Check Out Jewish Cultural Arts this Summer at the Ashkenaz Festival

Anyone living in and around Toronto knows it is an incredibly diverse city with many festivals to celebrate the various cultures. From August 28 to September 3, the biennial celebration of the evolution of Jewish cultural arts returns: the Ashkenaz Festival. Over 250 international artists will gather in Toronto to showcase an eclectic spectrum of live music, theatre, and multidisciplinary art and culture. This year, the festival aims to shine a spotlight on women as prominent performers, innovators and key custodians of various musical traditions from around the globe. 

Artistic director Eric Stein comments, “Women have always been central to creating and maintaining Jewish cultural and musical traditions…We are proud to make the vibrant and powerful work of female artists a focal point of this year’s festival”.

Celebrating the 12th biennial Festival, Ashkenaz will be holding events at venues across the GTA, including: Harbourfront Centre, Koerner Hall, Lula Lounge, and the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. Over 90% of the programming will be free to the public, the festival features artists from countries as varied as India, Italy, Russia, Brazil, Australia, and Israel.

The Opening Night show, “Yiddish Glory” (August 28, Koerner Hall), features recently discovered rare songs and poetry from the Holocaust era, found in an overlooked archive in Kiev. Dozens of critics and journalists across the globe hail the show as a triumph, the gripping and emotional concert experience features the talents of Canadian Jazz-chanteuse-turned-Yiddish-diva, Sophie Milman, along with Russia’s Psoy Korolenko, Trio Loyko, along with many others.

Another highlight includes “If It Be Your Will: An All Canadian Tribute to Leonard Cohen” (August 30, Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts). With a lineup of artists from within and beyond the Jewish music scene, the iconic Cohen’s writing is lovingly reinterpreted with particular attention paid to the Jewish themes in his works. Musicians include: Kevin Breit, Lori Cullen, Aviva Chernick, The Barrel Boys.

Often the centrepiece of the festival, this year’s free evening mainstage concerts at Harbourfront Centre on Labour Day weekend are no exception. On Saturday night (Sept 1, 8-11pm) the Festival focuses on its roots in east European Jewish culture with a double bill of cutting-edge 21st century Yiddish music. Teaming up with Grammy-winner Frank London (The Klezmatics) and his Klezmer Brass All-Stars, singer and actress Eleanor Reissa will play a sultry and incendiary set of new Yiddish song with downtown NYC avant garde attitude. They will be followed by the North American premiere of Australia’s pile-driving 22-piece YID!, inspired as much by Parliament/Funkadelic and Talking Heads as they are by old-school big band and old-world klezmer.

On Sunday September 2, the free evening mainstage features two fantastic Israeli world music groups who blend African and Arabic sources to create a moving multicultural fusion. Making his North American debut, Ethiopian-Israeli Gili Yalo will play his reggae-roots-rock and be followed by Yemenite-Israeli sisters A-WA, who use the ancient women’s music traditions of Yemen as the base for their groovy music. This trio became the first ever to score and Arabic-language number one on the Israeli music charts with “Habib Galbi”. 

Another part of the festival explores the Polish-Jewish experience from a variety of perspectives. With a number of significant historical anniversaries this year, a focus on Poland will emphasize the deep and intertwined cultural legacies of Poles and Jews. A number of speakers, musicians, and films will be featured, including Warsaw-based singer Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk presenting a program of interwar Polish cabaret and tango music composed by Jewish musicians, Columbia University professor Agi Legutko lecturing on “Women, Gender and Sexuality in Yiddish Literature,” and a presentation from the music director of Warsaw’s POLIN Museum, Kajetan Prochyra. 

The festival also features a number of Canadian musicians in the Jewish culture and music scene. These include Montreal beat renegade Socalled, recent JUNO nominee Briga, and Canadian folk music iconoclast Ben Caplan. Furthermore, this year’s Ashkenaz Festival rounds out with literary talks, Yiddish dance programs, cabarets, films, kids and family programs, and an integrated visual arts program.

It’s bound to be an amazing festival, with so much to enjoy and learn about Jewish culture. For a full schedule, you can check out

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.