Laura Conrad Mandel

Neta Elkayam: Singing the Moroccan Jewish Story

Neta Elkayam with Amit hai, photos credit Amit Elkayam

A colleague messaged me the other day: “do you know Neta Elkayam? She’s wildly talented, in the US this season, and not like anything else here.” I immediately said, “yes, yes, and yes!”

I met Neta in 2020, peak pandemic time when we were all grasping for connection and art that felt genuinely engaging and inspiring online. It was then that Neta and I connected around our annual Jewish Arts Collaborative Hanukkah celebration at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – a program that like everything else, was forced to go virtual. In collaboration with Simona Di Nepi, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica, Neta created this artful and beautiful video piece that was powerful in so many ways: in how it uniquely elevated the light of Hanukkah through the Moroccan Jewish tradition, in the beautiful cinematography, simple and effective costuming, and the ability to create such unique site specific virtual performance. It did exactly what people needed during that time, and the four-minute video made me and many others a loyal Neta fan.

Fast forward to today, Neta Elkayam is a voice American audiences need to hear if we are to truly understand and represent the incredible diversity of Jewish and Israeli life and tradition that is little known to most American audiences.

Neta’s virtual Hanukkah performance was one of many on her artistic journey to reclaim her Moroccan Jewish identity, one that is underrepresented in American and Ashkenazi centered communities, but one that has been hugely influential in the development of modern Israeli culture.

In fact, Neta has just recently completed her Moroccan citizenship, and is proud to represent the many facets of this beautiful country, including the Moroccan Muslim community that has become so core to her work and journey.

In a 2020 interview with The Ingathering, Neta said, “Traveling to Morocco really changed my life…when I went back to Israel, I found that I was not the same person again. It changed me. I felt they were lying to me all these years. Morocco is big, relevant, modern, it has a lot of things and a big culture. Why did they tell me to leave the past and to change? To be only Israeli. Why? I can be both.”

Through her blend of powerful music and performance art, Neta represents the beauty, diversity, and complexity of Israeli society. She represents contemporary Judaism, and the ways in which creativity and the arts can enhance and evolve our spiritual and communal connections. As Neta told NY Times writer Aida Alami, “Singing in Arabic is a political statement. We want to be part of this area, we want to use the language to connect with our neighbors. It isn’t only to remember the past.”

In this video, Neta is singing the Moroccan Jewish story. Seated in a beautiful cafe, she brings you into the community through music, representing generations of tradition through her vision.

In 2022, Neta was featured in the Studio Israel series, a project of Hadassah Brandeis Institute, the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, the Vilna Shul, and the Jewish Arts Collaborative, exploring Israeli society through artists in conversation with leading academics. See Neta in conversation with Brandeis Professor Yuval Evri here.

Now, Neta and her partner Amit Hai Cohen are BAMAH Visiting Artists in New Orleans, where they are teaching and sharing their work on campus and in the community. As director Flo Low said, “BAMAH is proud to amplify the creative voices of Neta and Amit Hai, visionary artists and extraordinary educators who are engaged in crucial bridge-building to inspire and connect people through their art, music, and culture.”

These are just a few of the reasons why you should know Neta Elkayam, enjoy.

About the Author
Laura Conrad Mandel is an artist, entrepreneur, mom, and founding Executive Director of Boston’s Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts). She currently serves as Chair of the Board of the Council of American Jewish Museums and as co-chair of the Boston Lyric Stage Advisory Council.
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