Concerts, classes and culture
Palo Alto congregation hosts Yiddish Culture Festival on Presidents' Day weekend
Yiddish may be commonly thought of as declining, but Judith Kunofsky doesn't agree. Locally, Kunofsky sees both Yiddish language and culture as alive and thriving, along with klezmer music.
"The Bay Area has 22 klezmer bands and 16 Yiddish clubs," says Kunofsky, who is executive director and treasurer of the Berkeley nonprofit group KlezCalifornia. On the weekend of Feb. 12, she's bringing many luminaries of Yiddish culture to Palo Alto as part of the Yiddish Culture Festival at Congregation Etz Chayim.
A highlight of the weekend is a Saturday-night concert and dance party focusing on the often emotional, often danceable klezmer music. Featured performers will include trumpeter Frank London of the Klezmatics; New York-based singer and actor Eleanor Reissa, who has toured with her one-woman show, "Hip, Heymish and Hot"; and Berlin clarinetist Christian Dawid, who has been active in a klezmer revival in Europe.
Audience members will also get to join in after the 8 p.m. concert, when Steve Weintraub leads Yiddish dancing starting at 10 p.m.
It all seems true to Kunofsky's intention, which is not merely to keep Yiddish culture alive. "We show people that Yiddish culture is fun and interesting and that's why they should participate."
True to Jewish traditional values, the festival places a huge emphasis on education. Along with concerts, the festival focuses on community involvement, with various teachers offering classes in music, history and language.
Reissa will lead master classes and workshops for aspiring singers and actors. Offerings also include a course called "Yiddish Expressions for the 21st Century," taught by Jon Levitow, who teaches Yiddish at Stanford University. Bay Area Yiddish teacher Harvey Varga will also lead a course called "110 Yiddish Words the Average Puerto Rican New Yorker Knows and You Should Be Ashamed If You Don't."
Weintraub will teach a class on how to lead Yiddish dance, and for instrumentalists, music workshops on klezmer technique and theory will be held. Teachers include London, Dawid and accordionist Joshua Horowitz, who also plays the tsimbl (a hammered dulcimer).
On Sunday night, Horowitz will take part in another concert, joining Cookie Segelstein on violin and viola, and Stu Brotman on cello and tilinca (a Romanian wooden flute). Their klezmer trio, Veretski Pass, will perform an original work, "The Klezmer Shul," which combines modern classical, jazz and avant-garde sensibilities with a Yiddish flavor. The performance will be followed by an interactive discussion and Yiddish dancing.
According to Stanford University's website for its Yiddish program, the language has been spoken by Jews in many countries for centuries and remains the main language of certain ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities. Levitow says that 85 percent of the world's Yiddish speakers were murdered in the Holocaust but estimates that there are close to a million people around the world who can speak the language today.
"The numbers are not looking good, but then again prognosticators for the future of Yiddish have been pessimistic for a couple of hundred years, preceding the renaissance of Yiddish literature, so take anyone's predictions with a grain of salt," Varga says.
Levitow says he teaches Yiddish simply because he loves it. "It's a beautiful and expressive language, with a modern literature that flourished for about a hundred years but that can be compared in depth and sensitivity to the great literatures of the world," he said. "Yiddish is made of German, Polish, Russian, old French and Hebrew; it was shaped by traditional Jewish religious culture and by modern European history — it's seven classes in one."
Since its inception in 2003, the Yiddish Culture Festival has migrated from San Francisco to the East Bay, and now to the Peninsula. The organizers expect at least 300 participants from many parts of the West Coast.
"We are building a warm, open, vibrant community to enjoy Yiddish culture," Kunofsky said. "It touches the soul and brings generations together."
What: The Yiddish Culture Festival, featuring classes and concerts on Yiddish culture, klezmer music and Yiddish dancing
Where: Congregation Etz Chayim, 4161 Alma St., Palo Alto
When: Friday, Feb. 12, through Monday, Feb. 15
Cost: Prices for different activities vary, including $15-$25 for single workshops and $10-$20 for concert admission.
Info: For a full schedule of events, go to www.klezcalifornia.org or call 415-789-7679.