Creativity and Cultural Arts in Today’s Jewish Europe

by Smadar Bar-Akiva

Who are the target audiences of Jewish artists in Europe? What values are they looking to express and transmit? What is their relationship with the organized Jewish community? Are there boundaries to their creativity? Do the above questions even matter?

These are some of the issues that were debated last week at the first ever European Seminar on Innovation and Creativity in Jewish Culture. Taking place at the backdrop of the largest theater festival in Europe, at the medieval city of Avignon, France, the European Association of Jewish Community Centers (EAJCC), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Federation of France (FSJU) convened a talented group of some forty cultural arts organizers and artists from across Europe to discuss the promotion of Jewish creativity in today’s Europe.

The Golem Theater of Budapest, an independent five year old theater company, is but one moving example. Led by Andras Borgula, Artistic Director, and Edina Schon, Producer, their mission is clear. They want to show the general society images of real Jews. While the Jewish audience wants to preserve the treasures of the past, the Golem theater exposes the current life of Jews, even if for some it is hard to digest. From producing the short stories of the young Israeli writer Etgar Keret (and using the image of a pig as a provocative logo) to an original theater production that confronts the current stereotypes and problems of the Jewish community. Although keeping the theater open is a daily struggle, they feel that the artistic rewards are worthwhile.

Going east to Krakow, the dilemmas are even more striking. An increased interest of the general public in Jewish culture has resulted in producing the yearly world renowned Jewish Festival of Krakow. Robert Gadek, the deputy director of the festival and a gentile, shared with us an inspiring vision of creating a platform for Jewish culture. The festival staff members aspire to reach beyond “black and white” Judaism as manifested in some simplistic klezmer bands. For Robert it is all about teaching tolerance, encouraging the cross fertilization of cultures and recreating in Poland the Jewish memories of the past. From near by Warsaw, Mikolaj Grynberg is a prolific photographer and community volunteer. Mikolaj expressed the frustration of not having a Jewish public. While Jews in France may be seen as French, in Poland he remains the “Jewish guy” and the critique of his work it always tainted by the stereotypes related to Jews.

But even in France being a French Jewish artist is not that simple. Xaviar Nataf, regional director of FSJU and the organizer and promoter of several Jewish and Israeli film festivals across France, expressed the complexities of promoting the culture of a specific minority in a country were community and minority affiliation are seen as breaking away from the general Laic (secular) identity.

Having said that, for Guila Kessous from Paris, theatrical talents and a strong Jewish identity are intertwined. With an impressive background of high level studies at Harvard University, being mentored for a year by Ellie Weisel and a rich theatrical experience, Guila combines theater with human rights, focusing on Holocaust education. Guila trains the actors she works with as witnesses. She believes that recognizing the suffering of other people can promote understanding and tolerance. Indeed for Guila the interpretation of old texts provides an opportunity to write new pages in an evolving Jewish identity.

Add to this a Jewish/Christian concert series in Prague, a Jewish Salon for young adults in Vienna, cutting edge cultural arts programs in two JCCs in London, recovering ancient musical traditions in Belgrade and the richness of this special encounter can be understood. “Our goal is to strengthen the Jewish cultural network in Europe and allow new venues for creativity and exchange” concluded Jo Zrihen, EAJCC President, as he listened to seminar members describing future plans for collaboration and peer learning.

Smadar Bar-Akiva, Executive Director, World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers (WCJCC) – an umbrella organization representing more than 1,100 JCCs worldwide. She can be reached at:

image courtesy: Friends of the Cracow Jewish Culture Festival Society, Inc.