A Jewish Cultural Olympiad


The Olympics are coming!

All over London, cloaked in yet another layer of once-unthinkable snowfall, people look to this summer’s Games for much-needed cheer. The record chill that has seized Europe this winter seems to mirror the mood across the Continent. From the British Isles to the Urals, Europeans are depressed about falling incomes, rising taxes and bleak prospects, and the punishing cold just seems to rub it all in.

But with the Jewish community in the midst of a renaissance here in Britain’s capital, and the once-in-four-years Olympic spectacle headed this way, Londoners are finding reasons to smile.

At Ivy House, seat of London’s Jewish Cultural Centre, talk is of the substantial Jewish involvement in the Summer Games — from the number of local rabbis involved to the Jewish performers and athletes in the spotlight.

This week, Londoners will brave the slushy chill for the 60th annual London Jewish Book Week, Europe’s largest Jewish book fair. (Promoting books of any kind these days is an urgent mission, I think: “Jewish Tablet App Week” just doesn’t have the same ring.)

Book Week is a star-studded event that draws visitors from around the continent to hear Howard Jacobson, Jonathan Safran Foer, Deborah Lipstadt and other luminaries, and to explore great Jewish books in depth — from prize-winning fiction and history tomes to Sephardic cookbooks and Yiddish storybooks for children.

Much attention will be on the young new director of London’s beloved Jewish Music Institute (JMI), the violinist and media darling Sophie Solomon, when she participates in a Book Week talk on Bob Dylan. The JMI is also celebrating a new permanent home at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

At just 33, Solomon brings fresh energy to the august institution. Her distinctive blend of klezmer, gypsy, Sephardic and Russian sounds, her collaborations with Rufus Wainwright, her past as a DJ and her extensive scholarship on Jewish Eastern Europe have all established her place on the vanguard of London’s Jewish music scene.

During Book Week, JMI will host a screening of the 1920 silent film “The Golem,” accompanied by a new musical score by pianist Robin Harris.

Next month, JMI hosts an opportunity to indulge in a full weekend of world-class klezmer. It’s Kleznorth, the annual festival held in a bucolic farming village two hours north of London. In between communal meals of vegetarian hummus and salads, the Youlgrave Village Hall will ring with the pungent blaring of clarinets to honor the 100th anniversary of “Belf’s Rumanian Orkester,” a recording that is a touchstone for European klezmer.

Back in town, London is winding up its so-called Cultural Olympiad, the quadrenniel festival leading up to the Games. Cold though it may be, spring is a great time to swing through the city: before the crowds swarm, visitors can take advantage of a cultural smorgasbord that’s notable even by London standards.

Between April and June, you can see all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays performed — and in 37 world languages, no less — at the playwright’s own Globe Theatre, or at least its rebuilt incarnation near the original site.

Over at the Tate Modern, Damien Hirst’s notorious shark in formaldehyde — along with other hits of his oeuvre — is on view in a retrospective that starts April 4. The Royal Academy of Arts has David Hockney’s landscapes in “David Hockney: A Bigger Picture.”

The Jewish painter Lucian Freud — art world enfant terrible and grandson of Sigmund — died last year, making 2012 a fitting time for a major show in his honor. “Lucian Freud Portraits” is a first-ever compilation of the artist’s often-disturbing renderings of people; it’s on view at the National Portrait Gallery, a space more often associated with Holbein’s paintings of Henry VIII and depictions of Elizabeth I’s staid collars.

The performing arts get a boost toward late spring. In May, there’s the first-ever U.K. performance of Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach,” the 1976 opera that is enjoying a fresh vogue. Four decades after ‘70s experimental, it will be interesting to see how modern British audiences react to a five-hour, intermission-less opera where they can get up and wander at will amid tonal minimalism.

Another new experience for many Londoners is the London Jewish Museum, which reopened almost two years ago in a renovated Camden piano factory. Accustomed as I am to the plethora of ethnic museums in New York and the U.S., I was genuinely surprised to learn that this is London’s only such institution dedicated to a minority group. It’s all the more noteworthy when you consider that London, unlike most European cities, has a long history of multiculturalism.

But since American-style identity exploration is still a relatively new concept here, it’s interesting to see how London handles the British-Jewish experience over the last 1,000 years.

The museum places great emphasis on personal connection and interactivity — witness the Yiddish karaoke booth, or the Holocaust exhibit as told through the story of one man. You can peek into a model cupboard that reveals how a 19th-century Jewish housewife arranged her kitchenwares, or step into a Jewish photography studio from the immigrant East End.

How British Jews live, then and now, is the museum’s focus — one enhanced by the exhibition “No Place Like Home,” works by the photojournalist Judah Passow, on view through June 1. Passow spent a year documenting contemporary Jewish life in all its breadth and variety throughout England, Scotland and Wales. The result is a literal portrait of a well-assimilated minority — at home in Britain, yet remaining distinct.