KulturfestNYC, the very-inclusive first-ever international Jewish performing arts festival, begins June 11th



KulturfestNYC may be in its augural year, yet with Mayor DeBlasio appearing at its June 11th announcement, the festival is clearly a big deal. Although it is being billed as the “the first-ever international Jewish performing arts festival,” KulturefestNYC intends to be inclusive and celebratory for all. As Chris Massimine, Executive Producer and COO of National Yiddish Theatre, told me, one need not be Jewish to enjoy the festivities, much like how the San Gennaro Festival is not exclusively for people of an Italian background.

Taking place from Sunday to Sunday on June 14th through 21st, the festival launches with a Group Opening Concert at 7:30 p.m. on June 14th at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place. Performing at this free launch event will be The Klezmatics and Neil Sedaka. Beyond those names, the festival will include thousands of entertainers from 30 countries, incorporating dance, cabaret, theater, film, education and music programming.

Event schedules and other information on the KulturfestNYC official website. And some lucky site-goers can win a “Festipass” through the #MyYiddish contest, as judged by writers from “The Daily Show,” “Conan,” “Last Week Tonight” and HEEB.

Chris Massimine, Executive Producer and COO of National Yiddish Theatre
Chris Massimine, Executive Producer and COO of National Yiddish Theatre

Where did the idea for KulturfestNYC come from?

Chris Massimine: Bryna Wasserman, Executive Director and CEO of the National Yiddish Theatre, had a brilliant Yiddish Festival in Canada…that was so successful it was produced annually. When she left the Segal Centre to lead the restructuring and repositioning of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene within the NYC Community, her first instinct was to take the rich and vibrant roots of Jewish history in the city and create a festival that encapsulated that. To reach beyond the niche of Yiddish and into the greater pool of Jewish accomplishments the world-over, and present a Festival not only a first of its kind, but perhaps the largest Manhattan has seen in sheer volume covered by events and venues.

Was there a particular event or festival that influenced KulturfestNYC?  CMJ?  Restaurant Week?

C: The Montreal International Yiddish Theatre Festival [which Wasserman worked on] was the catalyst for the larger idea.

How did the name Kulturfest come about?

C: We went through many names to arrive at KulturfestNYC. Now “Kultur” is German for culture, and Yiddish is derivative of the German language, and this is an international festival. So given the scope of the artists performing, representing six of the seven continents — the continent missing representation of course being Antarctica — the name seemed to fit right because this festival is about celebrating culture on the global scale. The “NYC” explains itself.

Who are the main people behind Kulturfest?

C: Bryna Wasserman, Zalmen Mlotek, Artistic Director of NYTF, Chris Massimine, Executive Producer and COO of NYTF, Robin Schatell, Festival Producer/Organizer, Moishe Rosenfeld, Music Series Producer, [and] Eric Goldman, Film Series Producer.

What do you wish more people knew about this festival?

C: It is a festival for everyone, truly. You don’t have to be Jewish, you don’t have to speak Yiddish. Think the San Gennaro Festival — it has roots in religion, but that’s not what messaging it’s bringing to be the people. What we’re presenting is a celebration of this culture’s globally impactful mark on the U.S. and world over, and what better place to do that than the epicenter of the world: Manhattan, NY. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene — who is the primary presenter of the Festival, the other major partners being UJA-Federation and Capital One Bank — now in 2015, is 100 years young and has experienced first-hand some of the marvels ushered into NYC by the Jewish immigrants who came here in search of better lives. In some cases, they not only found those lives, and in many cases they enhanced the lives of others with contributions from cuisine to dance to film to Broadway and theatre. All things featured in KulturfestNYC.

Being the inaugural event, what do you hope to accomplish?

C: This festival is about putting differences aside. It’s about remembering the past, but always reaching towards the future to the next generation. It’s to inspire in a world where inspiration sometimes needs that extra push to get going. It’s to promote pride where there is sometimes an apprehension in claiming identity. And most importantly, like all cultures, it’s deserving of such representation. On top of all that, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun.

Should we be expecting even more with the 2016 edition of the Kulturfest?

C: Can we say for sure? No. Is it something we’re strongly considering? Absolutely. We’ll know more once we get through this one.

-by Darren Paltrowitz