Rather than taking the easy road by focusing on Ashkenazi roots music, the Bay Area's Jewish Music Festival earned an international reputation by spotlighting traditions too often overlooked or ignored, presenting artists from far-flung locales such as Central Asia, Argentina, Tehran, Iran, and New Orleans.
This year, a confluence of several anniversaries marking critical historical events related to Poland have turned the festival's attention squarely to Yiddish culture. While one might assume that means commemorating a once-vibrant world destroyed by the Holocaust, the festival's programming makes a persuasive case for the ongoing vitality of Yiddishkeit, the Old-World cultural roots of the vast majority of American Jews.
"I've always been committed to showcasing Jewish culture from around the world, but this year made perfect sense to focus on the history and culture and traditions of this community," says Eleanor Shapiro, the Jewish Music Festival's longtime director. "This culture is still so vibrant. People think of Yiddish as a language of old people and wonder whether it has a future.
"We're doing our best to spread the word that, yes, there is a future to Yiddish, a future to music that comes out of this tradition."
Produced by the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, the festival begins Saturday and runs through March 9 at venues around Berkeley, opening at Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage with a fascinating double bill, "The Future of Jewish Music in Poland."
The concert features the California debut of Shofar, an astounding Polish trio that blends Hasidic melodies and free jazz, and the West Coast premiere of Polesya, a singular project by Polish vocalist Olga Mieleszczuk and Israeli reed expert Ittai Binnun that explores the repertoire of Mariam Nirenberg, a pre-World War II Jewish folk singer who collected Yiddish songs in the swampy borderlands between present-day Ukraine, Poland, Russia and Belarus. (Polesya will also be at a March 4 matinee at the Jewish center.)
Featuring three top Polish musicians -- guitarist Raphael Roginski, reed expert Mikolaj Trzaska and drummer Macio Moretti -- Shofar has forged a bracing blend of traditional Hasidic melodies and avant-garde jazz. Their source material comes from a volume of Hasidic songs collected by Moshe Beregovski in the decades before World War II.
"As an improviser, I recognized that these melodies should be explored," says Trzaska, who discovered in his late teens that members of his maternal family were Jews who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the mountains. "The first step was understanding what religious music means and then learning how to compose melodies together live.
"I'm not religious, but when I hear the moment when music comes together, I think God really exists."
Both Shofar and Polesya reflect the way that contemporary Poles are engaging with the gaping hole left by the deaths of about 3 million Polish Jews during World War II. Shapiro, a frequent visitor to Poland, has observed firsthand how a new generation has eagerly sought out information about this lost world.
"Since the fall of communism, the interest in Jewish culture has exploded," she says. "Numerous universities have created Jewish studies departments, and Krakow's Jewish Cultural Festival attracts thousands of people to its free outdoor events. It's not just about delving into the past. Like on our opening night, musicians inspired by Jewish music are creating new classical, jazz and Yiddish music."
The fraught history of Polish Jewry is what turned Shapiro's attention to Yiddishkeit for this year's festival. In 1913, Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, better known as the author An-ski, led a storied folklore expedition to collect music, stories and artifacts from shtetls in Polish lands then held by the Russian empire. Intended for a Jewish national museum in prerevolutionary St. Petersburg, the music he collected helped fuel the klezmer revival in the mid-1970s, a movement that first took root in Berkeley.
A free panel discussion and performance at the Graduate Theological Union's Easton Hall, "An-ski Expedition at 100," includes An-ski scholars Gabriella Safran (Stanford University) and Nathaniel Deutsch (UC Santa Cruz), and renowned Yiddishist and multi-instrumentalist Michael Alpert (who also performs Ashkenazi and Ukrainian music March 5 at the Jewish center with bandura master Julian Kytasty).
Three decades after An-ski's survey, the world that he documented was in flames. The festival marks the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when desperate Jews marked for extermination rose up against the Nazis and held off the German war machine for a month, with a March 9 memorial concert at Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage that concludes the festival.
"The uprising was one of the major events of Jewish history," Shapiro says. "As time goes on, fewer people are aware of the heroism that was involved."
The evening features the world premiere of "Vilna Poems," a song cycle composed by David Garner setting six pieces by the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutskever to music. It will feature soprano Lisa Delan, pianist Kristin Pankonin, cellist Matt Haimovitz and clarinetist David Krakauer. Haimovitz and Krakauer also present "Akoka -- The End of Time," a project featuring violinist Kay Stern and pianist Kathleen Tagg inspired by Olivier Messaien's "Quartet for the End of Time" (an epochal piece the composer premiered Jan. 15, 1941, as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A, a POW camp in Görlitz, Germany).
No living performer better embodies the enduring links between Yiddish culture in the old and new world than Theodore Bikel, the 88-year-old folk singer, actor and Broadway star. In a followup to November's sold-out Jewish Music Festival concert at The Magnes, Bikel holds forth at Freight & Salvage on March 7 with Bosnian accordionist Merima Kljuco and Amsterdam-based Yiddish vocalist Shura Lipovsky, exploring a program of Yiddish and Bosnian/Sephardic songs.
28th annual jewish music festival
When: Saturday through March 9
Where: Venues around Berkeley
Tickets: Passes, $100-$125; individual shows, $20-$28, www.jewishmusicfestival.org, 800-838-3006