The beginnings of the "Jüdische Musik- und Theaterwoche Dresden" go back to the mid 1990's. Originally called the Jiddische Musik und Theaterwoche, it was a labor of love run by friends and members of the Dresden Rock Theater who used it as a platform for performing Yiddish plays and for bringing in performers and scholars from across the world. Many of the characteristics that define the festival today, like strong partnerships with Hatikva and the Jewish Community or cooperation with local theatres and churches, could already be seen in that first, 1997 edition. Furthermore, its program was unlike that of any other Jewish festival from the time. The Yiddish Week Dresden was not just a music, or a theatre, or a film festival, but one that combined all three, together with all kinds of other events: walking tours, literature, lectures, Jewish-themed meals, events for kids, Yiddish theatre workshops, open services at the Synagogue, to name just a few: an unheard-of idea in the Jewish cultural landscape of the day. Although this kind of programming might have become more common during the last years, it is still quite rare, and continues to be a hallmark of the Jewish Week Dresden.
Not surprisingly, the festival, under the direction of Michael Rockstroh (of the Dresden Rock Theater) continued to grow. The year 2011 was the year of an important transition, when the Jiddische (Yiddish) Musik- und Theaterwoche Dresden became the Jüdische (Jewish) Musik- und Theaterwoche Dresden, reflecting a change in focus that had actually been going on for the last few years. This was an important step: a kind of official pronouncement that Jewish culture was not a monolith centred on the artistic output (often with a with a strong folkloric focus) and traditions of East European Ashkenazim. It was a turn towards modernity, towards seeing Jewish Culture as a global phenomenon.
More changes were soon to come: in 2013, Valentina Marcenaro, formerly the Organisational Director, took over as Festival Director. The programming began to be defined by a yearly theme: "On the Sephardim's Trail" (2012), "Our Neighbours to the East" (2013), or subjects like post-Soviet Judaism, Jews in the Arab world, "The Others and Our Own", and other thought-provoking, creative containers. After Valentina Marcenaro's exit in 2017, the Festival had two directors in the space of three years. Luckily, two long-standing members of the team (Conny Vranceneau and Nils Brabandt) stayed on, which, together with an active and involved board, and the numerous, devoted volunteers, gave the festival some much-needed stability through an uncertain period.
My own first encounter with the Jüdische Woche Dresden was in 2016, when I came to play with my group, Lucidarium, with a program dedicated to music from the 16th century Venice Ghetto. Because I spent (as usual) my time there, rehearsing and resting up for the concert, I left without any real impression of the city or festival. My second encounter with the Jüdische Woche was in the Fall of 2019, when I saw an advertisement on Facebook asking for a new Festival director, applied and was hired for the job.
The 2020 Jüdische Woche was originally entitled "No Man is an Island" and was to be dedicated to Great Britain. We had the whole lineup set up, and were beginning to work on an idea for a didactic program using festival artists, a way to use our resources to give back to the community, to fight against intolerance on a grass-roots level. Called "Spielen gegen Antisemitismus", it was designed to counteract some specific problems. One was the fact that, for many schoolchildren, their knowledge of Judaism is limited to the Holocaust, Israel and Religion, or worse, what they learn on social media or at home. In addition, for reasons we are all familiar with, very few of them have had very much contact with an actual Jew. The concept was a fun, hands-on project that matched high-level cultural education with learning about the concept of cultural Judaism. It was conceived as a way to show them that Judaism is alive and well and not so strange after all, while they had the positive experience of working with Jewish mentors.
All of these brilliant ideas were conceived, worked on and went into the promotional phase between December of 2019 and February/March of 2020. The Great Britain theme was shelved in May, and substituted with a Festival named "Zay Gezunt" which only involved artists living within 200 km of Dresden. The didactic project was put on hold because the schools were unable to cope with the pandemic situation as it was, much less add on external didactic activities. All of this went on while I led the festival, in lockdown, from my kitchen table in Bovisio Masciago, near Milan.
Over the Summer of 2020, lockdowns eased and at the beginning of October, all looked good for the festival to begin on October 29th. However, an exponential rise in Corona cases after mid-month led to lockdown again, and that year's festival consisted of one live theatrical performance, one streamed concert, and one streamed conference in collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.
In 2021, the festival was able to reschedule almost all of the events planned for 2020, and to carry out an ambitious program dedicated to the German Jews, "Die Jekkes Kommen". Although the collaboration with schools was still difficult, the festival was able to carry out projects with Musaik-Grenzlenos musizieren, the Evangelische Kreuzgymnasium Dresden and the Austrian School of Prague, and produce a number of didactical films on cultural Judaism thanks to a national grant from the Kulturgemeinschaften funds.
For 2022, the festival theme is "A Safe Haven", with a dual meaning - the cultural expression of the port cities (like Venice, Hamburg, Izmir, Riga) that have served as a safe haven for Jews for centuries; and the concept of a "Safe Haven" for people with nowhere else to turn. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the balance has tipped slightly towards the latter, our natural reaction to the current world situation. The festival will have "Mission Lifeline" as patron, and Yuriy Gurzhy: musician, author, DJ, blogger, activist, who was born in Kharkiv but has been living in Berlin for the last 20 years as Artist in Residence (opening benefit concert for Mission Lifeline, "Yuriy Gurzhy and the Jewkranians" 04.11.2022, book presentation and DJ night 05.11.2022). Other events dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish culture include "Tevye served Raw" (05.11.2022) with works by Sholem Aleichem performed in the original Yiddish, and the "Jüdischer Ball" featuring Druzi, a band made up of Ukrainian exiles living in Germany and Poland (12.11.2022). These are just a few highlights of two weeks with over 25 events ranging from Mischpoke (family) Day (06.11.2022), to an evening dedicated to Kristallnacht featuring the Banda Comunale in collaboration with Besht Yeshiva Dresden on 09.09.2022, to a concert with the acclaimed vocal trio Gurgulitza (13.11.2022), rounded out by lectures and concerts dedicated to Riga, Izmir, Hamburg and Venice.
It has taken over 25 years of hard work by the team, its directors, the board, the festival volunteers, a generous group of sponsors (thanks to the efforts of Ingo Wobst), and our partners like the Jewish community and Hatikvah, the Societaetstheater and Staatsschauspiel to make the Festival what it is. It's an honour and a challenge to continue the mission begun 26 years ago. I hope to make use of the many resources we have on hand to build a more positive image of Jews and Judaism, and to educate the Dresden public (and beyond) about our culture, showing it for what it is: as an infinitely varied, living and breathing entity. I see our role in Dresden not as a substitute for education about the Shoah or antisemitism, but as its partner, one that gives Jews and Judaism a human face and shows that, despite it all, we're still alive and kicking. Last but not least, as a Jewish Festival, we have the responsibility to show that our own past experiences are no different from the prejudices that other minorities and refugees are confronted with today, and, more importantly, can have the same, deadly consequences - underlining the real meaning of "Never Forget".