Is it really only a month since the President’s Conference? With mid-term political somersaults in Egypt, the EU promising economic threats, and Kerry coming to Israel as if he has an open Rav-Kav for air travel, it is hard not to notice that little of this was percolating then. So much for great minds.
Davka political turmoil highlights the importance of art and culture as all the more vital a national focus. When retired generals play golf with the political has-beens on the great celestial fairway, only culture will remain.
This is the second year that culture has been firmly placed on the agenda in the five year history of the Conference (my post on last year’s conference can be read here or here). Wrapped up in an atmosphere of orchestrated optimism in discussions relating to the future, the “tomorrow” logo was in evidence everywhere, underscoring the main message. It may be no accident that the event could be referred to as PC in short, encapsulating both the title as well as much of the content. The upbeat vibe was only broken by eye-rolling exchanged between conference participants squeezing along the over-crowded corridors.
James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, moderated again this year introducing the significance of the arts as a means towards bridging gaps between cultures, and started by plugging the museum’s current exhibits. In Snyder’s long experience in cultural institutions (in his job that his daughter correctly assessed as “management” rather than as “creative”), he noted the rarity of having a cultural site be included in an official state visit as the Israel Museum was included in the short itinerary of the US president’s recent Israel stay.
Emphasizing the shared experience of viewing art as a basis for human connection, Snyder showed Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama examining the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in a cave not a long drive away from the convention center. They viewed a section of Isaiah in ancient Hebrew referring to the beating of swords into plowshares, part of the foundation of both Jewish and Christian theology. The thawing of the body language of the two leaders was evident through the slides as they became more casual and intimate by the end of the visit.
Panelists this year included industrial designer, artist and architect Ron Arad; actor, director and playwright Norman Issa; author and scriptwriter Dorit Rabinyan; and top Israeli singer whose is on a first name basis with the world, known simply as Rita.
All shared having relatively short local histories, the longest three generations, and each experienced living as an outsider in a wider culture. They relayed how their early personal development affected their mature creative output. The panel, whose theme was building bridges through culture, appears on line in its entirety here , so one can parse through the individual sagas. I will just mention a few points that interested me.
Arad, Tel Aviv-born but working in England, remarked that he did not come from modest beginnings and had many advantages, one of which was participating in a youth enrichment program in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood where his teachers included the recently deceased artist Rafi Lavie and American-born and trained artist Mitch Becker – whom he credits with his exposure to the idea of exploring materials.
A liberating freedom came along with not being a local in England. Facing potential deportation, Arad sensed that he may as well push his work to the maximum since he had nothing to lose. His visa problems were resolved and he worked un-self-consciously, detached from the local cognoscenti, leading to significant accomplishments.
Norman Issa, a Christian Arab born in Haifa, is familiar to Israeli television audiences for his role in the series “Arab Work,” an exploration of stereotypes that Arabs and Jews hold about each other, which are confronted and aired through the popular series, now starting the fourth and fifth seasons. Issa also serves as the Artistic Director of the Jaffa International Children’s Festival. He advocates communication which goes beyond language, emphasizing that much can be understood without words.
Non-verbal signs and symbols were significant to Issa and other Conference participants. He observed that the ubiquitous Conference logo signs were all in English and Hebrew only, with no Arabic translation, leaving him to conclude that the ‘tomorrow’ logo felt sooo yesterday. He also noted that at the gala opening event he did see the Arabic word for peace on a sign, but the word salaam was misspelled, a deflation of the message. Other attendees were baffled by the absence of any Israeli flags throughout the conference meeting rooms, here and here.
Countering Snyder’s introductory remarks underscoring the universal outlook that is stressed at the Israel Museum, Dorit Rabinyan, though Israeli-born, was conscious of a “torn attitude” in a split identity as a result of having parents who remained foreigners in their outlook. She would have preferred one culture, and felt that she was a traveler between two – saying that her parents’ immigration from Iran happened one time for them, yet she felt this adjustment continuously each time she entered and exited her home, crossing back and forth from the inside and outside cultures.
Hebrew mastery was the key to her creative development, which she pursued obsessively even to a pedantic level, because her grasp of the intricacies and nuances of the language garnered respect from the local cultural elite that she could not have attained otherwise. In her novel “Persian Brides” she relayed her grandmother’s story in a sophisticated Hebrew, one that simultaneously embraced Israeliness through her language capacity while exposing an outsider’s personal narrative. Rabinyan said,
The more private you go the more universal you get…To be authentic you have to look inward, it is the only way to focus on the truth… looking at pain, at joy.
It would be a mistake, she said, at the juncture of creation to think beyond the product being formed and instead to think about loftier thoughts such as “building bridges”- a misplaced focus which might intimidate extracting the truth and cripple the work product.
As the panelist exuding the most celeb glow, Rita charmed the audience. Teheran-born, and living in Iran till age 8, she well-recalled the contrast between the Persian mentality and Israeli attitudes, going from a covered-up and multi-layered closed world to an open and even cheeky society. She was taught to conceal that she was Jewish in Iran and after arriving in Israel, like many immigrants, she bore taunting and teasing till she could grasp Hebrew.
Desiring a return to her personal roots, she incorporated her Persian identity in her musical output by including a Persian song in her first album, a risk considering that Persian culture was not a popular ethnicity in Israel of those years. She recently completed an album all in Persian, another risky move, which went ‘gold’ in Israel within a month. That album, she has been told by a Wall Street Journal reporter, is popular in Iran and sells briskly on the black market, where, despite anti-Israel edicts, she has a fan base.
A recent highlight to her career was a performance at the United Nations, including songs in Persian, English and Hebrew. Like many before her, Rita noted that culture can go where diplomats cannot.
To those who attended the cultural panel last year, it was not totally unexpected when Rita acquiesced to Snyder’s request to close the panel in a Persian song, which she did beautifully. While most of the audience did not understand the lyrics, they were clearly delighted with the musical bonus.
One of the shared memories that arose between the panelists was recalling early childhoods in reduced means, as actor Issa remembered. He did not dwell on the deprivation as much as reminisce that living in one room brought heightened intimacy. Rabinyan and Rita echoed similar thoughts regarding limitations from their modest one-room childhood homes, stressing that the family ties were that much stronger.
Only Arad demurred, his comfortable childhood quarters included a bedroom shared between him and his brother, with whom he had constant childhood quarrels. Necessity led him to carve out his own space, resulting in constructing a wall down the middle of the room, which he acknowledged as his first architectural structure.
Togetherness can work for some but not for others. Too much togetherness can lead to a desire for walls of separation, such is human nature. A long local history punctured by wars and bouts of peace stretch back through the ages. The prophesy from the ancient scroll viewed by Netanyahu and Obama is as relevant as ever. One can still decipher the words penned in Hebrew around 100 B.C. E, before Christianity, before Islam.
The Isaiah quote (the third line from the top, above) says:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more. [Isaiah 2:4]
يقوم ضربوا السيوف إلى محاريث، وبهم سبيرز إلى مناجل: لا ترفع أمة حتى السيف ضد الأمة، ولا يجوز يتعلمون الحرب أي أكثر. [أشعياء 2:4
(I hope it’s spelled right. If not, blame Google, not me.)
Would that these words of prophesy bring about such actions, with the deeds transcending words and bringing about a truly different tomorrow. Is it possible?