Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow: Highlights and Tips

One of the best events to attend in Krakow is the Jewish Culture Festival, which usually takes place at the end of June or beginning of July. It is held in the former Jewish quarter Kazimierz, which has been revitalized to preserve its historical heritage since the late years of Socialism.

In 1988, for the first time after the devastating evends of the Second World War, people went to the street of this small area south of the center revive lost Jewish culture.

RUAH

The festival’s approach is not solely focused on the tragedy of the Shoah. Instead, its aim is to bring Jewish and Yiddish culture back to its rightful place since the Middle Ages. Kazimierz was founded as a shtetl outside of the royal Polish city of Krakow, eventually merging with the town and becoming a larger agglomeration.

Krakow Mural

Over the course of hundreds of years, the unique culture of Ashkenazi Judaism developed in Krakow and the rest of Galicia. However, the year 1939 abruptly ended this part of Eastern European culture. In 1988, Poland was undergoing political changes with widespread strikes against Jaruzelski’s military regime, leading to first somewhat free elections in the country.

Against this backdrop, Janusz Makuch, a passionate advocate of Jewish culture, initiated the festival in Kazimierz. More than 30 years later, it has become one of the highlights of Krakow’s festival calendar and should not be missed if you want to experience extraordinary performances by Polish, American and Israeli Jewish musicians.

A significant focus is placed on Klezmer music, a traditional Yiddish style characterized by brass instruments, fiddles, clarinets, and accordions. In many ways, it is reminiscent of Balkan music, jazz, and, with Sephardic influences, Northern African percussions.

Ruah musicians

Nowadays, the styles have become quite mixed. I highly recommend attending one of the jam sessions in one of Krakow's bars, typically held in the basement of Alchemia at Plac Nowy. Many of the performers who later have big shows on Szeroka square will come here to improvise and showcase their talents. You can often find Klezmer stars like Frank London, David Krakauer and Socalled in these sessions.

The combination of different styles is simply amazing. When I attended these jam sessions, I was overwhelmed by the blend of Yiddish klezmer songs, New York-style hip hop, Moroccan darbuka drumming, and Spanish singing.

Plac Nowy

Afterward, you can take a stroll around Plac Nowy, where partygoers gather to enjoy some of the best fast food in Krakow. In the large dodecagonal building called okrąglak”, you can try the delicious Polish Zapiekanka pizzas in various styles. It’s not just a great spot for food but also for meeting new people and spending half of the night with them over wódka and conversations.

Polish Zapiekanka Pizza

Speaking of food and the best restaurants in Krakow, the Jewish Culture Festival wouldn’t be complete without fantastic cuisine. Look forward to regional Yiddish classics like the slightly sweet Shabbat stew called Cymes or Gefilte Fish. Additionally, you have the unique opportunity to try a lot of Middle Eastern dishes. Krakow Restaurants such as Hamsa and Cheder serve delicious Meze plates, ranging from Hummus to Muhammara. For breakfast, I recommend trying one of the Jerusalem sets with savory shakshuka.

Selection of dips and bread in Hamsa restaurant

This food will provide you with enough energy to attend all the numerous events that take place during the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. In addition to concerts, you can expect academic talks, award ceremonies, workshops, installations, and many more activities.

Ruah stage

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when visiting the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow:

  1. Book your accommodation early: Rooms in larger hotels sell out quickly, but there are usually many available beds in hostels and on Airbnb.
  2. Reserve tickets to concerts and jam sessions you want to attend: The jam sessions are truly worth visiting, but it’s advisable to book tickets in advance. However, there’s usually still some options to get them at the door. Keep in mind that the venues usually require cash for ticket purchases, while drinks can be paid for by card.
  3. Don’t book too many tickets: While there are excellent concerts in Alchemia and the High Synagogue that require reservations, there are also a lot of free events to enjoy. The big concert on Szeroka Square on Saturday is completely free of charge. Also, expect shows, DJ nights, installations, and performances in the festival tent near the High Synagogue and in venues like Herve.
  4. Participate in a food workshop: If you’re a foodie, you can reserve spots at the various food workshops offered during the festival. There will also be a Shabbat dinner, although it tends to be quite expensive. Alternatively, you can just join the Shabbat party in the main tent.
  5. Spend time in Cheder: Café Cheder is usually at the center of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. The little bar at Józefa is known for its cozy study atmosphere, Middle Eastern cuisine, Israelis wines and tasty homemade lemonade.
  6. Visit the Jewish Galician Museum: During the festival. numerous events take place in the Jewish Galician Museum at Dajwór. This also gives you a chance to see some of the exhibitions for free.
  7. Avoid the buggy tours: They are often overpriced and provide little information. If you want to visit the old ghetto district, you can easily explore it on foot and find details on Wikipedia. We were once charged around 50 euros for a 30-minute ride from one old wall past a pharmacy to Schindler’s factory. It’s better to save the money and take a tour at the Schindler museum or, even better, visit the permanent exhibition for free every Monday (tickets are limited and need to be booked in advance).