It was, fittingly, a Jewish refugee from the Nazis who co-founded the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. Vienna-born Rudolf Bing, later knighted for his services to the arts, was also instrumental in co-founding the Glyndebourne Opera festival, and was famously general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York for 22 years.
But the recognisable stamp of a cultured European Jew became the calling-card of Edinburgh, and 75 years later that remains the case, together with the spin-off events such as the Edinburgh Fringe, the Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Television festival.
The crowds, who annually descend on the Scottish capital for most of the month of August, go there not just for the rain and the infamous midges — Caledonia’s version of mosquitoes — but for the joy of being constantly surprised and delighted by the arts. No matter if you are looking for music, contemporary or classical, theatre, comedy, dance, film, visual art — or just lively, thought-provoking conversation — somewhere in Edinburgh there will be something to fit the bill.
Be prepared to bring a pair of sturdy walking shoes, as Edinburgh opens all hours for you to hot-foot it from venue to venue, some conventional, some pressed into service for the first time.
And, given the Bing imprimatur, it is technically possible to go to Edinburgh and soak up the atmosphere with an entirely Jewish dance-card. Yes, Jews feature strongly at every festival and this year is no exception.
1) Singer and songwriter Ezra Furman, once the lead singer and guitarist of the cult band Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, has made several well-appreciated albums and wrote the soundtrack for the Netflix series Sex Education.
Appearing at the city’s Leith Theatre for one night only on August 23, Furman is bound to be a hot ticket. The Chicago-born entertainer, who specialises in art rock, will explore, says the Festival, “themes of identity, religion, political angst, love and anxiety… and has become an icon for the misunderstood and the oppressed”. Her live performances have built her a fierce reputation, with the Guardian dubbing her “the most compelling live act you can see right now”. Yes, Ezra now identifies as a woman and has become a parent, too — and has just finished her first year of rabbinical study.
The Leith Theatre appearance will be her only Scottish date in 2022 and her final performance before the release of her new album, All of Us Flames, on August 26.
2) Jeremy Sassoon sounds like every Jewish mamma’s nightmare, in that he gave up a flourishing career as a hospital doctor and psychiatrist — to become a jazz musician. But ignoring the might-have-been mutterings of “this is how you make a living?” the Manchester-based pianist and storyteller is bringing an intriguing sounding show to Edinburgh — MOJO, or Musicians of Jewish Origin, a barnstorming ride through Jewish songwriters and performers from the 1920s right up to the present day.
The MOJO show, which runs from August 3-28 (except August 15 and 16) at the Assembly Checkpoint, has its origins in a 2014 request from organisers of Leeds’ JFest, which asked Sassoon to do a show about Jewish music.
“I thought of Jewish music as shul or hora music and I told them it wasn’t really my thing,” Sassoon says. “But then I went to do a gig that night and I suddenly realised that all the songs were written by Jewish songwriters. And I thought, there’s a show”.
He duly wrote a sparkling 90-minute show, (75 minutes in Edinburgh), in which he and his multi-talented bandmates sing the work of everyone you’ve ever heard of, from Gershwin and Irving Berlin to Paul Simon, Dylan, Lou Reed, and Carole King, from Lieber and Stoller who wrote for Elvis, to the little-known but admired Grammy-winner Allee Willis, who, among other things, wrote the theme song for TV favourite Friends, I’ll Be There For You.
“The only genres I don’t do are the Beastie Boys — rap —or punk,” laughs Sassoon, who even sings Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good in the show. He reckons, incidentally, that if that song were arranged differently, “it’s probably the most Jewish-sounding song of the whole show.”
It’s not quite Sassoon’s Edinburgh debut: he was due to appear at the 2020 Fringe which was cancelled. Last year, as Britain came gingerly out of the pandemic, he did a week’s run in a reduced Fringe. This is the first time he’s doing a full run at a full size Fringe.
Though some retired medics went back during the pandemic, Sassoon had been out of the profession too long. Instead he did Facebook online shows, interviewing some of his former colleagues, and raised a cool £14,000 for the NHS in the process.
As for the stereotypical “Jewish family disapproval” of him jettisoning his medical career for music — that didn’t happen. “We’re all incredibly musical in our family, my parents are musicians and so are my siblings — the general public never understood it, but my medical friends did.”
3) Shlomo the beatboxer, pictured on our cover has two shows in Edinburgh this year, one for children and another for adults. His Beatbox Adventure for Kids is a lunchtime show, running at the Pleasance Courtyard from August 3-16 and again from August 18-28. And his adult show is the thrilling-sounding Breathe, subtitled “the play that became a rave”, which runs at the Pleasance Queen Dome from August 3 to 28.
In some respects Shlomo’s Edinburgh appearances are counter-intuitive: people usually start small in Edinburgh and then go on to fame, but he’s been very famous for more than two decades in the beatboxing world, giving high-profile performances as he uses his body as an instrument. He laughs when I ask if it’s true that he won a jar of jam for his first contest. “Yes, it was a competition called King of the Jam and that was the prize”.
But his rise to fame was not necessarily what the one-time Simon Kahn was looking for. He’s worked with Icelandic singer Bjork, been nominated for a Grammy, and was artist in residence at the South Bank in 2007. He put together the world’s first beatboxing choir, the Vocal Orchestra, and has toured Britain, Europe and the US.
He makes it clear, however, that his background — Israeli-Iraqi and German Jewish — and his search for identity throughout his life is what motivates him and makes him run. To that extent Shlomo’s shows, both the one for adults and the one for kids, deal with identity and questions of anti-racism and antisemitism.
Breathe, his adult show, goes deeper into his own experience of “growing up in a noisy immigrant family.” His maternal grandparents are Iraqi Jews who were expelled and then went to Israel, where his mother was born; his father’s side of the family is from Nuremberg, fleeing before the outbreak of the Second World War, a heritage which has recently allowed Shlomo to receive a German passport.
He was unexpectedly thrown by what happened when he went to the German Embassy to get his citizenship. “It had been like going to the Post Office; just paperwork. But this time they took me to a different entrance and ushered me into a big white room with one desk in the middle of it. The official gave me my certificate and then asked if he could say something personal. He said, ‘I just want to apologise for what happened to your people, you are German and it’s really terrible that you and your children should have to wait until now to [reclaim] your German citizenship’. I was not expecting a Holocaust apology at this ceremony. It took me several months to process this as part of my identity.”
He adds: “I didn’t know I was foreign until I went to school, I just thought everybody else was weird. I think there were one or two non-white kids in the whole school; everyone else was middle-class and white and didn’t really understand that some of the things they said [to Shlomo] was racist and causing so much damage”. In fact, as he makes clear in Breathe, Shlomo, who is the middle child between an older brother and younger sister, has “the lightest skin in my family”, so the racism at school is even harder to understand.
Shlomo tackles some other difficult subjects in his shows: “I talk about gender fluidity, being non-binary, neuro-diversity — I have severe ADHD — it’s really beautiful seeing how the children react to that.” He’s especially happy with the way his own children, aged 11 and seven, have reacted to his decision to come out as queer. They were, it turns out, remarkably unbothered, only asking if he wanted them to change pronouns. The beatboxer sounds remarkably happy and laid back — and it’s reflected in his shows.
4) In the main festival there is much to enjoy, not least the curated season under the title Refuge, contemporary theatre, dance, visual art, film and conversation, created in collaboration with the Scottish Refugee Council to explore themes of refugeehood, migration, identity and inclusion.
5) Musicians performing at the Festival include pianist Yefim Bronfman, and the debut at Edinburgh of the Israel clarinettist Sharon Kam. Conductor Semyon Bychkov appears with the Czech Philharmonic, while the English Concert with Bernard Labadie are performing Handel’s Saul, about the first King of Israel’s relationship with his successor David.
6) Back at the Fringe there is comedy, comedy, and comedy: Katie Price and Donna Landy have a show from August 4-16 at the appropriately named Laughing Horse venue, entitled Oy Gay!, billed as “hilarious, clever and filthy”.
7) Comedy veteran Ivor Dembina is appearing at the same venue on August 4-8, 10-15, 17-22, 24-28, with his does-what-it-says-on-the-tin show, Old Jewish Jokes. 8) Aaron Levene and Philip Simon, meanwhile, calling themselves Jew-O-Rama, have a show running from August 6-28 at Binkies Lounge.
9) Daniel Cainer, an old Edinburgh hand, (he’s done 15 years at the Fringe) is at the Underbelly from August 3-28 with More Jewish Chronicles and Other Stories. Cainer’s songs have been performed by “cabaret artistes and rabbis” — not at the same time, we hope — and he warns that bagels are not included in his musical stories.
10) Composer and lyricist Alexander S. Bermange is back with his award-winning musical revue, I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical. Bermange has been reviewed as a “genius in comic songwriting’”(Cabaret Scenes) and is an iTunes comedy album chart-topper. From voice-straining high notes to limb-spraining high kicks, via on-stage smooches and off-stage feuds, reveals everything that you could want to know about being a musical theatre performer… if only there were any who would dare to admit it. You can catch him at the Gilded Balloon from August 3-28.
11) Rachel Creeger is the UK comedy circuit’s only Orthodox female stand up, and she’s got a new show for the Fringe, Pray It Forward. “This is probably the most Jewish show I’ve ever written,” she says. Find her at the Globe Bar, 11.45am August 7 to 28 (not Saturdays).
12) And she’s one half of Jew Talkin’ To Me (with Philip Simon) the Jewish chat show podcast which will be recording live on August 10 at 1.30pm and August 17 at 8.00pm in The Box, George Square.
13) Erin Hunter’s show is at the Underbelly from August 3-29 (except for August 15) and is called Surfing the Holyland, a one-woman musical comedy about a woman who “survives making aliyah by learning to surf” .
14) Carole Shaw, meanwhile, has a show called Amazing Adventures of Her Majesty, Platinum Jubilee Edition, this cheerful multi-character musical comedy is on August 8-15 at Brass Monkey.
15) And in a “whirlwind blitz of physical theatre, puppets and potions”, Penelope Solomon is appearing at the Pleasance Courtyard from August 3-14 with her delightful-sounding All Aboard With the Bard, a whistlestop guide to Shakespeare.
16) Prudence Wright Holmes is offering something more serious — a mesmerising show which she wrote and performs. Hiding Anne Frank is the story of Miep Gies, the Dutch secretary to Otto Frank who helped the Franks and their friends hide from the Nazis in an Amsterdam annexe for nearly two years. She was the woman who found Anne’s scattered diary pages after the family was arrested, and restored them to Otto, the last evidence of his daughter.
Wright Holmes, an American writer and performer, has appeared on Broadway with Meryl Streep, in films with Whoopi Goldberg, and on stage with Maggie Smith.The show runs from August 5-28 at the Wolfson Theatre on Edinburgh’s George Street.
17) Aaron Simmonds — featured in the JC on July 1 — was Jewish Comedian of the year in 2017. His Edinburgh show Hot Wheels can be found at the Pleasance, A ugust 3 to 29, pleasance.co.uk and riffs on his life as a wheelchair user.
18) also at The Pleasance is stand up Simon Brodkin — billed as a world-famous prankster. He’ll feature in a up-coming edition of the JC, as will 19) Hollywood screenwriter J D Shapiro whose show about his life, I’m With Stupid is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot August 3 to 28.
20) Hands and Flowers at the Surgeons Hall is a LGBT drama by Lily Sheldon and Costi Levy full of romantic entanglements and “Yiddish drag”.
21) For the absolute inside track on Edinburgh — and a good laugh, too — reach no further than Dave Cohen’s novel, Stand Up, Barry Goldman, set both in the Leeds Jewish community and the Fringe itself. Cohen has appeared many times at the Fringe and so gifts his alter ego Barry with all the scoop of what it’s like to be there. This year he’s not appearing himself, but will be in Edinburgh helping with the show of his fellow comic Arthur Smith, and launching the audio of his novel, which Smith has narrated. Can hear those growly tones now.