The Jerusalem Season of Culture: Art, Music, Inspiration and Everything Under the Sun

The annual Jerusalem Season of Culture—a month’s journey through artistic and cultural events and experiences across the holy city—just finished its seventh year. This year was a particularly significant one for the Mekudeshet Festival, as it is known in Jerusalem.

Capturing the ambience of Mekudeshet,
Capturing the ambience of Mekudeshet,

With the world facing so much turmoil, Mekudeshet’s mission of capturing the complexity of life in Jerusalem proved more relevant and important than ever. The city’s stories, hopes, dreams and inspirations were on display from August 23 to September 19. Hundreds of visual, musical, and culinary artists representing a wide range of genres performed, displayed and shared their talents and unique messages with the residents and visitors to the city, many of whom came specifically to experience Mekudeshet.

The festival organizers accurately described it as “a pure, clear and courageous call to artists and guests of every race, religion and nationality who come to Jerusalem to celebrate themselves and all that they consider sacred. It is a festival that turns Jerusalem into a place where utopia is offered the chance…to burst through the city’s daily reality into a place that hosts artists and audiences from across the globe in a spirit of equality and respect; a pilgrimage site where a new reality can be constructed based on past and present.”

As an arts activist, I well understand the critical role Jerusalem plays as a city unlike any other in the world, one rich in diversity and history and also constantly overrun with politics and strife. There are few communities in the world as robust, complex and multifaceted as Jerusalem. It is perhaps the most ideal place to host an event such as Mekudeshet. It is appropriately named, with the word meaning “sacred” in Hebrew, and is as unique in the world of art festivals as the city it calls home. As a proud collaborator with this festival, I was once again able to witness the profound messages shared through some of the larger venues.

Kulna, a musical celebration of togetherness, Michael Fattal, Mekudeshet
Kulna, a musical celebration of togetherness, Michael Fattal, Mekudeshet

Possibly the most significant event which received the most media attention was Kulna, meaning “All of Us” in Arabic. It was a concert organized to represent all the cultural heritage of the city in addition to those of neighboring countries in the region. Israeli and Palestinian performers were on stage singing in both Arabic and Hebrew, but the show also included elements of Lebanese, Egyptian, Yemenite, and other Middle Eastern musical traditions—a harmonic and powerful symphony of togetherness.

As part of the challenges of organizing an event such as this, it was also openly discussed that several musicians from neighboring countries unfortunately could not participate because of political and security issues. Their absence itself represented a continuing reality in the landscape of tension and complexity that permeates Jerusalem. Regardless of these obstacles, the evening’s message resonated powerfully with many in the audience.

Here are a few observations from those present that evening:

Amit Poni, founder of the blog A Different Jerusalem in a Facebook post

Someone was wondering why we need events like “Kulna” in Jerusalem. So, after we attended the event on Thursday, here’s the answer:

We need such events so that we can imagine, even feel, if only just a bit, that there can be an alternative to the way we live in this place. That Jerusalem can be much more than metal detectors, riots, cement blocks at bus stops, tension, security checks, and a synonym for dynamite.  And she can be. The show on Thursday concretized just how much she can be.

Vardit Gross, Tel Aviv-based leading culture critic and curator, named one of the 100 most influential people in Israeli culture in a Facebook post

It was a week of cultural and political despair, with headlines that make you want to cry. What a miracle that I finished it with Kulna, which was defined as a performance that celebrates the Middle East that we all dream of. In practice, it was a celebration of singers, music and varied styles, that was able, if only for a moment, to spread some hope for peace and understanding in the air.

Ron Gerlitz, Director of Sikui, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in a Facebook post

So a few words about the truly crazy evening yesterday at the Kulna event of the Mekudeshet festival in Jerusalem. And the truth is that you can’t really compete with the words they wrote themselves about a performance that “Sounds in the here and now what is hard to even dream about. To offer to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem an evening without borders. To establish on the ground foundations for something that is simultaneously natural and totally crazy—a successful Middle East.”

Another inspiring and thought-provoking event during the Mekudeshet Festival was a bus tour through Jerusalem called “Five Ways to Dissolve Boundaries, Journeys on the Seam Line between Art and Reality in Jerusalem.” The bus rides did not include the usual tourist agenda of ancient and famous locations, but instead focused on the much subtler and telling parts of the city, and the people that infuse these varied neighborhoods with life.

“5 Ways to Dissolve Boundaries” explores the diversity across Jerusalem,
“5 Ways to Dissolve Boundaries” explores the diversity across Jerusalem,

We met with a mental health advocate who helps affected Jerusalemites navigate the systems and challenges they face with their illnesses, including the stigma, especially in the case of religious communities. As we drove through a neighborhood populated by North Africans, we met with a musician who told his story through song. There was also a Palestinian woman working in East Jerusalem who has opened JEST, an entrepreneurial hub designed to help women integrate and succeed in business and other commercial opportunities. Most interesting was a young woman, formally Haredi, who had left her family and the ultra-Orthodox world behind, but remained a resident of Jerusalem, seeking her own identity and truth without giving up the city and the life she had always known.

These individuals and their unique stories represent just a piece of the immensely diverse and nuanced plethora of culture within the small but magnified city of Jerusalem.

The closing venue for Mekudeshet showcased a powerful performance by Yael Deckelbaum, one of the founders of Women Wage Peace, an organization launched in support of the mothers of sons fighting in the Gaza war. She was accompanied by her group, the Prayer of the Mothers Ensemble. They and other female performers gave a tribute to women and “girl power” at the Tower of David in a highly energetic and inspirational closing to the festival. The concert highlighted feminism and women’s voices as a key and driving issue in Jerusalem and across the State of Israel, garnering an immense amount of pride from the audience.

Performances at the Tower of David,
Performances at the Tower of David,

There were many other events that made up Mekudeshet, and all of them together represent what makes Jerusalem such an iconic and inimitable place to live and to express what life is all about. As poignantly described by the people who organized the entire festival, “For us Jerusalem is our heart of hearts. It is both the source and the foundation. It is both our inspiration and the performance itself. It is both the backdrop and the main stage. The problem and the solution. The starting point. The spring from which everything bursts forth and to which everything flows back.”

About the Author
Annette Blum is a member of the Synergos Global Activists Circle, the Artists and Educators Board at Center Theater Group, The Milken Global Cenference, the former Clinton Global Initiative and Religions for Peace among others. Recent projects include education, arts and social activism with international venues across the globe. She collaborates annually with the Jerusalem Season of Culture in Israel promoting coexistence and tolerance and with prominent arts institutions in New York and international conferences in Europe and The Middle East.