performers and serious musicians looking to refine their chops.

When: August 15—21
Where: Workmen’s Circle’s Circle Lodge on Sylvan Lake in Beekman, New York
Cost: $500 to $1200 (discounted registrations are available)

Founded in 1900 as “Der Arbeter Ring” by Yiddish-speaking immigrants to New York, the venerable Workmen’s Circle has been keeping Yiddish language and culture alive for over a century now. Its annual Yiddishland summer camp for children, adults, and families has been going strong for a decade, building on a long legacy of Workmen’s Circle camps and retreats. Enjoy Yiddish classes, music, theater, singing and dancing, and boating and swimming on Sylvan Lake, just 70 miles north of New York City.

When: August 22—28
Where: Camp B’nai Brith, Lantier, Quebec, Canada
Cost: $900 and up (family rate are available)

Montreal has been a stronghold of Yiddish culture since the 19th century. Today, the city remains an international force for its transmission and preservation. Founded by Frank London (recognize him?) in 1996, KlezKanada—and, in particular, its summer festival—has become a world-renowned site for klezmer. Hosted at a Jewish lakeside campground outside Montreal, this year’s KlezKanada promises more concerts, film screenings, classes, and other creative workshops, along with the chance to meet klezmorim from around the world.

11th Biennial Ashkenaz Festival
When: August 30—September 6
Where: Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Ontario
Cost: Many (but not all) events free; 2016 registration information has not yet been announced

Over 60,000 people flock to Toronto every other summer for the Ashkenaz festival, a showcase for global Jewish art and culture that originated as a celebration of Yiddish and klezmer. What makes it so popular? Well, 90 percent of the events are free and open to the public. Add in programming for children and families, along with dance, theater, film, literature, and visual arts events—not just from Ashkenazi but also Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Israeli cultures—and you’ve got a recipe for a Jewish melting pot perhaps unlike any other festival worldwide. The latest event of the summer, Ashkenaz has not yet announced its 2016 lineup, but you can check out the 2014 schedule here for a glimpse.

Rose Kaplan is an intern at Tablet.

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