Lucidarium Ensemble: Commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto

Ensemble Lucidarium

One of the many overarching themes at this year’s #AshkenazFest is the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Venice Ghetto in 1516. This was the first such Ghetto of its kind in the world (in fact the word Ghetto comes from the Italian word for foundry, geto, referring to the site’s prior use), and while it segregated Jews from the greater Venetian population, this was as much about protecting the Jewish population as it may have reflected any prejudice. Jews seeking a place of refuge from persecution across Central Europe were in fact attracted to the relative cultural freedom experienced by Venetian Jews. This created a cultural intersection between Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Turkish and Italian Jews. Though conditions were less than ideal, Jews prospered culturally, bringing study, scholarship and some permissible commerce into the community. The Ghetto thus became a place that attracted Christians and Gentiles to concerts and theatre. The melting pot that became the Venetian Ghetto remains today, 500 years later, an illustration of the impact of Jewish cross-cultural influence.

In addition to a lecture by esteemed scholar Shaul Bassi, and a fantastic  exhibition about the Ghetto that comes to us from the Museo Italo Americano in San Francisco, the Festival will feature a marquee performance by renowned European chamber music ensemble Lucidarium, who specialize in bringing little-known musical repertoires from the Renaissance and Middle Ages back to life in an entertaining, and engaging way for a 21st century public. Their show, entitled “Sounds of Shylock’s Venice,” promises a fascinating musical kaleidoscope of Renaissance-era sounds, performed in a variety of languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Italian) and on exotic period instruments. This is one of the few ticketed events in the Festival, and it happens to be one that I am particularly excited for.

Q&A with Lucidarium Ensemble’s Avery Gosfield

This week, I asked Lucidarium Ensemble’s co-artistic director Avery Gosfield to answer a few questions giving us further insight into this momentous anniversary and the program the group will share with us here on Saturday September 3, 7pm at Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

Q: You along with your co-artistic director, Francis Biggi, conduct much of the research that goes into developing programs, can you tell us a little bit about that process? Where do the visions and inspirations come from? What is the main focus of your research?

A: Usually we have a story we want to tell, and begin researching a particular period in time, a milieu, the general social structure.  A lot of our work is centered on the poems that we know were sung but for which no written music remains, and archaic traces that have stayed in certain popular music traditions.  One example is  Shuruq, one of Francis’ programs, which features two young Palestinian musicians, and focuses on the parallels between medieval music and the modern Arab tradition.  Another is Hombres de Maïz, which traces the links between the Northern Italian repertoire and the music played in Northern Mexico today.  Francis concentrates more on Italian music, and I am more interested in Early Jewish music, but both are part of a larger project designed to bring the music of the other 98% – the sectors of the population that lived in the shadows of the courts and ecclesiastical institutions that were the centers of music writing and record keeping – back to life.120572_ensemble-lucidarium

Q: How does Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice reflect the cross-cultural influence of Jews in the ghetto?

A: In the third scene of Act I, Shakespeare sums up the rules governing Jewish and Gentile relations in the Italian Renaissance, when Shylock says: I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk  with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.’

Q: What sort of vibe can spectators expect of this show? Is the program mostly in Italian?

A: The program focuses on musical life both in and out of the ghetto: mainstream dances and songs for carnival, a festive hymn welcoming the Sabbath, a rollicking account of a (pre-ghetto) fire on the Rialto.  Most of the program is very lively, but there are also more pensive moments: a piyyut mourning the destruction of the Temple, a selection of coplas about Josephs’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream.  There are songs in Hebrew as well as the three major spoken languages of the Ghetto: Italian, Yiddish and Spanish (all transcribed in Hebrew letters), as well as the Italian and Venetian dialects that would have been heard beyond the ghetto gates.  Recited texts drawn from the Venetian archives as well as Jewish sources that illustrate different aspects of life in the ghetto – ranging from comic to tragic – round out the picture.  The main ’nouveauté’ of our performance at Ashkenaz will be the projections by the Italian-Swiss video artist, Silvia Fabiani: which use images drawn from Jewish Italian sources to draw the audience into a kind of 360 degree image of Shylock’s world.  

Q: It is said that your group specializes in reviving overlooked musical repertoires from the Renaissance and Middle Ages, how do you so successfully adapt these musical repertoires such that it is enjoyed by audiences today?

A: Although we try and respect the past, we know that what we are making is 21st century music, and embrace the creative aspect of what we’re doing.  We try and draw audiences into another time and place, but we try and have fun while we’re doing it, and this usually rubs off on the audience. Playing in Jewish and world music festivals has been a great ’school’ for this, because we’re often dealing with audiences that are not familiar with classical or early music, so that we have to work harder to draw them in.  When we play in early music festivals, which can be quite serious, it’s nice to see how audiences react to a situation where they are not only allowed, but are actually expected to have fun…

Q&A: Daniel Kahn, the inaugural Theodore Bikel Artist-in-Residence

I can’t believe we’re less than two weeks away from this year’s #AshkenazFest. With all the hype in the office and everyone running around like chickens with their heads cut off (Chickens..See what I did there? See 11th Ashkenaz Festival logo), it was nice to take a deep breath and check in with inaugural Theodore Bikel Artist-in-Residence recipient, Daniel Kahn.

Dan Kahn will be performing in a myriad of acts at this year’s Festival and you really don’t want to miss him: 

Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman), BUY TICKETS

Semer Ensemble, Sunday September 4, BUY TICKETSDanKahn_DSC2096 Small copy

Yiddish Cabaret, Saturday September 3

Daniel Kahn, “Song Smuggler”, Monday September 5

Remembering Theodore Bikel, Sunday September 4

Q&A with Dan Kahn

Q: As the inaugural Theodore Bikel Artist-in-Residence, tell us what this honour means to you and what influence Theo may have had on you as an artist and human being?

A: It’s deeply humbling to be given this honour. Theo was a force of nature. A polyglot, polymath, a powerful performer, a progressive, a poet, a pal, and a mensch. I’m grateful for every moment I had with him and I miss him. An artist like him comes along only a couple times in a century.

Earlier this year I wrote about him in an article for Smithsonian Folkways Magazine called “Yiddish Song Smuggling.”

Perhaps the most prominent proponent of Yiddish folk song in the American folk revival was the actor-singer-activist-translator Theodore Bikel. After a career that spanned seven decades, Theo passed away this last summer. I had the honour of having him as a friend, mentor, and comrade. Singing in over twenty languages, Theo’s universalist humanism—fused with his commitment to a dynamic and defiant Jewishness—was rooted in the songs themselves. As he said, “I sing Jewish songs not because they are better songs than the songs of my neighbour. I sing them because they are mine and unless I sing them that part of the culture will vanish…” His songs were his cultural passport. He was at once an ambassador and a smuggler. He translated numerous songs into singable English and rendered them accessible to a population for whom they were not intended. He opened them up to the world.

Q: What is it about your artistic practice and personal values that makes you an appropriate choice for this honour?

A: There was so much, but more than anything it may be his ability to cross borders: between art forms between theatre and music, between languages with singable translation and the re-contextualization of old songs, and between cultures -both national and political. As I wrote, he was an ambassador wherever he went. And he was damn funny. I still tell every joke I ever heard from him.

Q: You are involved in this year’s Festival in a myriad of ways – what are you most looking forward to in your various performances at this year’s Festival? 

A: I’m looking forward to all of it. Ashkenaz is such an amazing beehive of culture. It’s exciting to be able to explore so many different facets of my recent work in once place. Playing Biff in Death of a Salesman again will be a challenge, as it was last year in New York, but I’m sure it will be rewarding. It’s a beautiful piece of work. I’m also looking forward to performing with my Berliner friends in Semer Ensemble. It’s a great program. And the solo sets and Theo Bikel tribute event are a great honour. I hope I can get some sleep.dkTB

Q: Your songwriting has been said to “follow in the footsteps of Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits.”  What do you think of those comparisons, and who would you say are your greatest artistic influences? 

A: I can’t deny how much I am under the influence of my influences. These song poets are great teachers. I welcome the comparisons. We’re all whittling wood from the same tree. I mean, I’ve translated songs from both of them into Yiddish, after all. I hope they don’t mind. 

Q: You were born and raised in Detroit, but have lived and worked in Berlin for many years? Why Berlin?

A: Berlin is a great city. I was invited there in 2004 by Alan Bern and after we re-elected Bush I moved there. I love Detroit and had lived in New Orleans and New York but I had never been anywhere so open and livable as Berlin. It’s a true cosmopolis. And I’ve found an important home in the music and theatre communities there. I especially love working at the Maxim Gorki Theater. And the klezmer scene is really blooming right now. Come visit. We’ll get some good hummus.

Q: What other projects are you currently working on? 

A: Oy. So many. Later this year I’m releasing a record with a band called The Disorientalists (with Yuriy Gurzhy, Marina Frenk, and Hampus Melin). It’s a cabaret song cycle telling the story of Essad Bey, a Jew from Baku who fled the Russian revolution to Berlin, converted to Islam, and became a bestselling author in the 1930s. A crazy life. We perform the program with PowerPoint and sing his whole biography. 
At Berlin’s Gorki Theater I have three plays running. Two are in the regular program: “Enemies, A Love Story” and “Fear Eats The Soul”. I wrote and perform original songs for both of them. The third is “Genghis Cohn”, a short Yiddish/German 2-man play that I co-wrote, directed, and perform in. It’s an adaptation of a French novel from the 60’s about a former SS officer who is possessed by the dybbuk of a Yiddish comedian he shot. Dark dark fun.
Besides that, I’m still playing with The Brothers Nazaroff. Our Smithsonian Folkways record is out and the film that we were shooting the last time we were at Ashkenaz will be released next month. I also have a duo program with Sasha Lurje called Strangelovesongs. We’ll do some of that material at Ashkenaz this year. What else? OH. We also may have been working on tracks for a new Painted Bird album…


New food program announced at this year’s Ashkenaz Festival

Fressers Summit

This year’s biennial Ashkenaz Festival welcomes a diverse lineup of notable chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers in its first ever Fressers Summit, highlighting the role of food in contemporary Jewish cultural revival. The new program features talks, demos and tastings by some of Canada’s most colourful Jewish food personalities, as well as some special guests from south of the border. Notable personalities participating include Zane Caplansky, Bonnie Stern, Leor Zimerman, Judy Perly, Michael Wex, Liz Alpern, Dina Rock and Michael Twitty.

An aspect of all cultures that brings people together, food was a natural choice for the festival’s already robust weeklong lineup of international music, film, theatre, dance, literature and visual arts. “I can’t believe we haven’t done this sooner, “said Ashkenaz Festival’s Artistic Director Eric Stein. “The Jewish food scene is exploding right now, and it very much parallels the creativity, diversity and cultural renewal that has characterized our performing arts programs for years.” The Summit kicks off at Harbourfront Centre on Saturday September 3, 6pm, with a panel discussion moderated by respected NYC-based food and arts journalist Michael Kaminer. The panelists will introduce themselves to the audience, and discuss their work at the vanguard of the contemporary Jewish food movement, sharing new directions and old wisdom in Jewish cuisine and foodways. Over the subsequent days, each will host an individual session highlighting the historical sources, personal experiences and cultural inspirations that animate their work. The resulting dialogue will nourish the imagination, tickle the taste buds, and provide a window into the heart and soul of contemporary Jewish culture. North America’s premier festival of global Jewish music and culture returns to Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre for its 11 th year from August 30 to September 5. The Ashkenaz Festival is co-produced with Harbourfront Centre.


Twitter: @ashkenazfest

Facebook: AshkenazFestival


A man, a musician, a magician, a Montrealer, amongst many other titles that don’t start with ‘M’

Josh et radio

Over Labour Day Weekend 2012, I was visiting Toronto from Montreal for a Maccabiah Israel basketball training camp. My Sunday night was open, so my cousin suggested that we check out the Ashkenaz Festival. At the time, I hadn’t heard too much about the festival (How things change in just four short years!). I had a blast, but the highlight of my evening was hands down the spectacle put on by Josh Dolgin, aka, Socalled. The energy was electric both on-stage and amongst the multicultural and multigenerational crowd. The Montreal-based performer had his audience jumping, laughing and clapping as he shared with us his remarkable array of talents. I’d been to concerts and music festivals before, but no prior experience had been quite like that. The show embodied Klezmer culture through comedy, music/instrumentals, rap and even magic. I couldn’t help but leave the Festival on a “Socalled” high.  I haven’t had the opportunity to see a live Socalled performance since then, but fortunately for all of us, he’ll be putting on several different performances at this year’s #AshkenazFest.

Where to see Socalled at this year’s #AshkenazFest:

HAPPENING NOW: Tuesday August 9 – Tuesday September 6 at the Miles Nadal JCC: “18 Years in the Yiddish Revival: A Socalled Photography Show”

Abraham Inc. | Saturday September 3, 9:30-11pm

The Great Dolgini | Sunday September 4, 2pm

Socalled’s Retro Dance Party | September 3 & 4, 12:30pm

Some questions answered by Socalled

Happening Now: 18 Years in the Yiddish Revival: A Socalled Photography Show at the MNJCC

Q: What does it mean to you to perform at the Ashkenaz Festival? This year, you’re performing with Abraham Inc. as well as presenting a photo exhibit, doing a magic show, and late-night DJ sets. What are you most looking forward to?

A: Ashkenaz Artistic Director Eric Stein is an old friend, someone I’ve known since school. For something like 20 years, we’ve been watching each other develop into professional artists.  So, if I can play a part in making his festival special and amazing, well, that’s awesome; it’s more than just a professional exercise, it’s personal. And because he’s my friend, he knows what I can bring to this party. Every participation I’ve had at Ashkenaz has been super special and different, so I expect nothing less for this year’s crop of performances. To play with Abraham Inc. again after a little hiatus will be a real treat: with a band who’s individual members are spread out far and wide working on a myriad of private projects, it’s not easy to tour, so this Ashkenaz show gives the band a much-appreciated opportunity to meet, work and rock together again. My secret passion is photography. I’ve been making photographs since I got a camera for my bar mitzvah, 25 years ago. My photo exhibit is a super exciting moment for me to try to get my billions of photographs finally seen by more than just my friends and collaborators, and seeing them enlarged and kicking ass on the JCC walls is an honour and a half. The magic show for kiddies is stressful but one of the most rewarding as a performer: I should at least have some of the words in Yiddish for this year’s show. The late-night DJ thing is fun too but I’m not a professional DJ, so there might be some bad mixes. I’ll bring a load of real old vinyl LP’s of Yiddish theatre, Klezmer, Hassidic, Israeli and whatever else I can, people don’t get to hear a lot of these sounds every day. 

Q: What is your fondest memory performing at the #AshkenazFest?

A: My fondest memory of Ashkenaz was eating smoked meat sandwiches with Moses Znaimer.

Q: You’ve collaborated with several talents artists across genres and generations, like David Krakauer, Fred Wesley, Theodore Bikel, Enrico Macias, and dozens more. Is there someone with whom you have not yet collaborated who you’re dying to work with?

A: I sure would love to work with Dr. Dre. Or Tom Waits. Or Jimmy Cliff.

Q: Most people are really good at just one thing, but you have a vast multidisciplinary set of expertise – music, producing, journalism, photography, filmmaking and directing and puppeteering – where did you start and how did you come to perfect all of these disciplines? josh-et-radio_72dpi

A: Who said “perfect”? I’m a dedicated hobbyist. I love pursuing my interests, and I’m into working on repertoire. Love studying the details. But I have to love the thing to pursue it: it must be born of pure love. I make puppets because I had a piece of fur kicking around and thought it would be fun to add eyeballs to it and make it talk. I can’t explain why I thought that would be fun, or why I would then build a dozen other puppets and use them in musicals and videos. Things start out as hobbies and eventually wind up as part of my artistic life. I like making people go “wow”. Practice is key. When I get bored of one interest – or when I feel like, ok that’s enough for now – I can turn my attention to another obsession: I’m thus always inspired. Or I try to be. 

Q: How did you get the name Socalled?

A: I used to be called “Heavy Jay”, in High School. It was one of those Hip Hop names my Hip Hop heroes had: Snoop Doggy Dogg, Q-Tip. So I was Heavy J. I started working with a rapper from Halifax, went by the name of Devilous. I met him through the bass player in a gospel band I was playing with at the time. He called me up one day and asked if I was making beats: at the time, not everybody and their mother was making beats. It was the beginning of a long collaboration with him that lasts until this very day. I guess Devilous noticed that I was not heavy at some point during our early friendship and collaborations, so he started to call “Socalled Heavy J”. And then eventually dropped the “Heavy J” and started to call me “Socalled”. That was it!

Q: You have a singing dog, Poopsie. Will she be making an appearance at this year’s festival?

A: Unfortunately Ashkenaz falls this year at the same time as a very prestigious blues festival in Switzerland; Poopsie had been booked to sing there over a year ago, and found it impossible to reshedule her opening night performance. That, coupled with her opening spot for Elton John’s Eastern European tour, made an Ashkenaz cameo out of the question. So, no, unfortunately, no Poopsie this year! #poopsiewerk (Check out Poopsie Sings the Blues on Youtube)



Check back for fresh articles, Q&As, profiles and news. Follow us on Instagram and Like us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with all information pertaining to this year’s #AshkenazFest

Yiddish is SEXY again! An interview with DOAS’s (Toyt Fun a Seylsman), Avi Hoffman

Death of a Salesman in Yiddish

We’re nearing the one-month countdown to the 2016 Ashkenaz Festival! As things start to fall beautifully into place, this week, with much excitement, ticketed events for this year’s #AshkenazFest were announced. Such events include, The Klezmatics, Lucidarium Ensemble, Muzsikás, Semer Ensemble and We Keep Coming Back. One ticketed event I’d like to highlight in this week’s blog post is the Canadian premiere of the Yiddish-language adaptation of Arthur Miller’s seminal American classic, Death of Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman).

Ashkenaz, in association with the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre, is pleased to present the new Yiddish-language production of the iconic play at this year’s Festival. This Canadian premiere production, presented with English supertitles, will feature members of the original New York cast, originally directed by Moshe Yassur.

This week, I connected with renowned Yiddish actor and Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) lead, Avi Hoffman. Hoffman received a 2016 Drama Desk nomination as Best Actor for his portrayal of Willy Loman, the NY production also received a Drama Desk Award Nomination for Best Revival of a Play. Another fun factoid, Avi is the third Hoffman to play Willy Loman, following Dustin and Philip Seymour.


Q: Why Death of a Salesman in Yiddish? How does the Yiddish adaption of this play in particular help us interpret the lives of Arthur Miller’s characters?

A: Arthur Miller based Willy Loman and the characters in DOAS on his uncle Manny and those around him, mostly immigrant Yiddish speaking Jews, trying to pursue the American Dream. In 1949, when first produced, being Jewish was not considered a positive attribution, and so the characters were assimilated and Americanized to Willy, Linda, Bif and Hap. By restoring the Yiddish immigrant quality we are actually staying true to Arthur Miller’s intentions.

Q: Does one need to understand Yiddish to come to this production and understand/appreciate it?

A: Absolutely not. The supertitles clarify the literal meaning of the words, but the highly charged emotions in this powerful piece are made even more profound by the Yiddish language and immigrant experience it brings to the work.

Avi Hoffman and Suzanne Toren

Avi Hoffman and Suzanne Toren

Q: Do you and all of your co-actors share the same passion for the preservation of Yiddish-language and culture? If so, what is the atmosphere/dynamic like between you and your fellow co-actors on-stage and off-stage?

A: I can not answer for all the actors, but many of us feel that we are on an important cultural mission to preserve, not only a language, but an entire history of Yiddish theatre that has largely been ignored in the history books. Before Broadway and Hollywood there was a popular and thriving Yiddish theatre community which laid the foundation for most of what we now enjoy as mainstream American and world culture. Don’t even get me started….

Q: What are you most looking forward to about bringing this iconic Yiddish adaption to Canada for the first time and to the Ashkenaz Festival in particular? As someone who works tirelessly to preserve Yiddish culture, what are your feelings about the Festival?

A: I have performed at major Yiddish Festivals around the world, and I am incredibly psyched to finally perform at the Ashkenaz Festival. I applaud all those who have persevered in keeping the tradition of Yiddish alive. Bravo!!!

Q: If you could do a translation and reinterpretation of any play in Yiddish, which one would it be and why?

A: That is too complex a question to answer without serious contemplation, but Joseph Papp’s dream in establishing the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre was to perform Hamlet and Merchant of Venice in Yiddish. We have our work cut out for us.

Q: What is the current state of Yiddish theatre, is it on the rise or decline? Is it evolving in new ways or is there continuity in the tradition from its heyday in the early 20th century?

A: Yiddish theatre today is more vital than it has been in the past five decades that I have been involved with it. I began my professional career at the age of 10 in the Folksbiene production of ‘Bronx Express 1968’ and have watched the Yiddish theatre scene deteriorate, almost to extinction. But Yiddish is the language of survival and the past few years have seen a great renaissance of Yiddish theatre worldwide. From the Yiddishpiel – National Yiddish Theatre of Israel, presenting the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theatre modern musical ‘Songs of Paradise’ to Montreal’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre group’s recent production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers in Yiddish,’ from the New Yiddish Rep’s productions of ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Death of a Salesman’ to the Folksbiene’s recent award nominated production of ‘The Golden Bride’, and many other Yiddish productions around the world, Yiddish is SEXY again! Constantly evolving and rising from the ashes to delight audiences with its emotional depth.

Q: What is the favorite role you’ve ever played?

A: Many different roles have been my favorite for different reasons, but Willy Loman is, by far, the most complex character I have ever had the privilege to portray.

Q: You were recently inducted into the Bronx Jewish hall of fame. Can you tell us about this honor and what it means to you?

A: I have to admit that I was quite shocked and humbled to have been chosen for this honour, especially compared to the others inducted with me. When I asked what I had done to deserve this recognition, I was told that I was being recognized for my accumulated accomplishments for past 50 years working to preserve the beauty and depth of Yiddish and Jewish culture. I couldn’t be prouder and I am so happy that my mother could be there to share the honour with me.


Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman) runs from Aug. 31 to Sept. 10 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.  Order your tickets here:



Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem – prior to joining this year’s #AshkenazFest team as the Communications Associate, Sholem Aleichem was just a phrase I would use to greet people – it didn’t have much more significance than my own satirical way of saying hello, especially amongst my non-Jewish friends. Since my start at Ashkenaz, however, this phrase has taken on a whole new meaning.

Sholem Aleichem is the pseudonym of one of the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature and theatre. Often called the “Jewish Mark Twain,” he is best known for creating the characters and stories that resulted in Fiddler on the Roof, probably the world’s best-known work of Jewish popular culture. There is no greater testament to his influence in his own lifetime than the fact that when he died in NYC in 1916, over 100,000 mourners turned out, making it the largest funeral procession the city had ever witnessed to that point.

Shalom Aleichem's funeral, attended by over 100,000 people

Shalom Aleichem’s funeral, attended by over 100,000 people

The 2016 Ashkenaz Festival is observing the centenary of the iconic writer’s death as an overarching theme. As I have become more and more immersed in this year’s Festival program, I have learned the importance of looking at current Jewish arts and culture through a historical lens to fully understand its roots. Sholem Aleichem is one of the most important, if not the most important, protagonists of Yiddish language and culture. His wit and wisdom as well as his own life experiences are quintessential to understanding Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Sholem Aleichem led a life of triumphs, which were often overshadowed by personal travail and tragedy. His stories and characters often mirrored his life experiences and his use of satire in recounting these tragic stories set a tone for his work that is very much prevalent in Yiddish culture today.

Sholem Aleichem’s enduring characters and stories are a window into the lives and souls of our East European ancestors. Though plagued with hardships, the characters in these stories managed to remain upbeat and optimistic. Yiddish culture today maintains this theme. For example, Yiddish music that is ever-present at Jewish celebrations is often up-beat and fast tempo, but a lot of melodies have a minor-key, somber undertone, reflective of a history riddled with hardship, but counterbalanced by perseverance, strength and vitality.

Throughout his career in Eastern Europe and North America, Sholem Aleichem was devoted to elevating Yiddish literature and increasing its artistic merit and cultural status. The 2016 Ashkenaz Festival will most explicitly celebrate Sholem Aleichem as the theme of this year’s Ashkenaz Parade. Other Festival presentations related to this commemoration include:

  • A presentation of the film: Theodore Bikel: In the shoes of Sholem Aleichem
    Theodore Bikel starring as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof"

    Theodore Bikel starring as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof”

  • Ukrainian singer-songwriter Zhenya Lopatnik, whose work symbolizes the survival of the Yiddish language in the country of Sholem Aleichem’s birth
  • A number of other artists who work within Yiddish will be linking aspects of their performance to Sholem Aleichem’s legacy as an icon of Yiddish, eg. The Klezmatics, Daniel Kahn, Semer Ensemble.
  • The Yiddish-language production of Arthur Miller’s iconic Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman), symbolizing the continuing relevance of the Mameloshen in this extraordinary re-imagination of an American classic

paradeThis year’s Ashkenaz Festival is taking place from Aug. 30 and runs through Labour Day Weekend. Shalom Aleichem’s legacy will surely be felt as over 60, 000 people come down to the Harbourfront Centre to celebrate the persistence and vitality of the language to which he was so devoted.






The Klezmatics: 30 years of devotion to klezmer revival

The Klezmatics: 30 years of devotion to klezmer revival

In my first full week at Ashkenaz, I had the opportunity to check in with Klezmatics’ Frank London to weigh in on the iconic group’s influence and contribution to the revitalization of klezmer music over the past three decades. The Grammy-award winning band is performing its 30th anniversary show on the Festival’s opening night, Tuesday, August 30.

Q: As one of the most iconic and influential bands of the klezmer revival, credited with redefining Yiddish roots music for the past three decades, what is your relationship toward the Ashkenaz Festival and what is its personal significance? What does it mean to you to be kicking off the Festival with the Klezmatics’ 30th Anniversary show?

A: Both the Klezmatics & Ashkenaz Festival are simultaneously products of and strong motivating factors in the revival of interest in klezmer and Yiddish music and culture that began in the 1970’s and flourishes today. Our paths have been parallel; we both believe in the strength of adhering to your roots and moving forward into the future. For us to celebrate our 30th Anniversary and release of our new cd Apikorsim – Heretics at the Ashkenaz Festival is so fitting, a real celebration of what we both stand for.

Q: As the only klezmer band to have ever won a Grammy, what does the award mean to you and how has it shaped any of your future projects, if at all?

A: Winning a Grammy was not only a triumph for the Klezmatics, but also an acknowledgement of all the amazing work created by the countless Yiddish groups over the last 40 years. It both gave the band some serious ‘street cred’, but also added to the consciousness of our music and culture.

That said, winning the Grammy never influenced our work after that — nothing so cynical as trying to do another project like a previous one because of its success. Our goal is to continue our growth and exploration of Yiddish music and culture in any way possible.

Q: You released your first album in 1989, now 30 years later; you’re releasing your latest album since 2011. What are your feelings going into the release of this album versus your first album given the resurgence of klezmer music over the past three decades? Has your artistic approach changed? How has the band evolved?

A: The Klezmatics evolve, but not in a linear fashion. Our latest recording — our 11th or 13th, I can’t count — is in certain ways a serious nod to both the tradition and to the sound of the band itself. Hard to believe, but after all these years, Apikorsim – Heretics is the first recording we’ve done with just the six of us, no long list of guest artists and session musicians and friends and community singing with us, and therefore really represents who we are. Is this a sign of a move towards a ‘roots-revival’ sound for the band? Nope, it’s just who we are on this record. We move in a lot of directions.

Q: How do you manage to stay together over thirty years when so many other revival bands have disbanded? What’s the secret to your longevity?

A: Our longevity is based on a mutual desire to keep things new, evolving, relevant and challenging. Not staying in one place. In addition to Apikorsim – Heretics , we have recently created the avant garde – found footage film museum installation with Hungarian film artist Peter Forgacs; and are working on a possible Broadway musical! The secret is to focus on the work. The tradition is strong, it is a well that we dip in and that nourishes us.

Thanks for the great interview, Frank! Side note, according to Eric, Frank is one of the busiest guys around and yet he got back to me with his answers within 24 hours. What a mensch!

The Klezmatics perform their 30th Anniversary show on the Festival’s opening night, Tuesday, Aug. 30.

Check back for fresh articles, Q&As, profiles and news. Follow us on Instagram and Like us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with all information pertaining to this year’s #AshkenazFest

Welcome to the #AshkenazFest Blog!

Blue walls and poster art - My doors to creativity and productivity!

Vus makht du, folks? My name is Melissa Szilagyi. I am the Communications Associate for this year’s Ashkenaz Festival. I come to Ashkenaz from a diverse PR background, ranging from work in politics and public affairs, healthcare and the Jewish not-for-profit sector. As part of our in-house communications strategy, I am launching a blog to help promote this year’s Festival. The #AshkenazFest blog is a forum in which we’ll hone in on the 2016 Festival’s artists and programming, share news and upcoming events and spark relevant discussion surrounding the Festival and global Jewish music, art and culture.

A little bit about how I ended up here

A friend of mine referred me to an opportunity at the Ashkenaz Foundation to help out with some in-house communications leading up to this year’s Ashkenaz Festival. Growing up in Montreal, I hadn’t heard of the organization nor had I heard of the Festival, or so I believed. Then, I thought back to a beautifully moving havdallah service on Toronto’s Harbourfront and a wildly entertaining performance by Socalled that I had attended just a year before I moved to Toronto. As it turned out, I was at the 2012 Ashkenaz Festival.

I came in to meet with Eric and Sam and right off the bat I could feel my heart racing as we enthusiastically brainstormed ways in which to promote this year’s Festival. I remember thinking to myself ‘This sounds really cool – I like music, I’m Jewish and, get this, I’m Ashkenaz!’. In my first week, however, I quickly learned that the Festival has expanded to incorporate all global Jewish arts and culture, not just music, but film, theatre, food etc., and certainly not just Eastern European Jewry.

On my first day, I was introduced to a very diverse group of people. You may think that an event of this magnitude is planned over the two years between festivals by a 20 plus member team. This is incorrect. A small but mighty group led by Eric Stein, Sam Parnes and Ed Segalowitz, is responsible for putting together this extraordinary seven-day celebration of global Jewish arts and culture over just six to eight months. The office is dynamic, collaborative, fast-paced and loud. Its blue walls, plastered with art and framed posters from past festivals creates a unique environment in which you certainly feel the Yiddishkayt influence, opening doors to creativity and productivity.

A week into this new role and I find myself fully immersed in North America’s largest showcase of Jewish global arts and culture, learning more than I ever thought I would about Yiddish culture and klezmer music, in particular. Did you know that there is a Japanese klezmer band, how cool (and unique) is that? They’re called Jinta La-Mvta and they’re performing at this year’s festival. I digress.

The phrase I most often heard from my bubbe growing up was femakh em pisk, roughly translating to shut your mouth. “Femakh em pisk”, she’d exclaim as I took over the Shabbat dinner table conversation with endless chatter. Since the time I could speak, I was always a chatterbox. Naturally, this led me to a career in PR. Now, nearly 24 years later, I find myself as a Communications Associate at the Ashkenaz Festival. I like to think that my bubbe would be proud to know that I’ve chosen my gift of gab to promote a festival historically devoted to reinvigorating her Eastern European Jewry. I’m overjoyed and so grateful to be a part of this team and can’t wait to celebrate global Jewish arts and culture at this year’s #AshkenazFest.

Tomorrow, I share with you my first interview with one of the biggest names in Klezmer music, Frank London of the Klezmatics.

Check back for fresh articles, Q&As, profiles and news. Follow us on Instagram and Like us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with all information pertaining to this year’s #AshkenazFest

2016 Ashkenaz Festival

2016 Ashkenaz Festival

Hard to believe it’s that time again, but the 11th biennial Ashkenaz Festival is now less than two months away. Our dedicated staff have been working feverishly to put all the pieces of this massive, one-of-a-kind event together. Once again we’ll be bringing the best of the international Jewish culture scene to Toronto for one glorious jam-packed week at the end of the summer, and like always, most of it is free. This year, our 90+ events will include more than 250 artists hailing from across Canada, the US, Israel, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Brazil, and…wait for it…Japan!

Headline programming includes the following:

  • The Grammy award-winning Klezmatics, celebrating their 30th anniversary with a new CD release concert at the Festival-opening, Annual Summer Yiddish Concert at Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre
  • The return of Jewish-funk supergroup Abraham Inc, featuring the titanic trio of klezmer clarinet master David Krakauer, legendary funk trombonist and arranger Fred Wesley (James Brown, George Clinton), and Canada’s own Yiddish hip-hop renegade Socalled.
  • An overarching festival theme observing the 100th yarzheit of iconic Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916)
  • The Canadian premiere of the acclaimed Yiddish-language version of Arthur Miller’s iconic Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman), starring the original New York cast, featuring Avi Hoffman, who was nominated for a Drama Desk award for his brilliant portrayal of Willy Loman in last year’s NY production of this show
  • North American premiere of Germany’s Semer Ensemble, a supergroup of Klezmer/Yiddish music luminaries from Berlin, recreating music recorded on the German-Jewish Semer Records label in the 1930s, and then lost and believed destroyed by the Nazis.
  • A multidisciplinary commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the creation of the Venice Ghetto (the world’s first Jewish ghetto), including a performance by Italy’s Lucidarium Ensemble, a lecture by renowned Venician-Jewish scholar Shaul Bassi, and a traveling museum exhibit.
  • Unique musical projects that build bridges across musical cultures, including: the  outstanding Japanese klezmer group Jinta La Mvta; Hungarian folk music legends Muszikás; Sephardic group Janet and Jak Esim Ensemble from Turkey; and a Jewish-Persian musical project with the Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative.
  • Performances by some of the top up-and-coming musicians and bands in the contemporary Jewish  music scene, including: Hassidic-Reggae hipsters, Zusha; 21st century Sephardic and Mediterranean music with Israel’s Baladino; middle-eastern/Americana fusion with NYC’s Sandcatchers;
  • Stalwarts of the Canadian folk and world music scene, Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra, Beyond the Pale, Ventanas, Nomadica, and the ever-popular Lemon Bucket Orkestra
  • The Ashkenaz Parade and popular kids/family programming, including a puppet show based on a Sholem Aleichem story, and readings of Dr. Seuss in Yiddish by Avi Hoffman.
  • A new focus on Jewish food and Jewish foodways, featuring many of Toronto’s leading Jewish food personalities and others from further afield
  • The launch of the new Theodore Bikel Artist-In-Residence program
  • A week of workshops and masterclasses in Klezmer and Yiddish music, culminating in “student” performances at Harbourfront Centre
  • and much, much more….

Join us at Harbourfront Centre and other venues across the GTA for an unforgettable week of music, culture, community, and spectacle. Be sure to follow us on Facebook or join our email list to keep up with the most current info.

Muzsikás: The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania


For over 40 years, the  musicians of Budapest’s Muzsikás Ensemble have been the leading global emissaries of Hungarian folk music. Their legendary career began in the mid-70s when they pioneered in the development of Budapest’s Tanchaz (dancehouse) scene, a roots music revival that grew into a national movement celebrating the nation’s rich musical culture. They have since toured all over the world, collaborated with leading artists, released many acclaimed recordings and received countless accolades and awards.

In the early 90s, the group embarked on one of their most challenging and meaningful projects: to reconstruct the musical traditions of Hungary’s pre-war Jewish community. Focusing particularly on the region of Maramaros (Maramures) in Transylvania, once home to over 5,000 Jewish families, the group conducted field research in the spirit of Bartok and Kodaly, seeking out those who had played with Jews before WWII or could remember anything of the community’s musical life. Their work resulted in a widely-acclaimed CD, considered by many to be the most authentic depiction of pre-war Hungarian-Jewish music. Click HERE to read a historical essay by Judith Frigyesi about the significance of Muzsikás’ “Maramaros” album.

Muzsikas-promo-1b_Sepia-crop-72dpiIn this stirring program, the master musicians of Muzsikás bring forth a unique hybrid repertoire, strongly influenced by the broader musical vernacular of the region but inflected with a distinct Jewish accent. Not quite Klezmer and not quite Hungarian village music, this unique repertoire and style stands as a reflection of a community that was deeply integrated in its cultural context. This moving concert program has been described as “aural” history, and is a rare and poignant expression of musical riches now lost from Hungary’s cultural fabric as a result of the Holocaust. This unique program was last presented in Toronto 20 years ago, as part of the very first Ashkenaz Festival.

Presented by Ashkenaz Foundation as part of Holocaust Education Week.
Presented with the generous support of Tom’s Place; Moses, Libby and Sam Znaimer; Andrea Kalmar; and the Consulate General of Hungary in Toronto.

Muzsikas live in concert from their 40th anniversary show, performing a Jewish dance melody from Maramaros

Thursday November 5, 2015, 8pm
George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St.

Tickets $36 / $30 (+ HST and service charges)  Click HERE to buy now.
For tickets call Ticketmaster toll-free 1-855-985-2787 or buy online at (service charges apply). To avoid service charges, buy tickets in person at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Box office, 1-6pm Tuesday to Saturday, (closed Sundays and Mondays)
For more info call 416-979-9901 or visit our website

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