Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Ashkenaz 2014

I have a dear friend who, after hearing what I was planning for my last weekend in Toronto, said "I love how ritualistic you are."   That caught me by surprise, as I had never given a thought to that.  But now looking back at that weekend, I can't but grin at his accurateness.

As it happens, there was one last festival we could participate in before we left - Toronto's Jewish culture festival, Ashkenaz.  It takes place only every two years, so it was sheer luck that I got to see three editions  - 2010, 2012 and 2014.  I've always had a blast at the festival, and that it would take place precisely during my last weekend in the T Dot was too much of a coincidence!

Before I get to this year's events, I want to assure you: this is a festival for everybody.  It's a celebration of Jewish culture, no doubt.  If you have any real Jewish links, this is one fine opportunity to have a good time.   But if you don't identify as Jewish but still enjoy music, food, dance, discussion... this is most definitely a place for you too.  


When I participated in my first event where people danced in groups (it was a Breton festival in Beijing many, many years ago) I discovered how much fun that was for me.  Ashkenaz is no different, except perhaps that the steps are simpler! LOL.    This year they invited Steve Weintraub, who's been at the other editions too, to guide us through a series of traditional dances and horas.  You have to try this once, honest! Eastern European melodies are fantastic for this!  

OK, so, no, I confess, we didn't have any traditional Jewish food at all.  What happened was that there was a stand with Beaver Tails!  And before you faint, this is a pastry, ok?  Called a beaver tail because it resembles one, that's all.  It's a pretty simple one, too, but with cinnamon, sugar and lemon... it's pure heaven! And we decided that, after all, we could find Jewish food in way more places than we could ever find Beaver Tails, so Quebec (home of this kind of pastry) was the winner here.    Well, my taste buds were the winner, right?

My stomach happy, we rushed for a lecture called "Black Sabbath: Blues and Jews", with Aaron Kula, from the Florida Atlantic University.  I already knew a bit about the influence American Jews had on Blues.  But I didn't have an inkling on the influence African American bands had on Klezmer. Nor had I ever heard African American Blues singers use Yiddish or Hebrew, either!  And a rendition of Eli Eli by Johnny Mathis we listened to during the lecture practically moved us to tears (you can listen to it here).  This was one eye opening lecture.  I love how I get to learn all this stuff at this festival.

An end, and a beginning
There was one very specific moment I was waiting for - Havdallah.  That is, a ritual that marks the end of Shabbes (Shabbat), the end of the week, and the beginning of a new one.  My very first havdallah was in 2010, at Ashkenaz 2010. It was intimate.  It was welcoming.  It was warm.  And it was fun, too (that was one funny rabbi we had that time).  To be celebrating it again here where I experienced it first... for it to mark not just the beginning of a new week, but of a new life for us in another land... for me to have discovered a Jewish identity in this city and through its Jewish community... this was incredibly emotional and meaningful...

The end of that night was absolutely fabulous.   There was David Buchbinder's Odessa/Havana, with a great mix of Jewish and Cuban rhythms.   Actually, this is one of the things that make this festival so fun - with Jewish people living basically everywhere, there's always great music that mixes the local and the Jewish!

Obviously, this photo here has nothing to to with Jewish culture (well, at least not as far as I know!), but between the previous group and the next, we rushed to a stand for a last go at Toronto's vegan hot dogs with some killer fries!  Yay! 

And last, but not least by any means, The Lemon Bucket Orkestra!   You have to listen to this band. Really.  Here's the link to their website.  They have this amazing and super energetic Balkan rhythms that get you off your seat and jumping up and down in a frenzy!  It's incredible how they had the energy to go through the entire show!  We had heard them before, on an impromptu street performance, and I had bought two of the albums.  Seeing them live again, and for a whole concert, was simply brilliant! (I mean, nothing beats seeing an artist perform live, right?)

All in all, this was the perfect ending for a very happy 5 years in Toronto.   I consider myself really, really fortunate, to have been able to mark the end of a cycle with dance, song, food and a quiet moment for reflection.   

The video below is not great, it lacks quality, but it shows a bit of everything I mentioned here (except the lecture).   It stands here as a memory of a happy day, a happy and sad end, and a hopeful and uncertain beginning.  

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