From a groundbreaking show on King Herod to a first-ever Bolshoi Opera performance, it’s a rich cultural spring in Israel.
This is a spring of
contrasts and novelty on the Israeli cultural calendar. While many countries have cut back on programming or stuck to the tried-and-true in this age of austerity, Israeli institutions are making a bid for worldwide attention.
Groundbreaking exhibitions and inventive festivals invite audiences to reconsider topics ranging from King Herod to the very nature of chamber music.
The tense, vital dichotomy of ancient vs. modern is always at the heart of Israeli culture — but spring’s offerings at the Israel Museum prompt viewers to confront past and present anew.
The museum, in Jerusalem, is the site of a groundbreaking exhibition: the first-ever comprehensive show to spotlight King Herod, the controversial Roman proxy and master builder who ruled during the first century B.C.E. “Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is easily the most talked-about show of the spring on both sides of the Atlantic (or Mediterranean, for that matter).
In a land so inexorably defined by places and buildings, Herod is a figure of mind-boggling significance. Few people can claim to have left such an imprint on the Israeli landscape: Herod is credited with overseeing the construction of Masada, Caesarea, the Second Temple at Jerusalem, and Herodium, among other sites.
A massive reconstructed tomb, sarcophagi, decorative objects from the king’s palaces and other recovered objects form a testament to Herod’s enduring physical legacy. They also pay tribute to the extraordinary career of Professor Ehud Netzer, the Hebrew University historian who devoted four decades to the excavation — physical and psychological — of matter related to this complex figure.
Elsewhere in the museum, a spotlight on Israel’s recent artists is a thoughtful response to the Herodian legacy. The strong, classical forms of Herod’s day lend historical context to the 20th-century metalwork on view in “Forging Ahead: Wolpert and Gumbel, Israeli Silversmiths for the Modern Age,” a retrospective of the two German-Israeli craftsmen. Recent paintings by the Jerusalem-based Joshua Borokovsky and provocative, highly personal videos by the young Tel Aviv artist Nelly Agassi are both featured in solo shows.
Meanwhile, after dark, Jerusalem arts promoters are continuing their efforts to freshen the Old City’s image for a young generation. Last year’s inaugural “Sounds of the Old City” Music Festival returns for a second season this month, filling the alleyways and courtyards of Jerusalem with live music.
From dusk until nearly midnight, musicians will roam around Jaffa Gate, stroll on Mamilla Boulevard and strum in Muristan Square in the Christian Quarter, filling all four quarters of the Old City with music to complement the city’s ethnic diversity: minor-key Armenian tunes, twangy Arab instruments, a Christian gospel choir and Jewish traditional music. Art videos and light displays add color to the proceedings, which kick off a warm-weather season of outdoor festivities.
Nightlife is always at a constant rolling boil in Tel Aviv, of course, where the world’s hottest DJs are treated like visiting royalty at the beachside clubs.
But it’s a longhair production that’s generating buzz this spring: the first-ever visit to Israel of Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera this June and July. The Bolshoi will present itsw signature production of Tchaikovsky’s “Yevgeny Onegin,” the most popular of Russian operas and a favorite of Tel Aviv’s music-loving Russian community.
Meanwhile down south, Eilat, known to vacationers more for its Red Sea beaches than for Tchaikovsky, has been the site of a prestigious Chamber Music Festival for eight springs running. This year’s lineup of 13 concerts at the Dan Eilat Hotel will take place from late April into May; the headline performance features actor John Malkovich and the Wiener Akademie Baroque Orchestra in “The Infernal Comedy – Confessions of a Serial Killer,” described as a cross between baroque opera and a bloody crime drama.
As that head-scratcher suggests, the Eilat Chamber Music Festival boasts a singularly varied lineup that pushes the boundaries of what most people think of as chamber music. It’s not your typical week of string quartets — although the Doric String Quartet, one of Europe’s most celebrated, is on the program. But so are the German Brass Ensemble and the Salamandrum Percussion Duo, Tomer Yariv and Gilad Dobrecky’s inventive blend of American funk, African tunes, medieval Moroccan and Jewish prayer music.
En route through the desert, make a stop at a far more ancient cultural marker: En Avdat National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that just re-opened after a three-year restoration. In 2009, vandals attacked the site’s historic Byzantine structures, its ancient altars and surrounding Nabatean ruins from the time of (you guessed it) Herod.
Deep in the Negev, in a landscape of canyons and rocky springs, Avdat is an ancient Spice Road outpost that played a role in successive Near Eastern civilizations. A visit here nicely complements the Herod exhibition, putting the Nabatean ruler for whom it is named into tangible context. ◆
They’re snarling on car-window stickers, growling from bar menus, staring out from red hoodies and popping up in plush. The red-shirted mascot of the University of Georgia is a ubiquitous sight in Athens — a classic Southern city that’s also a vibrant, quirky college town.
And on a “game” Saturday? The town’s a sea of red and black, the Bulldogs’ colors. Fans of all ages storm the bars, line up for tailgate and cheer “Go Dawgs!” at Sanford Stadium. You can pretty much have the rest of Athens to yourself.
Football aside, there’s a lot to cheer about here. Just over an hour from sprawling, congested Atlanta, Athens has a relaxed, white-pillared charm that makes it an ideal weekend getaway. It’s also a town with a lot of history: in addition to the classical name, Athens is a stop on Georgia’s Antebellum Trail, with 15 neighborhoods on the National Register, Greek Revival house museums to tour, and a Civil War-era canon in front of City Hall.
The dogwoods are just budding as a Southern spring unfolds. This month, the Classic Center — Athens’ downtown convention and event space — holds its grand re-opening after a major renovation that includes an 8,000-square foot atrium with art installations; a Feb. 27 gala fete will feature the Boston Pops.
Next month, the Athens Jewish Film Festival celebrates its fifth anniversary, magnolias burst into bloom at the State Botanical Garden, and seasonal house tours invite the public into classical mansions.
Still, it’s the more than 30,000 students at the University of Georgia who give Athens its youthful energy — as they have since 1785, when UGA (as it’s known) became the first state university chartered in America.
That energy is palpable in the historic districts just north of campus. It’s easy to feel old while strolling amid teenaged co-eds on Clayton Street, where the boutiques feature youthful styles and the coffee shops are full of laptops in mid-morning.
As warm afternoons give way to shady dusk, beer-sipping crowds flock to live music at the clubs on Washington and Broad streets. It won’t be long before you hear a reference to the two most successful acts to come out of Athens, R.E.M. and the B-52s, whose worldwide success launched the city’s reputation as a rock-and-roll incubator.
I’m more of a classical fan, so I was excited to see a lineup at the UGA Performing Arts Center that includes Brooklyn’s own Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra later this month.
Also right on campus is the state’s signature art institution, the Georgia Museum of Art. Two years ago, the museum re-opened after a renovation that tripled its exhibition space and added a sculpture garden to its holdings of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, Italian Renaissance works and Asian decorative arts.
The Museum is also where the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival will celebrate its fifth anniversary at the opening gala on March 16. Unlike its month-long cousin, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (going on right now, through late February), the Athens event is held during a single week — but it’s no less ambitious as a cultural beacon.
Opening night for “Jewish films, Universal themes” features a screening of “Hava Nagila,” last year’s celebrity-dotted documentary about the evolution of our bat-mitzvah anthem. Filmgoers enjoy a daily “nosh” of snacks donated by local eateries; a selection of movies from Europe, Israel, and the Americas reflects a community with diverse roots.
Immigrant Jewish families from Europe were an early part of the Athens mix, with Jewish retailers playing a large role in the local economy, and Jewish patrons and intellectuals in the development of UGA.
Congregation Children of Israel was founded shortly after the Civil War. Today, the Reform temple takes its role as the nexus for Jewish life in Northeast Georgia seriously. Its on-campus counterparts are the UGA Hillel, which serves up kosher Shabbat dinners and holiday events for 2,000 Jewish “Dawgs,” and a recently opened Chabad House.
While the five-day film festival is a major event on the Jewish calendar, the festival organizers have established a year-round presence, drawing on both a growing Jewish population and a cosmopolitan spirit. The Festival now holds screenings year-round at theaters around town, as well as a contest for emerging Jewish filmmakers.
So don’t let those white columns, or the statue of Athena, fool you. Athens may be historic — but it’s most definitely not a place where time stands still.
In the tiny corner of the Balkans where Greece, Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia meet, ethnic identity is as fascinatingly diverse as the climate.
The historical region and population of Macedonia today sprawls across three countries — Greek claims on the name notwithstanding. It is not unusual to find ex-Yugoslavs with cousins across the mountains in Bulgaria, Bulgarians who speak a local Macedonian dialect, Muslim Slavs whose ancestors converted during Ottoman days, and Sephardic Jewish teens from Thessaloniki crossing the border for ski weekends.
Two and a half hours east of Warsaw, Lublin lies in Poland’s far east, near the Ukrainian border. Step off the train in Lublin’s central station and you emerge into a palette of dark gray — from the leaden skies of Europe’s far north to the shadowy cobble-stoned streets of Old Town, with its soot-stained prewar buildings.
Maybe it’s because I’m a born-and-bred East Coaster from a long line of born-and-bred East Coasters who rarely, if ever, ventured west of New Jersey.
I guess that’s why for me, the West Coast feels like the far edge of the world — a rugged frontier where the sun sets over the unimaginable vastness of the Pacific, where people wind down at night while most of the world is firmly into the next day.