It looks a little spooky, like it might belong in a horror flick but there’s definitely a story behind the choice of photograph for the cover of KlezFactor’s new album, Europa, and it’s a little bit like the band’s music: multi-layered and complicated.
The building in the photograph is the Hoikhe Shul, or the High Synagogue in Krakow. Named because it was the tallest synagogue in the city and built in the mid-1500s, my photo, taken in 2010 when I was doing field research in Krakow, shows just the entrance, but as you can see from the photo above, it’s a much more imposing structure than just the doorway indicates.
If you look at the plaque in the upper left of the album cover photo, you’ll notice a few interesting details. The words “Hoikhe Shul” are written in Yiddish while the rest of the plaque is in Polish. This illustrates the complex position of Jewish artifacts and Jews themselves in contemporary Poland. While the Jewish quarter in Krakow (Kazimierz) is a big tourist draw, particularly for American Jews, there are only a couple of hundred Jews living in Krakow today, a tiny fraction of the pre-WWII total. Therefore the plaque with the Yiddish name for the synagogue and the Polish explanation is a curious thing by which few, if any, Poles who visit the site would really understand the symbolism of. Poland has tried to capitalize (in two senses of the word) on the nostalgia of Western Jews for the lost world of Ashkenaz and while these Jews still flock to the synagogues and squares of Kazimierz, Szeroka Street, the central avenue of Jewish tourism in Krakow, is lined with restaurants that offer non-Jewish Poles playing klezmer daily along with Jewish-style food and souvenir shoppes filled with figurines of grossly stereotypical Jews.
Krakow’s Jewish Cultural Festival, which makes Kazimierz its epicenter, is one of the biggest of its kind, providing music, lectures and other religious and cultural context for the place while remaining very respectful of the ghosts of the Jewish past yet at the same time showcasing contemporary interpretations of Jewish culture. Still, some interpret this revival of Jewish life in Krakow as a crass cashing in on a sense of nostalgia. For more on this topic, see Ruth Ellen Gruber’s book Virtually Jewish.
Europa‘s album cover is a modern photo of an ancient place that has lost much of its original function. With few Jews in Krakow, there are very few synagogues that are still active and the Hoikhe Shul isn’t one of them. In a similar way, Klezmer has lost much of its original function as a dance music for Jewish weddings and celebrations. But KlezFactor doesn’t put klezmer music in a museum; we reinterpret the music through the lens of today’s diverse musical landscape. When touring around Krakow in 2010 during the Jewish Cultural Festival, I was struck by how the concerts breathed new life back into some of these old venues like the Tempel Synagogue. The context for the Jewish presence in Krakow has changed, meaning that we can’t help but see the complex nature of Krakow’s Jewish sites and their use by both Polish and Jewish authorities as having many layers of meaning.
Krakow has another special meaning to me. My maternal grandfather was born and grew up in Krakow, having had his Bar Mitzvah at the Alte Shul (the Old Synagogue, pictured above, will feature prominently in the artwork for Europa), and living there until World War II broke out in 1939 when he left with his brother and went to the Russian side of Poland. When he returned seven years later, he and his brother were the only survivors of his large family. For me, Europa is an examination of European sounds and concepts, returning to the roots of my family but with the musical sensibilities of half a lifetime of study of music from many times and places in the world.
The KlezFactor sound has always been my personal distillation of Klezmer combined with a multitude of other musical elements and, to me, these many facets are represented in this photo of a 450+ year old synagogue without a congregation that still continues as something else.
“Like” us on Facebook!
Europa is released July 5, 2016! Join us at our CD release concert!
Head over to our Performances page for updates on concerts!