The Ashkenaz Festival

The Ashkenaz Festival is a biennial, multi-disciplinary cultural festival held at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, organized by the Ashkenaz Foundation. Program offerings have included concerts, theatre and dance performances, visual arts exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, workshops and a closing parade.

The Ashkenaz Foundation

The Ashkenaz Foundation is a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to fostering an increased awareness of Yiddish and Jewish culture through the arts. Ashkenaz places equal emphasis on the need for preservation and innovation within this cultural milieu. In addition to its core focus, Ashkenaz incorporates programming of diverse streams of world Jewish culture, including Israeli, Sephardic, and Mizrachi, and actively pursues cross-cultural exchanges with artists from outside Jewish cultural traditions. Ashkenaz has placed a strong emphasis on local and emerging talent, as well as education and community outreach, and has forged partnerships with other organizations in areas of overlapping interest or cause.

History and Development

In 1995, David Buchbinder and Bruce Rosensweet created the Ashkenaz Festival in collaboration with Harbourfront Centre. It grew exponentially over the next few years, with increasingly ambitious editions mounted in 1997 and 1999. In 2001, the Festival came under the auspices of the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, with Marc Glassman and Judy Wolfe as festival producers and Yiddish singer/actor Mitch Smolkin as artistic director. The new team mounted festivals in 2002, 2004 and 2006. In the fall of 2006, Karen Tisch became the executive director and Eric Stein the artistic director.

In the spring of 2007, Ashkenaz initiated year-round events at venues across Toronto, culminating in a gala concert featuring the legendary Theodore Bikel. In 2008 (its 13th year of operations), Ashkenaz presented its "bar mitzvah" edition, expanding programming to incorporate a greater presence of Sephardic and Mizrahi music and culture. Year-round programming continued in 2009 with increased focus on under-40 audiences. In 2010, the festival presented over 90 acts and 200 individual artists from a dozen countries, and attracted over 50,000 people. The 2011 season was launched by the Toronto debut of Yemen Blues, and the 2012 season with the Israeli jazz group, the Ori Dakari Quartet.

Performers

With music at the heart of its activities, the Ashkenaz Festival has presented world, folk, roots and jazz music. Concerts have featured bands that performed "Jewish music" infused with jazz, classical, rock, punk, funk, hip hop, gospel, Zydeco, bluegrass, tango, Eastern European, Russian, French, Roma, Turkish, Middle Eastern, North African, Cuban and Latin American sounds. Performer s have included Marilyn Lerner, David Buchbinder, Finjan, Victor Schultz, The Flying Bulgars, Sharon and Bram, the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir and many others. Groups have been as varied as Abraham Inc., Sway Machinery, Flory Jagoda, Opa!, Sagapool, and the Lemon Bucket Orkestra. Klezmer events have included the Taras Band, Peter Sokolow, Klemerson, Beyond the Pale, and Veretski Pass who directed the participant workshop "Fellowship of the Strings."

Outreach

Ashkenaz engages in outreach and audience development activities geared to children and families. At the 2008, 2010 and 2012 Festivals, Ashkenaz presented children's concerts, readings, workshops, as well as Ashkenaz's penultimate closing event, the Ashkenaz Parade. In 2011 Ashkenaz developed an "Ashkenaz at Camp" initiative in Cloyne, Ontario which included Yiddish dance workshops for all ages, song-teaching for 14 and 15 year olds, as well as discussions of heritage and contemporary Yiddish and Jewish culture.

National Reach

Nationally and internationally, Ashkenaz has collaborated with music and cultural organizations including KlezKanada (Montreal), the Chutzpah Festival (Vancouver), KlezKamp (NYC), the National Yiddish Book Centre (Amherst), and the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival (Poland). It is a member of Ontario Council of Folk Festivals, and an international group of Jewish arts presenters that meets annually in New York City.

Ashkenaz has received support from public sector partners, including the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council, Heritage Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Suggested Reading

Rogovoy, Seth.The Essential Klezmer (2000); Slobin Mark. The American Klezmer : Its Roots and Offshoots (2002); Wilcox, Alana and Christina Palassio and Jonny Dovercourt. The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto (2005); Grzeskowiak, Mark. Toronto & Niagara Colour Guide (2010).