Last-minute Reprieve for Endangered Music in Jerusalem

June 20, 2017

Jerusalem’s Etnachta series of chamber music concerts concluded its season on a high note: Yesterday’s concert was the first to be broadcast by Kan, Israel’s new public broadcasting corporation. The previous concert, on May 22, which was not broadcast, had ended with the announcement that the series’ continuation was in doubt. The popular free series was produced under the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Kan’s predecessor, and no provision had yet been made for the concerts’ survival.

Yesterday’s offering was full of verve, perfectly matching the upbeat news. Pianist Gila Goldstein and pianist, composer, and arranger Tal Zilber premiered one of Zilber’s works “Out of Order,” a lively piece for two pianos. Even livelier was Zilber’s arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 (based on a czardas) with a salsa beat. The program also included Bach, Arensky, and Poulenc, as well as Zilber’s arrangements of three Israeli songs.

Hayuta Dvir, who has produced and presented the concerts since 1989, introducing each performer and work with knowledge and passion, also announced that she would be presenting the series when it resumes in the fall.

If you visit Jerusalem, save Monday afternoon at 5 for the concerts, at the Jerusalem Theater’s Henry Crown Auditorium. Arrive at least 15 minutes early to pick up a free ticket.

Text copyright 2017 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author

What would you do for peace?

June 18, 2017

A man sits for six endless days, fasting, near the house where the prime minister reportedly enjoys fine cigars and his wife allegedly chugs pink champagne from a questionable source. The fasting man is Avi Ofer, of Kibbutz Ma’anit, 69 miles northwest of Jerusalem, who decided he had to do something to prod the country’s leaders to make peace.

Ofer, an archaeologist turned techie, is no stranger to activism. In the past, he took green paint and painted the Green Line—the ceasefire line drawn in green ink following the 1948 War of Independence. Maps in Israeli geography text books omit the line, as do the maps in Palestinian text books. Israel remains a country without permanent borders. How do you know who you are when you can’t define where you live? And how can you make peace when each side says, “It’s all mine”?

This time around, four kilograms (about nine pounds) of body weight, a hunk of will power, and physical presence were Ofer’s contribution in the name of peace. His ordeal concluded last Friday with a Sabbath-welcoming ceremony. Gaunt but flying with adrenalin, Ofer joined in the songs of peace, Sabbath peace, peace for Israel, peace for all dwellers of the universe, led by (Reform) Rabbi Nava Hefetz of Rabbis for Human Rights and accompanied on guitar by (Conservative) Rabbi Ehud Bandel. With them were about thirty supporters of Ofer’s initiative.

The Middle East is a lousy neighborhood, but I doubt that Uganda would have been a better solution to the Jews’ need for a safe place. (Like Ofer, I remain a Zionist, in the sense of believing in the need for that safe place, though not at the expense of others.) So we send our children and grandchildren, year after year, decade after decade, to kill and be killed. Our military cemeteries overflow.

Jordan and Egypt have made peace with us. What seemed impossible has been done. More than 50% of Israelis and Palestinians have said they favor a two-state solution. Before the 2014 Gaza war the percentage was even higher. But it’s not enough to know in your heart that a peace agreement—imperfect as it may be—is the only solution. Only action will make it happen. Miri Aloni’s “Song to Peace,” which Yitzhak Rabin sang at the peace rally at which he was assassinated, concludes with the words, “Do not say the day will come; bring the day!”

With all the government corruption and growing fanaticism in the country it is so easy to slip into the paralysis of despair. Ofer’s example is a welcome antidote. At least for a moment, at that Sabbath-welcoming ceremony, the gloom lifted, and I thought, what if we each did something to bring the peace?

Text copyright 2017 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

 

End Looms for Musical Jewel in the Crown

May 28, 2017

One of Jerusalem’s best offerings—the free Monday afternoon Ethnachta series of chamber music concerts—is yet again in danger of being axed. The series was born in 1983 when the Israel Broadcasting Authority established Kol Hamusika (the voice of music), Israel’s classical music station that broadcast the concerts live. The featured artists include promising young Israeli musicians and older Israelis who have already established vigorous careers in Israel and abroad as well as artists from other countries. And the music is not all Beethoven and Brahms. Etnachta also features works by Israeli composers. Since 1989 the concerts have been produced and presented by Hayuta Dvir, who introduces each musician and each work with both passion and erudition.

On Monday afternoons, even in stormy weather, hundreds of local residents and visitors can be seen streaming to the Henry Crown Symphony Hall at the Jerusalem Theater, often filling the venue to the rafters. Last Monday, although there was no listing or announcement of the concert and though it wasn’t at all certain that it would be possible to get past the roadblocks set up for the visit of President Donald Trump (Dvir came to the concert hall on foot while the roads were still closed off), the loyal audience turned out en masse to hear the Israel Haydn Quartet. The group—Eyal Kless (piano), Svetlana Simanovsky (violin), Tali Kravitz (viola), and Shira Mani (cello)—played a lush program of Puccini, Mozart, and Brahms and was joined by clarinetist Eli Even for one of the works. I sat close enough to watch Mani’s often facial expressions as she wielded her bow. She seemed enraptured, and that added to the pleasure of the sublime music.

But whereas previously listeners at home could have tuned in to their radios or streamed the concert on their computers, this time—ominously—the music was not broadcast live (though Dvir managed to organize a recording). And when the final applause came to an end, Dvir told the audience that the next concert, scheduled for June 19, would be the last…unless the public used its power to influence the new broadcasting corporation, which has already wreaked havoc in the lives of so many journalists and technicians.
So please let the corporation know that the public wants the Etnachta concerts to continue. And I would add that I would like them to continue with Hayuta Dvir, who is their heart and soul. Here is an e-mail address: info@ipbc.org.il, and here is a phone number: 072-390-5555.

Text copyright 2017 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Journey to the Old City and Back

February 13, 2016

No matter what the political situation, there’s only so long we can go without humous (hummus) from Lina’s and knafeh from al-Jafar. Lured by a benevolent sky, today my husband and I decided on an excursion to the Old City. It’s a drive of about ten minutes on a Saturday when most Israelis are out of town, trampling each other in their search for wildflowers. We even found a decent parking space.

As we drove up to the parking lot, we already saw signs of revival after this miserable winter. Bus after bus came our way, after dropping off pilgrims and tourists eager to see the holy sites. At Zion Gate we stopped to chat with some Assyrian Christian shopkeepers we know. They sounded a tad more hopeful than on our previous visit, about a month ago.

And indeed, the atmosphere everywhere seemed more relaxed, but perhaps what we noticed was simply resignation to the roller-coaster existence in the Middle East. We did see tourists, and at the eighth station of the cross we saw a woman carrying a heavy wooden cross that was taller than herself, with a group of Polish pilgrims.

At our favorite humous restaurant, Lina’s, where in normal times there is a line of Israelis out the door at lunchtime on Saturday, we were among just a few diners. A pity, because the food is excellent and inexpensive. The humous is smooth and creamy, and the falafel, thanks to the rich addition of chopped parsley, is flavorful and grease-free. Once when we were there for lunch I asked who Lina is. There is no Lina, I was told. Previously, the restaurant was call Linda and was owned by two partners. When the partners split up, one of them reopened the restaurant but had to change the name. He simply dropped the “d.” (And no, they didn’t tell me who the original Linda was.)

The last time we were in the Old City I was a little nervous about going near Damascus Gate, where some attacks had taken place, so we skipped dessert at al-Jafar (“the eagle”). This time, however, we couldn’t resist the call of the knafeh, a pastry with a cheese base and a shredded semolina topping, all of it steeped in syrup. We were already full, so we split a portion–a plateful so big you have to be hungry to eat a whole one.I overheard the Muslim woman sitting next to me say “Mish ader” (I just can’t) to her husband as she pushed the uneaten portion of her knafeh toward him.

On the way back through the covered bazaar we bought a jar of al-Jemal tehina (tahini), the best you can get here, and freshly ground coffee at Sandouka, where the proprietor recognized my husband and greeted him with a big smile.

At least for one sunny day in February, it felt good to be in Jerusalem.

Text copyright 2016 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

 

 

Under our very feet: Digging up trouble

February 10, 2016

Besides all of Israel’s troubles stemming from its geopolitical situation, the country has a sackful of home-grown problems. Cynically, Israelis sometimes refer to the latter as the “J. vs. J. wars”—the wars of Jews against Jews. This internal strife, especially as it pertains to archaeology, was the inspiration for Ilana Berner’s debut novel Cover Up in the Holy Land.
These wars include the never-ending skirmishes over graves uncovered in excavations: Some members of the ultra-Orthodox community insist that the digs be halted and all the remains receive Jewish burial, even when it is obvious that the bones are of people who were not Jews. Other conflicts concern the monarchy of the biblical King David: when the historical monarchy existed and whether it was as large and powerful as the biblical account portrays it. And some disputes are simply the tension between developers and the Israel Antiquities Authority, because whenever antiquities are uncovered in a construction site (and in Jerusalem, especially, this happens very often), by law work must stop until the archaeologists have carried out what is called a “salvage excavation.”
But some of these battles are over finds that have ramifications that extend far beyond the internal concerns of the Jews—particularly discoveries touching on the family, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus. Jerusalem already has two tombs of Jesus: one in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is actually a complex of churches of many denominations inside the Old City, and the other known as the Garden Tomb, revered by Protestants, outside the Old City walls. New theories about the burial site arise periodically.
The novel opens with the inadvertent discovery of a burial cave during excavation work for the construction of a parking lot in East Jerusalem. Many burial caves have been found in the area; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher itself is built over caves that were part of a vast Jewish cemetery in antiquity.
Then we learn that Dana Lotan, a professor of archaeology in Beersheba, is passed over for a promotion because of her controversial theories about the size and dating of David’s kingdom and because of rumors that she is a lesbian, though she has been careful to conceal her sexual orientation at a time when Israel had little awareness of, and no tolerance for, same-sex love. To Lotan’s chagrin, her protégé, who is an even more closeted homosexual than she is, gets the appointment.
The plot is set in motion when Lotan is asked to perform a salvage excavation at the newly discovered burial cave. There she finds a burial box with a Hebrew inscription that she deciphers as “Joseph of Arimatea.” According to the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, this disciple of Jesus begged Pontius Pilate to let him have the body of the crucified Jesus and buried it in his own tomb. This cave, she realizes, could be the original burial place of Jesus. And that, she also realizes, means that the government will seal the cave in an attempt to avoid a run-in with the Church. Lotan, however, is determined to let the truth out.
The author is a licensed and experienced tour guide, who has studied history and archaeology, as all Israeli guides do, but who has also participated in excavations. This knowledge and experience enables her to bring alive the excitement of digs, which also involve much tedious, dusty, and boring work. Her training as a tour guide also comes through in set pieces, like her explanation of the Western Wall as a retaining wall built by King Herod to support the Temple Mount (and not, as some people mistakenly believe, a part of the Temple itself).
It is not by chance that same-sex love is an important theme in the novel. The author came out as a lesbian long before others did in Israel.
The novel is set in 1970, partly in the desert town of Beersheba, which was then a sleepy town with a university just beginning to take shape. I remember this period well because I taught at the university in a temporary bungalow from 1970 to 1973. Today, Beersheba—the capital of southern Israel—is a city of nearly 200,000 with a buzz of development (about which I wrote recently).
Cover Up in the Holy Land is available through Amazon. A sequel is under way.
http://www.amazon.com/Cover-Holy-Land-Ilana-Berner/dp/1496032772

 

At Masada, even Tosca has a Jewish angle

June 2, 2015
Police chief Scarpia (r), Tosca, and her tortured lover, Cavaradossi, in Puccini's 'Tosca'--at Masada. (Yossi Zwecker)

Police chief Scarpia (r), Tosca, and her tortured lover, Cavaradossi, in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’–at Masada. (Yossi Zwecker)

In 1800, an opera singer in Rome is duped into believing she has been betrayed by her lover, a painter who is hiding a political prisoner on the run from the police. All come to a bad end.
That, in a nano-nutshell, is the story of Puccini’s Tosca, the highlight of the fifth Opera Festival at Masada, opening this Thursday.
At first glance there seems to be no Jewish angle to this opera—except, of course, the venue, the Israeli Opera performers, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, and conductor Daniel Oren, not to mention the huge production crew. But seek and ye shall find.
Start, for example, with the setting of Act Three: Hadrian’s tomb, better known today as the Castel Sant’Angelo. This round stone building was built in Rome as the mausoleum of the Roman emperor Hadrian (76–138 CE). Rabbinical sources, in contrast to some historians today, accuse Hadrian of having tried to destroy Judaism. In response to his actions, Simon Bar Kokhba led a massive four-year rebellion that ended in defeat in 135. In Jewish sources, Hadrian’s name is always accompanied by the expletive “may his bones be crushed.”
After Hadrian, his family, and other emperors were buried in the tomb, it had many uses. At the time in which the opera is set, it was a papal prison, undoubtedly a place of terror for the persecuted Jews of Rome.
The opera’s action takes place on a single day—June 14, 1800—during the Napoleonic wars. On this day, Napoleon’s army battled the Austrians in Marengo, in northwestern Italy. In Act One, news arrives that the Austrians have routed Napoleon’s forces. But in Act Two, a very different outcome is announced: The Austrians have been defeated.
What Napoleon’s victory meant for the Jews of Italy, and Jews throughout the European areas under his control, was a respite, albeit brief, from persecution.
Act One, which is set in the church of church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, ends with the singing of a Te Deum (a hymn of praise), celebrating the apparent Austrian victory. In the Masada production the singers include the Moran children’s chorus and the Israeli Opera chorus, dressed as nuns and priests. But anyone who looks closely can see that some of the “priests” are wearing T-shaped, “kosher” crosses.
“It’s a known ‘patent’ [trick] in Israel” to accommodate religiously observant performers, explained Michael Ajzenstadt, the artistic administrator of the Israeli Opera, at a dress rehearsal this week.
That final scene of Act One, in which several large crosses are displayed and black-clothed figures prostrate themselves on the stage, made at least one observer uncomfortable.
“It reminds me of the Inquisition,” she said.
“But [the scene] takes place in a church,” Ajzenstadt said, somewhat dismayed by the reaction. “Three years ago, in Jerusalem, we did Jérusalem of Verdi, which is about the Crusades, and there was no problem.”
That, of course, led to the question of the performance of Carmina Burana, the second fully staged work that is part of this year’s Opera Festival at Masada. This work, by German composer Carl Orff (1895–1982), was very popular in Nazi Germany, and his relations with the Nazi regime are the subject of debate.
Commenting on the fact that it is permitted to perform Orff’s works in Israel but not Wagner’s, Ajzenstadt said simply that “[for Israelis] Wagner—and it’s not logical—equals the Holocaust, even though he lived before the Holocaust and even though there were a lot of Nazi-era composers.”

And now for more Tosca-related Jewish tidbits:
• While Italy was undergoing political and cultural unification, the press initially portrayed Puccini as the ideal Italian composer and the ideal Italian man, but then, when his operas failed to support this view, attacked him as a polyglot, a traitor, a Jew.
• Puccini’s opera is based on a five-act play, La Tosca, by the French playwright Victorien Sardou. Sarah Bernhardt played the title role in the 1887 premiere and then toured the world in that role.
• The Canadian-Jewish baritone George London (born George Burnstein in 1920) sang the role of the sadistic police chief Scarpia opposite Maria Callas in 1956.
• Cantor and opera singer Jan Peerce, born Jacob Pinchas Perelmuth, sang the part of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, with the Metropolitan Opera of New York in the early 1940s.
• Australian bass Joshua Bloom sang the role of Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner, with the Los Angeles Opera in 2013.
• Dmitri Jurowski, 35, who comes from a family of Russian-Jewish musicians, conducts the Moscow City Symphony Orchestra and has led the Bolshoi Opera. He made his US podium debut in Chicago, on January 14 this year, with Tosca.
• The German-Jewish novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger, author of the 1925 novel Jud Süß (Jew Suss, published in English translation as Power) had this to say about the Nazi film industry’s adaptation of it: “By adding a touch of Tosca you have transformed my novel, Power, into a vile anti-Semitic movie à la Streicher and his Sturmer.” Feuchtwanger was referring to a scene in which Dorothea comes to Suss to plead for her husband’s life, just as Tosca comes to police chief Scarpia, only to hear his cries as he is tortured.
• The following item was sent out by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on March 29, 1937: “Principals of the Jewish School of Music in Pinsk face court proceedings because students sang in Yiddish the first act of Puccini’s opera ‘Tosca’ which takes place in a Catholic convent, according to a press announcement.
“Police halted the performance after the first act, according to the reports. The principals are accused of having ‘outraged Christian feelings and profaned religion.’ ”
• John Bell’s production of Tosca at the Sydney Opera House in January 2015 sets the events in 1943 Nazi-occupied Rome. A shepherd boy wears a yellow star, and in the final prison scene the audience realizes that the group of people sleeping outdoors are Jews in transit to an extermination camp. When this production opened a month earlier in Melbourne, chorister Sitiveni Talei was visibly shaken by having to give the Nazi salute. He is the son of a Jewish mother and a Fijian father and learned he was Jewish only at the age of 16.

Text copyright 2015 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera.

Ismail Kadare: In Search of Human Liberty

February 8, 2015

The 27th Jerusalem International Book Fair kicked off today with a press conference with writer Ismail Kadare. The Albanian novelist and poet is to receive a prize awarded annually to authors whose work emphasizes freedom of the individual in society. Previous recipients have included Arthur Miller and Ian McEwan. Kadare now lives in France.

I have wanted to read his novels ever since I learned about him while researching a travel article on Albania in 2011. My desire to read him was heightened after driving over an excruciatingly potholed road to visit Gjirokaster, the hometown of the author and also of Enver Hoxha, the longtime Communist dictator of Albania. Despite my best intentions, however, that hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it happened to most of my colleagues at the press conference. None of us came up with a question that didn’t seem to bore or annoy the acclaimed author.

Perhaps to show off that I knew what Gjirokaster looks like, I asked whether the author saw any resemblance between Jerusalem, in which all the buildings are faced with stone, and his hometown, which hangs on the face of a craggy mountain and which he compares in one of his novels to a prehistoric creature with a stone carapace “clawing its way up the mountainside.”

“There is a resemblance,” he responded in French, which was rendered in English by an interpreter, “but it is a misleading one. They’re both stone, but that’s all. My hometown has given nothing to humanity except for literature. Jerusalem has symbolic importance.”

In response to the inevitable question as to whether Jews and Albanians have anything in common, Kadare responded that they both live with the threat of extinction, although one cannot really compare the fate of the two.

“I don’t think there is any country that has banned the writing of a language,” Kadare said. For the four centuries that Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire, writing in that language was forbidden. The language “was at risk of extinction” and thus the people feared that they, too, might disappear, he said.

Israeli writer, translator, and activist Ilana Hammerman, who has been awarded the 2015 Yeshayahu Leibowitz Prize for activism against the occupation, asked Kadare whether he was aware of the 300,000 people “living here [in Jerusalem] who do not have human rights.”

Clearly irked, Kadare responded, “I didn’t come here for this. I came here to receive a literary prize, not to deal with local problems.”

And what about a definition of freedom, which is a theme in his novels (and a reason for his being awarded the prize)? “I don’t think this is the place to discuss a topic that is so sublime, so complicated,” he said. Then he added, “In art, literature, philosophy you can talk about liberty, but humanity hasn’t arrived there yet.”

This year’s book fair differs from its predecessors both in its new venue—the First Station, one of the city’s newest entertainment areas—and its expanded program. According to Yael Sheffer, the fair’s artistic director, the five-day event is geared to young adults and young families. There will be cooking classes in the mornings, activities for children in the afternoons, and a full program for adults, including erotica and poetry, in the evenings.

And as for Kadare, who appeared relieved to be liberated from the press conference, I thought of D.H. Lawrence’s caveat to trust the tale, not the teller. More than ever, I wanted to read Kadare’s novels and erase the disappointment with this unfortunate meeting.

Text copyright 2015 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Opera at Masada: This Year It’s a Double-Header

February 4, 2015
The underwater scene from Carmina Burana to be staged at Masada in June. (Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera)

The underwater scene from Carmina Burana to be staged at Masada in June. (Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera)

For the first time in its five-year history, the Opera Festival at Masada will include two fully staged works: Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The performance schedule, in the first two weeks of June, will enable audiences to attend performances of both works in a single weekend. An added attraction will be sunset tours on Masada before the performances. And the pre-performance reception area will be designed to look like the streets of Rome, complete with a fountain.
Tosca and Carmina Burana are among the most popular operatic works, according to Michael Ajzenstadt, the Israeli Opera’s artistic director. Set in Rome, “Tosca includes a murder, an execution, and a suicide,” Ajzenstadt said Tuesday at a launch of the festival at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv.
“One of the heroes is a chief of police who wants sexual favors in exchange for changing a verdict,” he added, alluding to Israel’s police force, which has been wracked by recurrent sexual-harassment scandals. “Carmina Burana, written originally as a staged work, celebrates life, love, nature, and rebirth, and will be fully staged at Masada,” he said.
This work is actually not an opera, because it doesn’t have a story, director Michal Znaniecki said in a videotaped interview. His challenge as the director was to create a story that would tie together the discrete parts in which the lyrics are bawdy and irreverent medieval poems. The solution was a story of growing up, death, conflict, wars, “all of this in spectacular moments like in Spielberg movies”—including an underwater scene, Znaniecki said.
What he did not mention is that performances of Carmina Burana in Israel have had a whiff of controversy about them, because the work, composed in Germany by Carl Orff in 1935 and 1936, was embraced by the Nazis. Moreover, there are conflicting claims regarding Orff’s relationship with the Nazi regime.
Tosca will be conducted by Daniel Oren, and Carmina Burana by James Judd.
Producing one operatic work at Masada is a gargantuan undertaking that requires building a stage three times the size of a regular opera stage, trucking in dozens of tons of equipment, and constructing a backstage opera “city” to house the hundreds of performers and extras.
“This year it is even more complicated because of the alternating productions,” said Hanna Munitz, general director of the Israeli Opera and the prime mover behind the festival.
On the other hand, some things have become easier, she said, thanks to advances in technology. Masada is the backdrop to performances, and whereas for the performance of Aïda in 2011 expert rappellers had to be recruited to attach lights to the sheer face of the mountain, now the lighting effects can be projected onto the mountain face.
The opera festival will also have extensions in Jerusalem—Donizetti’s operatic comedy L’elisir d’amore (The elixir of love)—and in Acco.
Eshet Tours and Amiel Tours are handling packages for overseas tourists.

Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera. Text copyright 2015 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Around and Around and Around We Go

December 4, 2014
Hora, Batsheva Dance Company, 2009. Choreography: Ohad Naharin, courtesy of the artist. Image by Gadi Dagon:

Hora, Batsheva Dance Company, 2009. Choreography: Ohad Naharin, courtesy of the artist. Image by Gadi Dagon.

Culture is a circle of art forms, each one part of the whole that defines us and makes us human. That is one reason the art of dance need be no stranger in a museum devoted to material culture.
And that is why Israel Museum director James Snyder introduced a new exhibition there, Out of the Circle: The Art of Dance in Israel, as “the intersection of dance and all the mediums that record dance: photography, documentary films, and graphic arts.”
Suddenly the circle, the most simple and perfect of forms, was bursting with meaning. Think of the hora, that basic folk dance, brought to Palestine from the Balkans. The Jewish pioneers—who had come to create a new Jew, physically strong and connected to the land—followed their days of hard labor with ecstatic circle dances. The circle was a great equalizer that drew the pioneers together and laid the foundations for the culture of the kibbutz, according to Talia Amar, the exhibition’s curator.
In the agricultural settlements, between the two world wars, dances were combined with rituals, shifting holiday observance from the synagogue to agricultural celebrations in the fields. This was actually the completion of a historical circle, for the Jewish holidays were originally agricultural festivals. Photographs of the kibbutz celebrations typically are shot from near the ground looking up, giving the dancers’ bodies mythic proportions.
Meanwhile, expressionist dance, which was popular in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, caught on in Palestine, where it flourished and continued to develop long after it had waned in Europe. And Central European photographers who had come to Palestine, like Alfons Himmelreich, made this dance form their subject.
Some of these dancers sought local roots, which they found in biblical themes. And some turned to their own roots, like Sara Levi-Tanai, who drew on her Yemenite background. Levi-Tanai was the founder, choreographer, and artistic director of the Inbal Dance Theater—which Amar described as not a “folklore group” but rather “an art dance group” whose every movement had symbolic meaning.
As staged dance developed in Israel, the Batsheva Dance Company was founded by Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild and Martha Graham (and celebrated its 50th anniversary this year). The Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, in Tel Aviv, whose director, Yair Vardi, initiated the Israel Museum exhibition, just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The circle as a social ideal did not last, and the show’s title reflects that change. Works over the past few decades have shown the shift from the ideal of the collective to individualism; again and again, individuals try to break out of the circle, at great cost. The exhibition opens with a video of Ohad Naharin’s Anaphasa, danced to the Passover song “Ehad Mi Yodea” (Who knows one?), in which the individual who steps out of line keeps falling down.
In Peh Gadol (big mouth), by and with Niv Sheinfeld, Oren Laor, and Keren Levi, a woman dressed in the colors of the Israeli flag keeps falling out of step with the other two dancers, in a work that explores the tension between trying to remain part of the collective and exploring one’s individual identity.
Amar explained that the show “is not a historical exhibition encompassing the entire history of dance in Israel” but that it includes several major figures in that history.
Earphones synchronized with the main videos enable visitors to hear the music without disturbing others. Many of the other exhibits, however, contribute to a relatively high noise level in the hall.
Starting on December 23 and for the next ten weeks, dance performances showcasing contemporary Israeli choreographers will take place in the exhibition space and throughout the museum.
The exhibition runs through February 28, 2015.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Where good health is next to godliness

June 22, 2014

Faith and healing have been intertwined throughout Jerusalem’s history. Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis—a new, thematic exhibition at the Tower of David Museum, inside the Old City walls—reveals some of the sublime and grotesque examples of that link in the Holy City.

Take, for example, the caduceus, two intertwined snakes on a stick, that has come to symbolize healing and the medical profession. Westerners usually think of the symbol as Greek, but it actually dates back to third millennium BCE Mesopotamia, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and the serpent as a life-healing symbol was commonly found in the Canaanite fertility cult.

In the exhibition we learn about the Nehushtan, a sacred object in the form of a bronze snake on a pole. The name of the object is a play on the Hebrew words for snake (nahash) and bronze (nehoshet). The Hebrew Bible tells us that the Israelites, after leaving Egypt, were afflicted by a plague of serpents because of their lack of faith, and it describes how Moses used a “fiery serpent”—a snake on a pole—to cure them (Numbers 21:4–9).

Later, the Nehushtan was set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. But when it became an object of worship in its own right for its purported ability to cure sickness, King Hezekiah—the anti-idolatry reformer—tore it down (II Kings 18:4).

According to Eilat Lieber, the museum’s director, Jerusalem’s historical connection to healing is largely a function of its being a city of pilgrimage. Medical services had to be provided for the faithful who flocked to the holy sites. And this city, where there has long been strife between the religions, was the only place, Lieber said, where each hospital provided services for members of all religions.

But hospitals in Jerusalem were also used for missionary purposes. On display is a podium that stood in front of the Anglican Hospital in the city center. To attract Jewish patients, the podium is adorned with a Star of David, and the hospital made it known that it served kosher food to patients. But the rabbis threatened the hospital’s suppliers of kosher meat and forbade Jews to seek treatment in Christian hospitals.

According to Lieber, a story is told of a Jewish woman in the nineteenth century who fell in the street just outside the missionary hospital next to Christ Church and was brought inside for treatment. She subsequently died there, and after she was brought to Jewish burial her body was exhumed by extremists who claimed that she might have converted to Christianity in the hospital.

Jerusalem is home to a thriving pharmaceutical company, Teva, which began as a small business started by the Salomon family. All pharmaceutical developments in the city were based on plants growing in this hilly area, Lieber said, and the Franciscan order of monks had the city’s first pharmacy. In the eighteenth century, when the city was beset by bubonic plague, a Franciscan monk named Antonio Menzani di Cuna concocted a remedy from forty-two Jerusalem herbs that was dubbed “Jerusalem balsam.” The list of ingredients and jars like those seen in an early photograph of the pharmacy are on display. A version of the remedy is still produced (http://www.jerusalembalsam.com/) and marketed as a cure-all.

When, in 1860, Moses Montefiore built Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first neighborhood outside the Old City walls, no one wanted to move there, according to exhibition curator Nirit Shalev-Khalifa. It took the cholera epidemic of 1865 to spur interest in the new neighborhood.

But epidemics continued to beset the city. At the time, there was a Jewish belief that a “black wedding” could help. Two orphans, or two other individuals who could not afford a wedding, would be married under a black canopy in a cemetery, with the hope that the righteous dead interred around them would act as intercessors with God. On display is a reproduction of a 1909 photograph showing such a wedding of two Yemenite orphans, and the young groom appears so terrified that he has started running away.

The real answer to epidemics, of course, came in the form of modern hospitals. By the middle of the nineteenth century Jerusalem had three Jewish hospitals: Bikur Cholim, Misgav Ladach, and Meir Rothschild. Shaare Zedek opened in 1902; Dr. Moshe Wallach, who was strictly Orthodox, was its director until 1947 and lived there all his life, speaking only Yiddish or German. Records were kept in German, and on display is a page from a ledger during a typhoid outbreak showing, in neat German script, that twenty-five of the twenty-seven patients listed had a diagnosis of typhoid.

To this day, the hospital is run according to stringent Orthodox law and custom, though it is open to all Jerusalem residents (I gave birth to three children there), and although Wallach adopted a young Syrian girl who was abandoned there by her father.

According to Lieber, a story is told about a sick man who was brought in a carriage to Dr. Wallach on the Sabbath. After asking the man what was wrong, Wallach told him to wait until the Sabbath was over. The man died. Consequently, the rabbis excommunicated Wallach, then rescinded the excommunication. The true import of the incident was that it forced Jerusalem’s rabbis to clarify what was permissible on the Sabbath to save a life.

In 1888, the Rothschild Hospital relocated to what is today the center of modern Jerusalem, and in 1918 the Hadassah organization established the American Zionist Medical Unit, which took over the hospital. In 1925, when the hospital’s founder, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, made his last visit to Jerusalem at the age of eighty, the staff presented him with an album showing all the departments in the hospital. On the cover is an image of Henrietta Szold, the founder of the Hadassah organization.

One photograph in the album is of the hospital’s X-ray room, with a plaque stating it was dedicated to the memory of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, known as the father of modern Hebrew, who died of tuberculosis. X-rays were used to diagnose this illness, which was common at the time. In addition to the album, which is on loan from the Rothschild Archives in England, the exhibition includes an X-ray machine—with a US Field Army label on it—similar to the one used in Hadassah. As is evident from the photograph, the dangers of exposure to X-rays were not yet well known, and neither patients nor staff were protected against them. Today Hadassah is a medical empire with two large hospitals and schools of medicine, nursing, and dentistry.

Some 300 objects, many of which have never been shown to the public, are on display in this, the largest exhibition the museum has ever undertaken. The exhibition and related tours will run through April 2015.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.