Ashkenaz Festival to celebrate Polish-Jewish culture

Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk performs Yiddish tango music at Ashkenaz

This year, Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival is celebrating Polish-Jewish artistic achievement with music, a lecture and film series, and a panel discussion that will touch on the cultural relationship between Jews and Poles.

The Polish-Jewish component of the festival begins with a concert at the Lula Lounge on Aug. 29, featuring Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk, who will perform songs from her latest album, Yiddish Tango Live in Jerusalem.

Tango originated in the brothels of Argentina in the late 1880s. Representing the relationship between a prostitute and her pimp, the dance was regarded as obscene until about 1917, when tango became widely accepted in Argentine society and songwriters introduced lyrics to the music. During the 1920s and ’30s, the tango craze swept across eastern Europe. Poland was one of the capitals of European tango, at a time when most of the country’s musicians were Jewish. As Jews were forced into ghettos in eastern Europe, they found in tango a musical language to express sorrow.

As the date of her concert coincides with the 74th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto in 1944, Mieleszczuk plans to include the tango lullaby, Mach Tsu Di Eygelekh (Close Your Little Eyes) in the program. The song’s lyrics were written in the Lodz ghetto by Shaja Shpigel, after the death of his young daughter. Dawid Bajgelman, who wrote the music, died in Auschwitz.

Mieleszczuk will also sing a tango called Bal u Grubego Joska (Party at Fat Josl). “In Warsaw in the 1920s and early ’30s, a tavern at Gnojna Street, in the Jewish district of Warsaw, was a beloved place for rich and poor,” Mieleszczuk said in an email interview. “The restaurant opened at 2 in the morning, mostly for Jewish merchants. But Warsaw’s high society, after having fun in elegant places, also were coming there to taste the authentic folklore of Warsaw. The owner of this place, Jozef Ladowski, known as Fat Yosl, is the hero of the ballad.”

Ladowski’s grandson, Toronto jazz pianist Ron Davis, will sit in with Mieleszczuk’s band, when it plays Bal u Grubego Joska. Davis, who never met his grandfather, recorded a jazz version of the song on his album, My Mother’s Father’s Song.

As an introduction to Mieleszczuk’s 8 p.m. performance, Kajetan Prochyra will speak about his work curating music programs at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. A Polish-Canadian group, the Polky Village Band, goes on at 9:15 p.m.

Mieleszczuk makes a second appearance at Ashkenaz, singing the songs of Miriam Nirenberg, at 4 p.m. on Sept. 2 at the Lakeside Terrace at Harbourfront Centre. Nirenberg immigrated to Canada in 1932 from the Polish shtetl of Czarnawczyce, which is now in Belarus. Members of Nirenberg’s family, including her grandson Michael, will be attending the performance.

Mieleszczuk recorded a gorgeous album featuring Nirenberg’s Yiddish songs, which were drawn from field recordings made between 1968 and 1975 by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the chief curator of the POLIN Museum.

While Mieleszczuk was working on new arrangements for Nirenberg’s songs, she sang them in the Ein Kerem forest in Jerusalem. “They sounded great in the open air. I was composing kind of Hasidic niguns – melodies without words — and then I was combining them with different songs of Miriam Nirenberg. I found out that some of the niguns match well with specific songs. Now, in the album, the listener can’t tell that it’s a combination of melodies of different origin,” Mieleszczuk said.


Also part of the Polish-Jewish section of the festival, the director of the Yiddish language program at New York’s Columbia University, Agi Legutko, will give a lecture called “I Want To See You Dead: Women, Gender and Sexuality in Yiddish Literature,” at 2 p.m. on Sept. 2 at Harbourfront Centre. Films to be shown at Ashkenaz include Children Must Laugh, Narishkayt: Yidlife Crisis in Krakow and The Prince and the Dybbuk. A panel discussion on “Poland and the Jews: Past, Present and Future” will feature artists, curators and academics speaking about the rich and complex historical and cultural relationship between Jews and Poles.


For more information about the Ashkenaz Festival, which runs from August 28 to September 3, visit