Jewish festivals, home and away

This coming year is an even-numbered one, and that means the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival is on- so set aside Sunday, June 10, 2012. This shebang is one of the oldest and largest in the country (and likely, the world), boasting 30 years of history and some 30- 40,000 attendees bi-annually. There will be the usual stages full of local, national, and international musical talent, plus dancers, storytellers, and other performers. Also expect the Book-Shuk tent (buy paper books while you still can!), a gallery of  arts and crafts, an array of booths with information about local Jewish programs and services, a kids' area with activities and a petting zoo… and lots and lots of kosher food.

And then there is the Great Jewish Family Festival, this past year held in May at Westfield Old Orchard. There was a parade led by a member of the Bears, a circus with acrobats and clowns, live music, and carnival games, all capped by a bonfire.

Now, Chicago does not have a monopoly on Jewish festivals. If you are planning to travel this coming year, you might be able to check out a Jewish festival while you're out of town, too.

You just missed the inaugural Jewish Cultural Festival in Cary, South Carolina. It was on Dec. 20: "Join us on the first night of Hanukkah to celebrate… the first Jewish Cultural Festival in Cary. Enjoy traditional foods, crafts, entertainment, and the lighting of a nine-foot Menorah."

But if you hurry, you can still catch the Sephardic Music Festival in New York. It runs from Dec. 20-27. The emphasis is on avant-garde and cutting-edge interpretations of classic Ladino, Mizrahi, and other Sephardic sounds in events scattered across Manhattan. One typically eclectic event includes three female vocalists representing Mexico (by way of Syria and Iraq), the US, and Iran. Another is Miki Gavrielov, an Israeli singer of Turkish extraction. The most participatory event, hosted by "Heeb" Magazine, is their "Heebonism" party.

After all that fun, you're going to need to refuel. The South Florida Jewish Food Festival- nicknamed "Nosh Fest"- is in Cooper City, west of Ft. Lauderdale, on Feb. 12, 2012. Activities will include eating. Oh, and also cooking demonstrations. And, because this is America, eating and cooking competitions. Even the kids will have a chance to cook something.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, is the Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley. With some pre-fest shows as early as Feb. 2, it officially opens on March 1 and runs to the 25. Acts include Basya Schechter of Pharaoh's Daughter, Israeli rap combo Hadag Nachash, rising stars Yemen Blues, and the klezmer stylings of The Isle of Klezbos.

It also takes all of March to handle The Boston Jewish Music Festival. They bring in the big guns- in 2011, they had Frank London and Neshama Carlebach, plus a Bernstein tribute- as well as unexpected acts like Gaston Bogomolni, with his South American cantorials.

Daytona is host to spring-breakers and auto-racers, so on March 18, 2012, its Jewish Heritage Festival will have some offerings for adrenaline junkies. Aside from the usual shows and activities, there will be a rock-climbing wall, camel rides, and bungee jumping. Less adventurous attendees can enjoy matzah baking, lectures, a signing of the book "Save the Deli"… and a tour of Jewish history including appearances by Joseph, Moses, Miriam, and King David (or reasonable facsimiles thereof).

While the South has a deep musical heritage, they know why people really come to these things, which is why Arkansas calls their May event The Jewish Food Festival. Yes, there will be concerts and Judaica and an "Ask the Rabbi" booth. But also, well, some serious nosherei.

Speaking of food, Santa Clarita Valley's Jewish Food and Cultural Festival is on Sunday, April 29… the same date as is Santa Barbara's Jewish Festival.

The coasts and Midwest are not the only places with such fests. The Boulder Jewish Festival is Sunday, June 10, 2012- the same as Chicago's, so it would be hard to hit both, even with help from the time- zone difference.

Late June brings the International Jewish Performing Arts Festival to Leeds, north of London. This large, five-day affair involves music, comedy, dance, and- this is England, after all- theater. In 2011, it featured everything from a "kosher gospel" singer to a Neil Diamond tribute band.

Another month-long fest, running June 29-July 28, is the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland. There will be concerts and other performances, workshops and lectures, films, exhibitions, and tours. Then the Hungarian Jewish Summer Festival runs from late August to early September; it bills itself as "Hungary's most important and biggest cultural-artistic event series." Venues include galleries, museums, movie theaters, and synagogues, including the resplendent Dohány Street Synagogue.

Bringing us into fall is Canada's major contribution to the Jewish festival curcuit- Toronto's Ashkenaz Festival, in 2012 from Aug. 28 - Sept. 3, with the bulk of its programming packed into the first three days of September. It's hip, it's international, it's not just music, and it's mostly free.

Back in the States, Syracuse's Jewish Festival is held in September. This past year's highlights included a 200-person hora circle! They were going for a record, but the Guinness people were not in attendance. Bummer.

One of the best-named Jewish festivals is HardLox, and this Oct. 21, 2012 is its 10th anniversary, in the North Carolina town of Asheville. The Jewish Festival of Greensboro, Massachusetts is also held that month.

Washington, D.C. considers its Jewish Folk Arts Festival to be a "Community-wide Kumsitz." That word, literally meaning "Come, sit!" is best translated as "sing-along." And the focus is on folk and folksy singers and songleaders. But you will have to wait until next November for that one to come around again.

If you plan on traveling this coming year, see if you can find a local Jewish festival to fit into your schedule. Chances are, you can… even if you are going to a place named Corpus Christi.

Paul Wieder photo 2013

Paul Wieder is putting Jewish music on your playlist! Plus updates on Jewish music festivals, reviews of Jewish music websites and blogs, and insights from Jewish music producers and promoters. Let’s make Jewish music part of your well-balanced musical diet!

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