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Welcome back to TREYSAR. the blog that celebrates the culture of Israel. In this continuation from Part I, I’m sharing more reasons why I love the arts and culture of the place I call home. In this installment, we’ll get a little bit political, a little bit psychological, a little bit particular and a little bit universal. Oh. and we’ll talk a bit about comedy….and tragedy…and music…and film…and…well, you get the idea.. So, on we go!
More Reasons to Love Israeli Arts & Culture:
Collectively, the Jewish and Israeli people haven’t exactly had an easy ride. Thousands of years of exile, poverty and persecution were the hallmarks of Diasporic life, while war, terror and internal strife doggedly pursued the return to Zion. It’s no wonder then, that Israeli art can at times feel heavy, even downright depressing.
A whole subset of Israeli music, for example, is dedicated to telling the stories of war and its impact. In the 1950’s, iconic ballads such as Haim Guri’s “Friendship” (“Reut”) and Haim Heffer’s “He Didn’t Know their Name” (“Hu Lo Yada Et Shema”), told of love and loss in the War of Independence. In the post 1967 Six Day war period, songs such as” Ammunition Hill” (“Givat HaTachmoshet”) and “HaKotel” spoke of the price paid for the stunning military victory. The shock of the 1973 Yom Kippur War was reflected in the lyrical “I Promise You, My Little Girl” (“Ani Maftiach Lach”) and Ahuva Ozeri’s raw, gut-wrenching “Where is My Soldier” (“Heychan Ha Chayal Sheli?”). Twenty years later, a group of young soldiers born from that war reflected on the lack of peace in the painful song “Winter of ‘73” (“Horef Shivim V’Shalosh”). A poll among Israelis conducted for the 60th anniversary of statehood chose this as their most significant song (see translated video below).
Films, books, plays, poems, dance and visual art all engage Israeli society in a somber conversation about its struggles and failures. As a part of the democratic process, this art is important; as a means of dealing with the stress and strife of life in a war zone, it is essential.
Israelis can be very funny…in all kinds of ways. There are elements of Israeli comedy that I find incredibly intelligent (and hilarious), while others leave me bewildered, even angry. There is something about being the majority in a sovereign nation that has liberated the fine old art of Jewish comedy and put it on steroids. Gone is the fear of external judgement that prevents us from airing our collective dirty laundry. As such, there is little taboo, neither in the choice of subject matter, nor in the manner of delivery. Impersonation is the favored mode, but so are a whole host of other comic vehicles including situational and stand-up comedy.
Dumb comedy abounds and scrapes the bottom of barrel. Credit is due them, however, as they offer joy and relief to many and sometimes contain gems of insight and cultural criticism. Cult movies such as the “Lemon Popsicle” series (beloved in Germany and Japan I am told) and “Operation Grandma” have legions of fans. Films such as “A Matter of Size” (2009) have a universal appeal, while others, such as “Zero Motivation” (2014) reflect local reality. Sketch comedy has been a staple of Israeli television ever since its arrival in the 1970’s. Regrettable evolutions of the genre fouled by sexist, racist and homophobic humor sit alongside brilliant, incisive, take-no-prisoners versions, such as the difficult but brilliant “The Jews are Coming” or the “Cameri Quintet”.
The absolute gentlemen-kings of Israeli comedy for me will always be the HaGashash HaHiver trio. Their ability to play with the rhythm and emotional resonance of modern Hebrew, along with their deep understanding of emerging Israeliness is sheer comedy genius.
It’s a whole new approach to Jewish Identity…
Born to help shape the “New Jew” identity, Hebrew (later Israeli) culture saw itself as revolutionary in its approach to all things Jewish. Some of the founding visual artists worked to redefine Jewish visual language, while others promoted the re-imagined Jew as a physical, self-sufficient builder and defender. Writers transformed the once-dormant Hebrew language into a burgeoning, thriving force that connected Jews to their past and helped pave a bold path to their future. Dance, music and fashion paid homage to the great Diaspora Jewish cultures, mixing, modernizing and morphing them into something new.
The resounding effect of all these efforts was the creation of a wholly innovative approach to Jewishness, one that effectively speaks to many levels of interest in (or rejection of) traditional religious practice. By offering a cultural version of Israeliness that takes into account the rhythm and ethos of Jewishness, that honors its history, traditions and ideals in a non-prescriptive manner, Israeli culture both encapsulates and transcends differences among Jewish practice and politics. That is why so many types of Jews can coalesce around Israeli music, dance, prose and art.
The single best example of this is the song “I have No Other Country” (“Eyn Li Eretz Aheret”) by the late Ehud Manor. The simple but strong music and lyrics are a call to action, an unwavering belief in the idea of Israel, with no mention of specifics. It is for this reason that Israelis of radically differing views sing this anthem as if it were written especially for them and their personal convictions.
Because it is a majority culture, Israeliness is different from other Diasporic evolutions of Judaism. It speaks the language of the Jewish people, works in the rhythm of its calendar and exists on its ancestral turf. This produces a Jewish consciousness radically different from those that must constantly check and measure themselves against dominant cultural and political realities dictated by others.
…and helps Jews come to grips with new aspects of our human experience.
The freedom that comes with independence demands great responsibility. For the first time in its recent history, the Jewish people are both sovereign and dominant over territory and people. There is no outside force to blame for the social, political and economic ramifications of self-governance. As Nelson Mandela once said:
”A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Thus, elements of racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia need to be addressed, along with the ways in which Israeli society responds to its most vulnerable populations in terms of age, wealth and capability.
Artists are both scathing critics and hopeless romantics, they see the world for what it is and how it should be. Holding Israeli society accountable for its actions, for its prejudices and abuses, for failing to rid itself of its worst impulses, artists constantly remind Israelis that they are part of the greater human family. They acknowledge the human tendency toward both good and bad, to be both its best and worst versions. They demand that Israelis, like all people, confront their past in order to create a more positive future. They insist that Israel can do better, that it can come far closer to its own ideal.
Along with the question of how it should express its universal humanity, Israel faces unique local challenges that demand specific consideration. Far from being a monolithically Jewish, Israel is home to many cultural and religious versions of Judaism, all of whom wish to function freely. With over 20% of its citizens being non-Jewish (along with scores of residents living under its territorial jurisdiction) Israel must consider how it can be a safe Jewish space and at the same time, meet the needs of other faiths and cultures. Its long history as a persecuted diaspora minority has done little to prepare leaders of the Jewish state for the challenges of equitably exercising its new-found power. The learning curve is steep.
And speaking of Minority Voices…The single greatest challenge facing Israeli society today is the distinct absence of an absolute majority–for anything. Politically, the country has been deadlocked for years, stalling any meaningful progress with regard to regional conflicts and a slew of domestic social and economic concerns. If Israelis agree on one thing, it is the belief that who they are, what they represent and what they need, is at odds with the general consensus. The problem is, of course, that there is no general consensus.
Dominance–both cultural and political–exists. The center of the country has a greater share of population and resources, much to the detriment of the so-called ‘periphery’. There are far more Jews than Arabs who often feel unwanted and invisible. While most Israelis identify as semi or non observant of Orthodox Jewish practice, it is that version that receives government sanction and budget. This has created a sense of alienation. There are the power imbalances that have nothing to do with numeric strength, Ashkenazi European Jews are the power barons, as are men, despite constituting less than half the population. Israelis of color, older Israelis, the LGBTQ+ and disability communities naturally feel very left out of the conversation, let alone the corridors of power and justice.
In many ways, art and the cultural creator class in Israel have taken up the call for movement in this stagnant system. Through their work, artists have opened people’s hearts and minds, they have angered, saddened, shocked and emboldened Israeli society. Most importantly, they have highlighted the need for change, for making amends and charting a new course. Thankfully, they live in a society receptive to edgy discourse, willing to at least hear them out. There is very little artistic censorship or suppression of ideas, even those that are provocative or unpopular. Yes, there is plenty of name-calling and the occasional political attempt to deny funds for artists who appear disloyal. Yet, the general population rejects this, tolerating instead the loud, often angry voice of artistic opposition. After all, this is the State of “two Jews, three opinions”…situated in the very effusive Middle East.
Want a quick example of what I’m talking about? Check out this powerful protest poem by Roy Hasan entitled “In the land of Ashkenaz”.
…The Bottom line…
Israel is such a complex, confusing place. For a new country it comes with a heavy past that disproportionately influences its present and future. For a small population, it has a whole host of conflicting needs and demands, a long list of minorities and disempowered people. It answers an age-old dream of freedom for one group of inhabitants, while at the same time denying this to another.
And yet, out of all of this cacophony there arises something melodious, something wonderful in the form of food, visual art, theater, music, dance, poetry, fashion and prose. It’s as if the craziness of this place serves as the fuel for the cultural engine, giving it nuclear-strength energy to create and share. I want to celebrate this, to highlight its existence and value, not just to Israelis, but to the human family in general.
The intention of TREYSAR is not to take sides, nor offer solutions to the complex issues facing Israel and the region. I am not attempting to justify anyone’s behavior, nor do I intend to whitewash, pinkwash or otherwise absolve Israelis (or Palestinians for that matter). What I want to do is shine a light on a piece of life here that I find inspiring, that brings meaning to me and hopefully to you. The creative spirit of this place is immense and is, I think, its single greatest common asset. I may not always like where I live, in fact, I often despair of it. However, I am always grateful for the chance to take part in this culture, specifically in the art that it produces. I hope that through TREYSAR, you’ll be able to see what I mean.
Baker’s Dozen Bonus…
Israeli culture can be quite Romantic
With all of the piety and problematics associated with Israeli life, you’d be justified in thinking that we aren’t exactly romantically minded. Heck, even our greatest hetero-sensual writing–the Biblical “Song of Songs”– has been deeroticized, declared to be a metaphor for the spiritual love between Israel and God. It might surprise you then, to know that plenty of art celebrates the sensual, sexual and yes, even the romantic.
In future installments of TREYSAR, I’ll highlight lots of fun and serious sexiness. I’m a hopeless romantic so that will also feature prominently. I’m always on the lookout for culture that celebrates these facets of our human existence, I consider the relationship to love and sex a great measure of a society’s health.
I bet you want a taste of what I’m talking about, well, there’s plenty to choose from. The Song of Songs illustrations by Ze’ev Raban will steam up your reading glasses, while Yehidit Ravitz’s “The Silk Road” will get you hot under the collar. For fun, flirty naughtiness, try Dana International’s “Love Boy”, or pretty much anything by Shefita (Be Warned, these are not for the kiddies!).
For pure romance, watch the millennial “Wisdom of the Bagel” (2002), the period drama “An Israeli Love Story” (2017), or the uber-fluffy “Then She Arrived” (2017). For something a bit less hetero-normative, have a peek at my all time favorite short film “A Husband with Heart” (1997).
In the Mood for some more Love? Just in time for Tu B’Av, the ancient festival of L.U.V…the next installment of TREYSAR will feature a dozen songs of love and loss… Don’t miss it!