Tel Aviv Invades The Upper West Side
03/08/2007
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It isn’t an enviable task organizing an Israeli culture festival for a New York audience. For one thing, in seven days — with most performances concentrated on the weekend — how do you balance the realities of an Israeli cultural scene that often focuses more on benign subjects like nature, love and fantasy rather than politics and war — the subjects most prescient to Israel’s foreign supporters?

And when you do showcase politically infused art, how do you show “balance” when Israel’s artistic elite is predominantly liberal?

The answer provided by the JCC in Manhattan, which is in the midst of its “Israel Non-Stop” weeklong festival that began Saturday night, seems to be: you don’t. If Israel’s best filmmakers and stage directors criticize their government’s policies in the Palestinian territories, so be it. If its best-selling authors want to write about sex — under-aged or loveless — all the better. And if its artists want to paint abstract landscapes or sculpt fantastical, anthropomorphic battles out of rusted tin cans, who are you to advocate for subjects otherwise?

“It shocks foreigners to know this is part of Israel — a big part of it,” said Yael Hedaya, a preeminent writer in Israel and professor at Tel Aviv University. She was referring to the decidedly apolitical, mostly quotidian concerns of everyday life that are the subject of her first three novels.

At her well-attended talk in the JCC’s library on Sunday, Hedaya read an excerpt from her third book, “Accidents,” which was translated into English and published by Henry Holt and Company in 2005. The Atlantic Monthly called the book “a fine-grained, tragicomic, and always gripping portrait of adult love in the making.” 

Later, she aired a segment she wrote for the hit Israeli television series “In Therapy” (“Betipul”) about a young woman who confesses to her psychotherapist that her first sexual experience was with an elderly man, when she was a young teen. (The rights to the entire television series were recently purchased by HBO.)

But Hedaya admitted that some of the foreign criticism, and domestic too, about her choice of topics have rankled her. “I refuse to attend festivals or conferences exclusively for women writers,” she said. Her fourth and latest book, “Eden,” which is currently being translated into English, is “a protest novel against the ‘ghetto of female artists,’” she noted. While the book revolves around two liberal, bourgeoisie women who live on a moshav, or collective farm, they grapple with the ominous threat of terrorist attacks that paralyze them from living an entirely “normal” existence.

Though most events are held at the JCC in Manhattan, the opening event was on Saturday night at Symphony Space, a premiere Upper West Side venue. The space was reserved for Mosh Ben-Ari, one of Israeli’s most popular — and recognizable — performers.

With a mane of finely primped dreadlocks extending almost all the way down his back, Ben-Ari and his seven-piece pop-reggae jam band finally went on stage around 9 p.m. That would have been fine, except that the sit-down performance was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., and there were no opening acts to fill the void. As the audience sat, impatiently, a rebbetzin gave an overview of the weeklong festival, then a younger gent, promising to keep it short, proceeded to do the same.

It was a bumpy start, for sure, especially when the fire alarm briefly went off after the stage was pumped with smoke. The problem quickly solved, Ben-Ari and his group jammed away with rhythmic, pulsating beats held down by a keyboardist and drummer, and combed over by the lead singer’s echoing bellows and lightly strummed acoustic guitar.

Half past nine, the drummer, sensing the awkward choice of venue — you don’t sit and watch a jam band — summoned the sold-out crowd to its feet. A mostly youthful audience streamed into the aisles and began dancing, hands in the air, to an agreeable, if forgettable performance.

When the rest of the festival began in earnest at its JCC headquarters the next day, the vibe was of an entirely different sort. Young couples chased their kids around the spacious lobby. Elderly couples ogled the two dueling exhibits, one by New York-based artist Tobi Kahn, the other by the Israeli Lisa Gross. And middle-aged women sat around or waited on line for the hummus tasting and demonstration provided by one of Manhattan’s best, Hummus Place.

I took a few moments to look at the Kahn and Gross exhibits, and walked away more than a little disappointed in the presentation. Kahn’s abstract, minimalist landscapes consist of many horizontal panels of varying sizes painted in two different, earthy colors and split by a lined indentation. This series, called “Sky and Water,” has been exhibited in many fine galleries across the country, and mostly to favorable reviews.

But here, the work seemed crammed and cluttered, and, I might add, bore little resemblance to its complementary exhibit “Dream Chasers” by Lisa Gross, which sat across the main lobby and under the broader title “Elemental Earth.”

Gross works with discarded scraps of metal, tin, rubber, plastic — garbage, in other words — and reconstructs them into anthropomorphic figures. A giant dragon-like creature takes center stage here, and many other pint-sized figurines are spread out around the rest of the exhibit’s wall, attempting to take down, or flee, the Goliath.

The little guys are cute: three infantryman looked like friendly cyborgs wheeling bayonets aimed at the dragon’s leg; a turtle-ish figure with a yellow nightcap and walking stick hobbled away and an oblivious camel seemed to walk right at the dragon. “No!” I felt like yelling. “Run the other way!”

Before I vocalized my concern, it was 2 p.m. Time for “The Town of Little People,” a Beckett-ian, bleak play based on five Sholom Aleichem stories. Directed by the accomplished, controversial Israeli playwright Ofira Henig, who on Thursday will be staging her award-winning play “In Spitting Distance” about a Palestinian with an Israeli passport trying to travel back to Ramallah, “The Town” was oddly refreshing.

Instead of the dewy-eyed, sweet stories that Aleichem is most noted for today, Henig tells the story of Old World shtetl Jews who are blind to their own ignorance — all using the exact words from lesser known Aleichem stories. But this smart, metaphor-laden play doesn’t let the few wise Jews who leave the shtetl off scot-free. They return as immoral, money-obsessed tyrants who revel in their own excess.

 After attending Hedaya’s talk (the Israeli author mentioned above), I had time for one more event: a screening of “The Land of the Settlers,” a hard-nosed documentary by the pioneering Israeli television journalist Chaim Yavin. The film, part of a five-part miniseries aired on national Israeli television last year, interviews fervently Orthodox settlers in Hebron, as well as Peace Now activists and Palestinian families grieving over dead relatives.

Though Yavin, still sharp in his 74 years, has been called “the Israeli Walter Cronkite,” his confrontational approach to the settlers, and mostly unchallenged approach to the Palestinians, made him look more like a stately, aged Michael Moore. Whatever one makes of his views, his film put flesh on the old adage that “no one criticizes Israel more than the Israelis.”

After a post-film discussion with Yavin, it was almost 7:30 p.m. I had missed the Israeli wine-tasting, jazz performance, Mayamuna dance presentation, “Dateline Israel” discussion about an upcoming exhibit at The Jewish Museum, a talk with writers from the literary-intellectual magazine “Zeek,” and an 8:30 p.m. screening of “The Schwartz Dynasty.”  And that was only on Sunday.

It would be superficial, unwarranted, and probably impossible to sum up the state of contemporary Israeli culture based on my weekend sojourn into the “Israel Non-Stop” festival. But from the taste I got here, it is fair to say my appetite has been whetted. And I am hungry for more, much more.

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