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 ( 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.





Dying for Love and Beauty: La Traviata at Masada

June 13, 2014

The moon shone brightly as more than 7,500 people came Wednesday night to Masada, on the shores of the Dead Sea, for the dress rehearsal of Verdi’s La Traviata. For the moment, the desert had disappeared, and they found themselves in a reception area that evoked a Parisian street—complete with a boulangerie, brasserie, and charcuterie and arches suggesting the Arc de Triomphe. That was part of the magic of the Opera Festival at Masada, now in its fifth year. Only after tasting the delights of this transported milieu did the audience enter the glittering and colorful, but ultimately tragic, world of the demi-monde.

The opera’s heroine, Violetta Valéry, is young, vital, and beautiful, with an unusual capacity for self-sacrifice. But she is La Traviata (the fallen one), a kept woman. Hers was a position characteristic of mid 19th century France. And Violetta has consumption, another characteristic ill of the 19th century, especially of 19th-century heroines. To make everything worse, after she has given up her life of luxury to be with Alfredo, the man she loves, his father arrives to break up the relationship. After many complications, without which no opera could get by, and just as true love is about to triumph, Violetta dies.
There was a real-life Violetta named Marie Duplessis, who by the age of 17 was one of the most sought-after women in Paris. She also hosted a salon, where artists, writers, and politicians gathered. In 1844 an affair began between Duplessis and Alexandre Dumas fils, the poor and illegitimate son of the writer Alexandre Dumas. Realizing after a year that he could never have her all to himself, he ended the affair. She died of consumption two years later, at 23.
A few months after her death, Dumas fils wrote a novel based on their affair, La Dame aux Camelias, and after its success he turned it into a play. That became the inspiration for Verdi’s opera.
The role of Violetta, as sung by Aurelia Florian, is one of sheer beauty and memorable arias, for example, Ah, fors’è lui (Ah, perhaps he is the one). But opera is spectacle, and besides the many haunting arias and duets there were festive party scenes with the Israeli Opera Chorus and the Kielce Dance Theater in lavish, LED-lit costumes designed by Joanna Medynska. In one party scene the women wore skirts that consisted of colorful streamers hanging from the hip on a hoop.
And, of course, there were fireworks, and fire, and horses, and wagons, and acrobats on stilts—all the things that make opera fun for the masses. Looming behind the sparkling stage, like a harbinger of Violetta’s death, was the mountain itself, with its 2,000-year-old fortress and palace.
Daniel Oren, who has conducted all the opera productions at Masada, each time with the Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, had this to say about the experience: “Year after year I stand in awe in front of this powerful and majestic mountain and sense in my very being the pure harmony between nature and music in a country like Israel which is full of traditions yet in which the opera tradition is still young.”
La Traviata was the first opera ever presented in pre-state Israel. That was in July 1923, in Tel Aviv. It was first performed by the Tel Aviv-based Israeli Opera in May 1987.
This was the fourth time in five years that the Israeli Opera Festival returned to Masada. Previously, the festival featured Nabucco, Aïda, and Carmen, drawing tens of thousands of spectators from Israel and abroad. These expensive productions involve trucking in many tons of equipment over winding roads, in essence setting up an entire “city” for backstage workers, extras, and the performers themselves, plus the themed reception area—all of which must be dismantled and rebuilt anew.
This year’s festival will extend to Acco, in the north of the country, with an all-Mozart program, including Don Giovanni, Requiem, and an abbreviated version in Hebrew (for the entire family) of The Magic Flute.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. The image is by Yossi Zwecker, copyright 2014 by the Israeli Opera. 

What You See and What You Get: Clothing That Conceals and (Sometimes) Reveals

March 12, 2014

In Morocco, a traditional Jewish groom would wear a white shroud under his black groom’s coat. In Yemen, a Jewish woman would receive female guests on the first Sabbath after she had given birth, wearing a regal dress adorned with pearls—a dress she would then wear on Yom Kippur and eventually be buried in.
This keen awareness of the life cycle and of human mortality is one of the themes of Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe, an exhibition that opened March 11 at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. On display are some 100 items, covering about 250 years and originating in nearly 30 countries. The exhibits, all of them worn by Jews, are but a small part of the museum’s collection of 10,000 items of costume, according to Efrat Assaf-Shapira, who is making her curatorial debut with this exhibition.
Jewish women in traditional communities around the world generally wore clothing that men deemed modest. But definitions of modesty varied and were influenced by the surrounding culture. Thus, long before the Taliban came around, Jewish women in Afghanistan wore a black chader with a full-face white veil, and in Iraq both Jewish and Muslim women wore a body wrap called an Image and a full-face veil made of hair from a horse’s tail. The manufacturer of these horsehair veils was a Jew, as were many of the people who worked in the textile industry.

These garments—symbols of the vise-like grip of patriarchal societies—send chills up my spine. Yet there are women in Israel today, known as “Shawl Women,” who have adopted coverings that are as concealing as any in this exhibition. Oddly, there is a feminist aspect to their super-piety, because they are acting on their own accord, without the sanction of (male) rabbis.
Traditionally, women could at least please themselves in what they wore under their wraps. “Concealing and revealing” is another of the themes of the exhibition, Assaf-Shapira said, pointing to the brightly colored trousers worn by Bukharan women under their whole-body cover-ups. And in Baghdad, the curator added, women wore sequined and embroidered bustiers hardly different from what Jean Paul Gaultier designed for Madonna.

One of the oddest items on display is a pair of trousers, part of the bridal costume in Tunisia. The trousers appear to be size XXXL, and the explanation is that women were fattened up—even awakened at night to eat—before the wedding, because bodily fat was considered a sign of good health.


Another very interesting, and rare, item is from Iran. Dating to the early twentieth century, it is all in maroon, and consists of a jacket, a short tutu-like skirt, and tight pants. Assaf-Shapira said the fashion was influenced by the visit of the shah and his wife to Paris, where they saw a ballet and were captivated by the tutus and tights. But the fashion was short-lived, because Iran at the time was moving rapidly toward the West.
As is obvious from the exhibition, brides did not always wear white. In fact, most of the bridal costumes displayed are in other colors. It was Queen Victoria who made white de rigueur for bridal gowns. On display is a magnificent mid twentieth century ivory gown from New York; the “something borrowed” is the fine, nineteenth-century lace veil, and the “something blue,” Assaf-Shapira revealed, is a blue ribbon tucked inside the bodice.
In traditional Jewish communities, a treasured dress that did not become a shroud might be donated to the synagogue after the owner’s death for use as a parochet (a cover for the ark). The cover would then be embroidered with the woman’s name, thus serving as a memorial for her.
Also on display is a collection of children’s clothes—nearly all of them looking like miniatures of adults clothes, because in traditional societies children were considered to be adults in the making.
Through October 25, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author, or, in the case of the images, written permission of the Israel Museum.



Opera returns to Masada with La Traviata; Mozart to feature in festival’s new northern venue in Acco

January 16, 2014

Verdi’s La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) tells a story of doomed love, set in the City of Lights. In June, Paris will be recreated in the desert as the Israeli Opera resumes its annual festival at Masada, near the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.

The lead role, Violetta, will be sung by Elena Mosuc, alternating with soprano Aurelia Florian, and Alfredo will be sung by tenor Celso Albelo. The director is Michal Znaniecki and the conductor is Daniel Oren.

For the first time, this year the opera festival will also have a northern venue—the Old City of Acco (Acre)—where Mozart’s operas will be performed in the excavated Crusaders’ Courtyard. The southern and the northern branches of the festival will be held a week apart, so that visitors coming to Israel for the music will be able to enjoy all the performances.

Both the northern and the southern venues are UNESCO World Heritage Sites that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually in their own right. Hanna Munitz, the Israeli Opera’s general director, said that she expects as many as 5,000 “culture tourists” from abroad at the performances, and that by mid January some 3,000 tickets had already been sold to tourists.

Part of the experience of opera at Masada is the reception area, which creates the atmosphere for the performances before a single note is sung. For the launch of the Masada opera festival in 2010 with Verdi’s Nabucco, low-slung tables and couches and faux-marble columns created the illusion of a Roman palace. This year, the reception area will be designed to evoke the atmosphere of a Parisian street.

Asked why he thought La Traviata was suited to a desert venue, director Znaniecki replied, “It’s very easy. Because Violetta sings in the first act that Paris is a desert,” expressing her feeling that Paris is a wasteland for her. “My idea was to show this metaphor, to put Paris on the ground and cover it with sand,” Znaniecki said.

Arias from the popular La Traviata are familiar even to people who are not opera buffs. The melody of one aria is well known as the tune of the Ladino love song “Adio Querida” (Farewell, My Love).

The Masada festival, between June 12 and 17, will include a performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra of Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 1 and 9, with international soloists and a choir, conducted by Kent Nagano. The festival will also include a performance of the Idan Raichel Project, an Israeli collaboration between musicians of different backgrounds and faiths.

The Acco festival, June 19 to 21, featuring works by Mozart, will include a semi-staged production of Don Giovanni, a performance of the Requiem, and a shortened version of the Magic Flute, suitable for children.

Among the innovations this year at the Masada festival will be operatic concerts at Dead Sea hotels and flights to Masada by Arkia.

Besides Nabucco, the Israeli Opera has performed Aida and Carmen at Masada. According to Munitz, in 2016 it is planning a coproduction with the Verona Arena Festival, which in 2013 celebrated its 100th year.

As Munitz put it, “A cultural project can grow wings in a way you didn’t imagine when you started.”


Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


Dust is on my mind: Getting grave about art

December 5, 2013

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about dust lately. Any home improvement in Israel forces one to come to terms with the reality of minute particles of concrete and stone that get into your eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs and finally settle on every surface.
Dust to dust. Now that’s a thought. Someday some house cleaner will be wiping bits of me off a shelf along with the bits of concrete and stone. Is it a kind of immortality?
Dust has a way of cloning itself, building little colonies, tiny mounds and valleys, creating landscapes that can even be beautiful.
Dust has a mind of its own. Despite your best efforts to capture it (and rid yourself of it), it clings, and hides, reappearing where you least expect it. And it does so with a vengeance after renovations.
So I was intrigued by a new exhibition called Collecting Dust, one of four shows of contemporary Israeli art that opened yesterday at the Israel Museum Jerusalem. I loved this show from the outset for the title alone, which reflected what I’d been preoccupied with for the past two weeks.
A few of the works in the show curated by guest curator Tammy Manor-Friedman are classics, like Bartolomeo Bettera’s still life of dust-streaked musical instruments, focusing on the transience of life. But the Israeli artists exhibited have a variety of interests.
Gal Weinstein’s “Petra,” for example, created with tiny bits of steel wool, sprayed with a mixture of Coca Cola and balsamic vinegar to induce rusting.
Petra is, of course, a huge and ancient necropolis. And rusting is a kind of decay. And yet this beautiful abstract landscape suggests art overcoming mortality.
Another, even more dramatic work, “Dust Cloud,” by Weinstein consists of a series of four still photographs of an eruption, that “gives form to something formless,” as Mira Lapidot, the museum’s chief curator of fine arts, put it.
Another photograph, by Sharon Ya’ari, captures a typical Tel Aviv sidewalk scene, including a broom and a pile of dust, signs of more home improvements.

One of the three other shows, Gideon Gechtman’s posthumous retrospective (1942–2008), is informed throughout by the artist’s sense of his mortality. Born with a heart defect, Gechtman underwent corrective surgery at age 31, following which he created an installation that included nude photographs showing his transformation from individual human being to patient/object. Later, he published newspaper notices announcing his own death and pasted up obituary notices in public places. Then he started playing with the obituary notices, creating them in various colors, even one with his name in neon lights.
Years later, Gechtman dealt with the loss of his firstborn son, Yotam, at 26, in an installation that includes mock hospital furniture and paraphernalia.
This exhibition is demanding and sometimes hard to bear, but it also arouses wonder at this artist’s ability to transform deep anxiety and grief into works that transcend time.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


Israeli legislation can ease lives and prevent tragedy

November 4, 2013

The lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis stand to be changed by two pieces of legislation reported in today’s Ha’aretz. The first, the lead item on the front page, is a government-backed bill concerning couples who seek legal recognition of their union—without having to wed under the auspices of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel or undergo a civil marriage outside the country.

The bill does not specify the sex of the members of the couple and thus would apply to same-sex unions. It would also apply to couples whose members are of different faiths and therefore cannot be wed in Israel, where marriage is in the hands of the clergy. This is especially important for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were allowed to become citizens under the Law of Return because they have at least one Jewish grandparent but who are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate because they are not born of a Jewish mother. In Israel they cannot marry Jews. Having to bypass these strictures by undergoing a civil marriage abroad (Cyprus has a thriving wedding-package business based on Israelis) is both humiliating and expensive.

This bill has a long way to go before it becomes law, but it is a promising start. Meanwhile, an amendment to another law has already been passed by the Ministerial Legislation Committee, but this piece of life-changing news was buried at the bottom of page 5, perhaps because it will affect a much smaller number of people.

The amendment allows the courts to free adoptive Jewish parents of a non-Jewish child from having to prove that they are living as Orthodox Jews. Israeli law allows adoption only of a child that is the same religion as the adoptive parents. But until now, adoptive parents who had brought a child from abroad and sought to convert that child in Israel were required to adopt an Orthodox way of life and to send the child to Orthodox schools.

Now the courts may rule that what is best for the child does not require a punctilious examination of the “Jewishness” of the adoptive parents.

This item touched me because it brought to mind something I had written for The Jerusalem Post in 1996. In those days the paper ran occasional profiles of special-needs children in need of adoption. The peak of my journalistic career was learning that one of the children I had written about was adopted by a family in the north of the country.

But another child I fell in love with most likely ended up in an institution because he was born of a Christian mother and the law, as it stood then, meant that he could be adopted only by a Christian family, or, if he was to be converted to Judaism, an Orthodox family or one that was willing to adopt an Orthodox way of life—thus severely limiting the pool of potential adoptive families. This was Daniel, as I described him then:

“Daniel is a beautiful child. With his lithe body, large brown eyes, broad smile and golden-brown skin, it’s easy to imagine him acting the happy child in a breakfast-cereal commercial.

“But Daniel’s life has been anything but happy. Born in Europe and brought here by adoptive parents who then decided they couldn’t care for him, he lives in a temporary home run by the government adoption service.

“Each day this seven-year-old hopes a new family will come and give him a real home. He has even drawn pictures of the family he hopes will someday love him. But time is running out for Daniel. If an adoptive family can’t be found soon, he will have to be sent to an institution.”

The law made it virtually impossible for that Daniel to find a family, but the amendment can save the Daniels of today.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


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