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Ashkenaz 2004: Great music, but still some questions

Toronto's bi-annual Ashkenaz Festival is one of the most eagerly awaited Jewish music extravaganzas. It doesn't have the depth or longevity of say, Berkeley, California's "Jewish Music Festival" held every year, nor is it the once-every-350-years extravaganza taking place in New York City right now, but nowhere else in the world can one stroll around and hear so much Jewish music and Jewish language in one place, most of it for free, much of it happening all at once.

Avrom Lichtenbaum on Yiddish Humor, in YiddishThis year, as in each of the preceding four festivals, there was no shortage of amazing music. So, I'll get to that in a minute. Instead, I'd like to spend a few minutes talking about some of the few things that went wrong, starting with the fact that this festival, officially tagged "a festival of new Yiddish culture" contains precious little that is new, and is clearly not limited to Yiddish culture.



Hi, I enjoyed readng Ari's comments about Ashkenaz, especially as I'd heard previews of some of them on the festival grounds.
I, as did many people, share his feelings about the misfit between the title of the festival and the content. Many people asked me why Tamar and I weren't singing (the same reason most people don't sing at a good festival they'd like to sing at - no invitation!) But I told them that in a festival called "AShkenaz" I don't actually feel bad about not singing, after all, what do I have to do with "new Yiddish culture"? Although - I do have things to say about parallels in Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish songs, for example, or even more, about the use of music in the invention of "old Jewish" festival contexts in Eastern Europe and in Spain... but if it were renamed "new Jewish culture" (or even just "Jewish culture" without worrying about what was "new" or how "new" it had to be (and Ari, you missed Steve Greenman's beautigul new compositions, though again, the nametag "Yiddish" doesn't really apply to instrumental klezmer) - anyway, a festival of Jewish culture would have to have a lot fewer klezmer and related concerts to FAIRLY accomododate other Jewish cultures as opposed to the tokenism Ashkenaz has featured.

That said, choice is important. Ari used the word "tepid" for the Ethiopian one-man theatre. I would go further. It was a rip-off. One of the few paid events - $15 - to hear a not terribly good actor, with no ropos except a not-very-magic suitcase - go on for over an hour about leaving Ethiopia for Irrael. Some of the things he talked about were simnply common to any kid in a new culture, especially translating for one's parents to social workers or school personnel. I've heard THAT sound better in Sicilian (as opposed to "sounding better in Amharic").

But then there were his really obnoxious "jokes" about arranged marriage and how UGLY his bride was when he lifted up her veil. He went on about this at great length. I had a feeling this and the general mediocrity at best of his presentation would never have been tolerated - except that he's Ethiopian, and thus exotic (no Jewish culture should really be "exotic" or "other" to us, and also black and politically correctly-unassailable. But where was the accompamnying lecture on Ethiopian Jewish history and culture? Where in fact were Toronto or Montreal's few but actuve Ethiopian Jews? and THEIR real experiences, thoughts, their music? Where was the discussion of Kay SHelemay' fascinating and sometimes problematic findings from her long research on Ethiopian Jewish culture? Where was the viewpoint of Ethiopian Jewish music?

So was this show just on tour and the Ashkenaz organizers grabbed it as an easy token "non-Yiddish" event?

Then there was the cancellation of the fiddle workshop by Alicia, Steve, and Monique , the fine violinist from Holland. This was never adequately explained - but Alicia herself was told only at the last minute as she went to give the workshop.It was recheduled - but no signs, no announcements, almost no one knew about the new time, the next day - and in a tent with the noise of the Airshow competing with this fine workshop by three master klezmer violinists.

I missed the parade too, Ari - but not because of SUsan's workshops (I've seen them and they're great) - I came down for the parade - and it was over. An hour before the programme said it ended. And not a trace left. No props, no giant marionettes, no trailing bits of trumpets or laughter.

Ort trailing bits of music - new, Yiddish, or otherwise...

That said, as Ari said, there was the expected assortment of very fine music - Mikve's stupendous concert (unlike Ari, though, I wasn't very impressed by Woody Guthrie Klezmatified - I prefer Woody Woody-style, with less production) (then again, maybe Woody've liked it, who knows?) - but Mikve as wonderful, Khupe, the bits I caught of Ot Azoy (no room left for their indoor theatre performance),

Maybe we needn't try so frenetically to be "new". We all grow and move and change, and we keep some treasures as they are - more or less - and change or add others - as Josh DOlgin pointed out in a great line, "Some of the best hip-hop artists are already dead".

I think "Jewish CUlture" would be fine as a festival theme - but very much doubt the "old guard" would put up with the depletion of Ashkenazi vocal and isntrumental music that would imply.



re Yiddish versus Jewish culture?
why do we have to split hairs so much?

in Montreal there is a Franco Folis festival.... when an english speaker refers to it they still call it the Franco Folis.... not the french festival....

I grew up Yiddish ......
growing up in my immigrant family I was a Yiddish girl.. Jew or Jewish was a term used by gentiles to refer to us and it took years for me to feel comfortable knowing whether the term was slanderous or not..
Now the language police want me to relegate the word/term Yiddish only to the language I spoke in my home and not to my culture?

we are Yidn are we not?... no matter what language we speak.
I have no problem with ashkenaz being a Yiddish cultural festival.

Klezmer itself has usurped a title larger then itself and become an umbrella for all music of a Jewish/Yiddish nature at most festivals Jewish or Yiddish.

the yiddish radio shtunde or jewish radio hour project was a true bilingual celebration
TOO Yiddish for some? and drew packed houses to a ticketed event.
raphael Goldwasser's yiddish theatre workshops were amazing. as was his appearance at the late nght casbaret
les yeux noir is NEW in my eyes. they blew away the crowd closing night.
high energy virtuoso violin with a pop rock energy.
As kashtin did with Inuit music they have crossed ethnic boundaries

I congratulate Mitch Smolkin for programming a festival in which there was such a variety of ways in to my Yiddish(cultural) world.

I am very glad and proud for klezKamp's success , but am disappointed to hear that they have stopped producing the groyse concert.

there is room in these festivals for edge, political work, experimentation, but the old programming had hundreds of audience members walking out on shows. and funders abandoning the festival
I believe we have a duty to educate audiences while also keeping main stage events accessable and inclusive
there is nothing wrong with success.

theresa tova


We are in an era where we should be encouraging inclusiveness and cultural exchange...the world needs it. This festival is an open event, which happened due to the commitment of Toronto's Jewish community, in the form of financial support from the organizations as well as private individuals. Yes we must celebrate our Yiddish culture, however we must also build bridges, amongst yidden and between yidden and the world at large. As for using the festival for political comment, yes it may fit, however in these times, it may be that people need a respite from the harshness of the world, particularly as it affects us as Jews.I could get a little deeper here, however it would rapidly go off topic, and I suspect create some divisive debate. If anyone is curious to find out what I am referring to, please contact me off list - I would welcome the chance to share some of the things that I found offensive and listen to an opposing opinion.

To my mind Mitch Smolkin did a masterful job of navigating the waters of financial and resulting political forces, to create a festival that was joyful, delivered to the masses as well as to the "Klezmer community". There was music, there was theatre, there was Yiddish (Ari, during Zalmen's Cabaret on Sunday you would have witnessed a delightful 20 minutes of Yiddish "Vort" presented by Raphael Goldwasser, that enchanted everyone - even, I suspect those who did not understand - and perhaps inspired some to run to a Yiddish class).

The Yiddish Radio Shtunde is a project created by Theresa Tova and Martin Van de Ven (the very same Beyond the Pale clarinetist Ari took note of and mentioned in his blog). They are to be congratulate on pulling it together. It was a wonderful and refreshing hour of entertainment and information. They drew hundreds to each show.

Ot Azoj, presented a fascinating theatrical presentation of their music on Monday. The producers were very concerned as to whether they would draw anyone at all, yet hundreds were turned away. I had the pleasure to meet some of the players from Ot Azoj. Their enthusiasm and joy in our Jewish culture is infectious. I suspect that the fact that a group of non Jewish Klezmorim can share this enthusiasm so easily (they played to 5,000+ the first night!) was not lost on those attending the festival. Now THAT is a bridge!

I could go on and on, but suffice to say, that thousands were able to share in our culture, Yiddish, Jewish - whatever! In the crowds I saw people loving the music - Jewish & Non Jewish, (including many in Muslim dress!), Black White, Oriental! There was joy in the air!

Sorry for rambling!


agree with everyone who says that I missed a lot on Monday at Ashkenaz. For that matter, as one person who isn't used to staying up late, I missed a lot on Saturday night and Sunday, too. There is no question that there was an overwhelming amount of good music. I'm still not sure there was much that was new, but I concur that it may not matter (other than in the claim for something that I largely did not observe). Certainly, I have enthusiastic praise for almost everything and everyone that I saw.

I do disagree strongly that "Yiddish" is a synonym for "Jewish". The Ashkenaz festival could certainly choose to celebrate only Yiddish culture, as it primarily does now. But it is unfair and hurtful to imply that "Yiddish" means the same thing as "Jewish". To the contrary, it is more like using the word "men" to mean "men and women"--a very significant issue when it also cloaks the very limited opportunities for women (or for non-klezmer, non-Yiddish performers at this festival). I encourage festival organizers to consider broadening the festival to embrace the diversity of Jewish music, and to change the slogan to reflect that. Let's out yidn as Jews and join the rest of our family!

As a typographer and as someone who cares about Yiddish, I also encourage festival organizers to pay attention to the Yiddish spelling on signage so that the signs function less as faux Yiddish signifying a dead culture that no one would read any more (hence, spelling is irrelevant), but rather as a signifier that Jewish culture is living. In a similar vein, I encourage making works by non-musicians--e.g., books by the folks participating in the panels and literary readings--visible and available for purchase.

Still, these are minor, and I regret if they distract attention from the fact that Ashkenaz is the ONLY mostly-free festival of Jewish music, never mind a festival of this scope and quality, of which I am aware.

Dear Ari,

There really is no need to justify oneself when it comes to criticism, art is a subjective entity, and has been prone to conflicting and often disparate opinions for centuries. Misrepresentation though is another matter, and your article is the product of a skewed and lazy analysis and it is this that I would like to address in my response.

Your first statement is that there was very little that was new, never mind Yiddish about what was presented at the festival. As you mention in your article, you would like to see things that are not only new to Ashkenaz, but also new to the field. There are two criteria by which we determine what is new: What is new to the canon of Yiddish material, and what is new to our festival, ie. who has never had the opportunity to present their work in Toronto, let alone the Ashkenaz Festival, we believe there is some value to that, alongside presenting new work. You misrepresented our festival on both counts, as the follow list points out.

Firstly, the Ashkenaz festival produced and created three new events to major critical acclaim:

1. We spent tens of thousands of dollars researching the Yiddish radio history in Canada, producing both an exhibit and a one-hour piece of theatre which was met with standing ovations and support from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This was an equity production, which was presented in Yiddish and English and directed by one our most celebrated Yiddish artists, Theresa Tova.
2. The great musician and pianist Marilyn Lerner was commissioned to write a brand new score for the silent film East and West starring Molly Picon on which she spent months. The Globe and Mail, the most widely read Canadian national newspaper, received her score with critical acclaim the next day in the papers, thereby bridging the Yiddish world and popular culture, and the audience were on their feet.
3. We produced the three Yiddish divas, a concert experienced by thousands, again met with a standing ovation. Three of the most celebrated Yiddish performers in the world, Joanne Borts, Adrienne Cooper, and Theresa Tova, joined by myself, presented a cross-section of Yiddish music ranging from Theatre to Art song, and this concert too was met by a standing audience.

Regarding the criteria of artists performing in YIDDISH that were new to Toronto or the Festival, the following is a list:

1. Ot Azoj from Holland became the crowd favourites. Not only performing an opening night concert on the main stage and in the cabaret, they brought their piece of theatre ZETS! which was performed in YIDDISH for which we had to turn away hundreds of audience members that lined up for over an hour to see and were not able to get a seat.
2. Mikveh performed to a capacity crowd in YIDDISH on Sunday evening. Again, and people will attest to this, this was for them one of their most successful concerts.
3. Manouche, a French Canadian band that one of most renowned broadcasters, Avril Benoit, requested to host because of her love for them after their great success at the internationally renowned Montreal Jazz Festival, made their first appearance in Toronto, singing in YIDDISH.
4. The Lachan Choir presented a performance of YIDDISH art and folk song.
5. Rafael Goldwasser brought his show S’brent to Toronto. Rafael Goldwasser is one of the world’s leading YIDDISH actors, who performed entirely in YIDDISH, and brings his immense physical talent from the Jaques Le Coq school of physical theatre. Raphael also conducted a three day workshop in Yiddish theatre where people had the ability to experience this great actor in YIDDISH.
6. The Pomegranate Squad performed in Yiddish, as mentioned in your article.
7. Shtreiml performed in Yiddish with harmonica sensation Jason Rosenblatt and Josh Dolgin.
8. And last but not least, we presented Les Yeux Noirs from Paris who blew people out of the water. Their new interpretations of old YIDDISH music, as well as Slavic, Gypsy, and Mediterranean sounds, drew a standing ovation on the third number. I have traveled the world and never before seen a reaction to a group such as this. I was afraid people were going to rush the stage.

How did we advance YIDDISH for children?

1. We brought the acclaimed Kids and Yiddish theatre production from New York with the whole cast, which through theatre and music, taught children their first words in Yiddish.
2. We presented a new children’s book based on the stories of Chelm by local author Richard Ungar.
3. We presented Sruli and Lisa who taught children YIDDISH through their program Oy Vey! Klezmer for Kids.

How did we present local talent that are working with YIDDISH?

1. The Toronto Jewish Folk Choir presented Binyomen Der Driter, a piece of theatre with original music based on the wonderful YIDDISH novel, Masoes Benyomin Hashlishi, only the second time it was ever performed.
2. We presented Beyond the Pale and the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band as you point out.

What about instrumental music in the Klezmer tradition?

1. From Berlin, we presented the sensational duo Khupe, never before seen in Toronto.
2. As mentioned, we brought back Toronto favourites and international stars, Klezmer en Buenos Aires.
3. We presented local artists Hu Tsa Tsa
4. And for our opening, we produced a concert featuring Beyond the Pale, the duo of Marilyn Lerner and Adrienne Cooper and Duo Controverso performing with myself.

Events other than music and theatre held in Yiddish?

1. As you mentioned, we brought international scholar Avrom Lichtenbaum, the head of YIVO from Buenos Aires. Avrom conducted and participated in the following events in YIDDISH at the festival:

· The Yiddish Humour Brunch which focused on the true art of telling a Yiddish joke integral to the language. (due to sponsorship regulations, the venue had to provide the food. The donated bagels remained for the artists)
· A tribute to YIDDISH writer Avrom Karpinovitsh who died in March. Avrom is a specialist in the rare vernacular used in Karpinovitsh’s writing.
· The Living Languages Panel which, with the attendance of two other professors of Yiddish language and Yossi Vassa from Israel, attempted to identify where our focus needs to be in order for Yiddish pedagogy to achieve its rightful place in our schools and international programs.

So, this response is a direct answer to your statement of not finding anything Yiddish at the festival. You mentioned in your article and I quote “Other than a brunch lecture about Yiddish humor, I don't believe that any events were held in Yiddish.” A gross error, and one which any audience member who actually attended the festival would simply laugh at.

What was new…

The irony and contradiction of your analysis is that when you refer to new Yiddish culture, you refer to the Hip Hop Khasene. If you remember correctly, this had its world premiere at Ashkenaz 2002, after the Buchbinder era had left since you are so concerned about what has been edgy since then. I took the risk of inviting this project at its inception; the CDs were just being produced when they came. I’d like that mistake at least corrected in your article.

Never mind not paying attention to our panel on Monday afternoon where the re-imagination of Jewish Ritual was put on the table with discussion and examples of work by Josh Dolgin, StorahTelling’s Amichai Lau-Lavie, and video artist Melissa Shiff. Surely an opportunity for our audience to experience first hand what was edgy.

And what about Juno award winning singer/songwriter Paul Kunigis from Jeszcze Raz who performed his original Yiddish compositions alongside Polish, Hebrew and French. Surely his fusion of Jazz, Klezmer, Hebrew and Francophonie at least satisfy your criteria if not your taste. It sure did for the 400 or so audience members who stayed up until 1:00am.

And the launch of Steve Greenman’s Stempenyu’s dream album, all original compositions by one of our most respected violinists. I understand your desire to have Jeff Warschauer and Deborah Strauss at the festival, but why not present someone’s compositions who has never had the opportunity to present their own work. Jeff and Deborah were here in 99’ (as was Steve, but as part of Khevrisa).

A new name?

If your suggestion is that the inclusion of work other than that of Yiddish origin should constitute a festival name change, than surely this comment should have been made in 99 as well. Emil Zhrihan presented Sephardic Music and Yuri Yanakov presented contemporary Balkan Music.

We followed in that tradition both in 2002 and in 2004, presenting as you noted, the incredible work of Raquy and the Cavemen and It Sounds Better in Amharic.

This criticism is nothing new, what constitutes Yiddish/Klezmer music and what doesn’t, and I was receiving these comments at Ashkenaz before I even produced a festival, questioning the Jewishness in artists such as trumpeter Dave Douglas. In actual fact, our festival this year focused more on the Yiddish language than ever before, operating a 3 week intensive Yiddish seminar leading up to the festival, attended by more than 40 students never mind the plethora of events at the festival that celebrated, contemplated, and performed this wonderful and dear language.

Yiddish culture as you point out, has achieved identity status rather than a simple reference to the language, much in the same way Klezmer music began with the word simply being substantive that meant instrument. People, including myself, define themselves through their Yiddish cultural heritage, and experience our identity in such a fashion. Not everyone is Jewish, in fact, a good proportion are not, so to identify the festival as Jewish culture, is also not exact. As my response indicates, the foundation of our work is new Yiddish culture. This identity based mandate, invites other diasporic elements to join in the festival, because is adds to the breadth and profundity of what we do.

Maybe you should attend?

I don’t feel that responding in full to your comments regarding Havdallah and the pageant are really necessary, since you attended neither in full. I think that if you are going to make public your comments about an event that you expect people to take seriously, you should at least attend them. I will say that the decision to move the parade was collective, with the advice of David Buchbinder and implementation of Shadowland theatre. This allows us to concentrate more on the substance of the theatrical event, rather than the logistics. We organized, along with the archive, a tour of Kesington for our artists where the synagogues and old Jewish landmarks were opened up for them. Perhaps you can phone our parade director to get a video version so that then you may have some sense of what actually went on. Regarding Havdallah, we brought the radical Jewish theatre group Storahtelling who revamped the ritual and brought it into the 21st century and it was widely successful both artistically and through attendance. They presented Rebbetzin Hadassah Ggross at the Cabaret, a Jewish drag show which was presented partly in YIDDISH, but again, how would you know, you weren’t there.

Other issues?

Books from the authors were definitely available, I picked up the remaining books myself and received a check of over $500.00 net in book sales. They were available in the Bounty, the huge store at the front of the building, where they always were, all one had to do was ask.

And might I add that Weinreich’s dictionary and the Mlotek’s songbooks contain mistakes, some small and some large. That doesn’t degrade their contributions and it doesn’t ours as well. Surely it is not a reflection of our ability or our knowledge.

You have no idea what the state of affairs were when we took over Ashkenaz. I am not able in my professional capacity to divulge that information. But I will tell you, that the Ashkenaz Foundation has never been stronger, and our work in the community will go on for a very long time, and yes, the Yiddish language will benefit immeasurably from our efforts, both on the edge and right at the heart.

I can’t help but feel that you had an agenda Ari, and this clouded your vision on what was a truly awesome six-day spectacle. Your article reads more like a yearning for the past, some nostalgic want for what was, rather than openness for what is new, that is what probably struck me as the most bizarre – since that seems to be what you are looking for.

We welcome criticism and suggestions, which of course we have received. But Ari, between what you wrote, and what actually existed, is a world. Your petty underestimation of our knowledge to not justify the Yiddish characters to the right, when it was purely a conscious decision for clarity. I only feel sorry for those that might read your article and give up a phenomenal experience, the same phenomenal experience I have been hearing about and dreaming about since the festival ended.


Mitch Smolkin
Artistic Director
Ashkenaz Festival and Foundation

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