A Blast Of Culture

Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Travel Writer

Few places combine the ancient and the novel with as much finesse as Israel. This fall, Israel travelers have several opportunities to experience the familiar in unexpected ways.

At Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, shofars — those most historic of objects — illuminate a vivid portrayal of Jewish life over 3,000 years. In the ancient Roman port town of Caesarea, Medusa is the newest face on the beach — and, at 1,700 years old, she’s quite well preserved.

And you’ve contemplated the classics in concert halls, but when was the last time you took in the strains of Bach amid the sacred silence of a centuries-old Trappist monastery, or listened to Mozart opera as it echoed over the olive groves of Jaffa? If your taste runs more to folk and blues, you’ll find lots of company amid the Anglo expats and Israeli roots music enthusiasts at December’s Jacob’s Ladder Music Festival.

These are just a few of the cultural bright spots of the Israeli autumn, and the Bible Lands Museum’s shofar exhibition, which runs through Feb. 28, is already a blockbuster. With scholarship and artifacts spanning millennia and the wider diaspora — from the triumphant blast inaugurating the State of Israel to the dark days of Buchenwald — this show is the first and most comprehensive ever to examine the shofar’s place in Jewish life, according to exhibition and museum curator Dr. Filip Vukosavovic.

“The shofar is something that has been used every day for some reason for 3,000 years,” said Vukosavovic. He explained that while other Jewish symbols can appear more ubiquitous and even iconic in daily life, the shofar actually holds more spiritual significance — as his exhibit aims to show.

“The two most important symbols in Judaism are the menorah and the Star of David. But they are practically useless,” Vukosavovic said. “They are on our flag, our stamp, they identify us as Jewish, but they don’t have a practical use.”

The shofar, in contrast, has been employed in a variety of practical contexts for over 3,000 years, as the exhibition reveals.

During this season, we think of a ram’s horn that is blown to celebrate the Jewish New Year. But as Vukosavovic explains, a shofar can technically be crafted from the horn of 140 distinct bovine animals — all of them kosher for consumption, of course.

And amid the 72 biblical shofar references, there is no commandment regarding Rosh HaShanah. Rather, throughout history, the shofar has played diverse roles in far-flung Jewish communities: it has been blown as warnings and announcements, to celebrate weddings, to chase away evil spirits, even to inaugurate the president of Israel — the latter a literal echo of the ancient tradition of anointing Hebrew kings.

“The shofar is a witness to ancient history, to modern history,” said Vukosavovic. And as the exhibition shows, it is more than just an instrument; it is a lens through which Jewish history and cultural practice comes into greater focus.

A wider array of folkloric sounds can be heard on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when the three-day Jacob’s Ladder Festival kicks off on Dec. 2. Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad, Britons who organize the twice-yearly event, said demand had grown over the 35 years of their May event for an indoor winter version.

With all kinds of roots music — from Joni Mitchell folk to Delta blues, Balkan gypsy and traditional Irish fare — nostalgic American and British baby boomers and curious Israelis can all find something to relate to. “The English-speaking crowd misses the atmosphere from how it used to be,” said Yehudit, alluding to the ‘60s folk-music movement popular in the West. “But the younger people, they really get into the Irish music and the late-night dance parties and workshops.”

The festival takes place on a kibbutz with the sort of three-star hotel amenities that international visitors expect, said Yehudit, who adds that the international gathering spawns lasting friendships. “Wherever you go, there’s people smiling and music in the air,” she said. “The Israelis say it’s like a weekend abroad for them.”

Music Pearls, another music event — though with a far more classical emphasis — also gives audiences the opportunity to hear classics in a non-traditional context. The music series, which presents twice-monthly concerts, stages everything from opera at the Augusta Victoria Church at Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives to Pergolesi and Bach at the centuries-old Latrun Monastery, to name just a few of the upcoming events.

For those still lingering on the beach at Caesarea, fall holds plenty of off-season activities. The golf club and galleries beckon along with this season’s hottest archaeological ticket: Medusa.

The mythological monster-woman, whose image was said to freeze viewers on sight, comes alive in 1,700-year-old carvings that cover a sarcophagus unearthed off these shores last winter. Leah Schneider, a spokesperson for the Caesarea Development Corporation, said the medusas adorned the latest of five sarcophagi that are on display for the first time at Caesarea harbor.

One look at these Medusas, and you may well conclude it’s time to finally get out of the water.

 

Blockbuster shofar exhibit at Bible Lands Museum includes a ram’s horn that belonged to a Buchenwald and Rosh HaShanah Stamps

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