The Ashkenaz Festival: “Bilui naim”

They’re coming from up the road and across the country, from Europe to South America, from Israel to India, Africa, Asia, Australia and the U.S.

A global collection of Yiddish artists and performers descend on Toronto’s Harbourfront this week for the biennial Ashkenaz Festival. In its ninth year, the event offers a celebration of “the diversity of Jewish music, art and artists from around the world, and the interconnectedness of communities near and far.” And they aren’t kidding about the near and far bit.

When it comes to near, offerings include a production of The Corpse Bride courtesy of Toronto-based Theatre PANIK, as well as musical acts and performers from British Columbia to Montreal. Even beloved Canadian children’s entertainers Sharon and Bram make an appearance, “mix(ing) Yiddishkeit with iconic favourites such as One Elephant and Skinnamarink.”

Then there are those coming from afar: notably, the Ugandan Jewish musical group The Abayudaya.

“Who knew there was a Grammy-nominated Jewish community of just 1,500 in Uganda presenting a fusion of Jewish and Ugandan folk music?” Eric Stein, the festival’s artistic director, said in an interview with The National Post.

Also, representing both Italy and Switzerland is the group Lucidarium, offering “a unique program of little-known Renaissance-era Italian-Jewish music performed on period instruments and in Hebrew, Italian and Ladino.”

Meanwhile, international speakers such as Brazilian singer-songwriter Nicole Borger and Australian educator-entertainer Freydi Mrocki take the stage to provide insight into the history of the Jewish communities in their countries.

The festival turns poignant at times as well, with performances such as the Canadian debut of 99-year-old Holocaust survivor and composer Leo Spellman’s “Rhapsody 1939-1945,” which he composed “in 1947 in a displaced person’s camp in Germany. After immigrating to Canada, Spellman packed the score away in a suitcase where it lay forgotten for more than 50 years.” As well, A Tribute to Chava Rosenfarb offers a multi-layered homage to “one of the most important Yiddish novelists, poets, and writers of the second half of the 20th century.”

And, of course, there’s the much-loved Ashkenaz Parade.

With so many free performances and representatives from seemingly every corner of the globe, this year’s festival offers a unique and eclectic mix of worldly flavours and traditional favourites. As they say in Yiddish, “bilui naim!”

The 2012 Ashkenaz Festival runs from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3 at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. For full performance listings and times, plus information on making donations to support Ashkenaz, go to

-Mike Crisolago