Feedback to American Jews on the Israeli Cultural Scene

Categories: Jewish Identity
By Steven Hancoff

I just returned to the USA after spending a month in Tel Aviv.

I am a guitarist. Since 1993, I have had the great good fortune to have visited about 55 countries and hundreds of cities around the world, mostly in what used to be called the ?Third World? ? now politically incorrect ? and now called, euphemistically, ?developing? countries. I say ?euphemistically? because they are usually not developing much ? rather, they are just, by and large, poor. I?ve been able to travel like this because I am invited to play concerts and teach master classes in these places. As a result of receiving invitations to various countries in the capacity of being an American artist, I get to meet artists and musicians internationally and be somewhat immersed in the art scenes of these countries.

My impression from my experiences is that what is reported here in the profit-driven news outlets in the USA (?If it bleeds, it leads?) about every one of these countries is not an accurate reflection of peoples? lives. It?s not exactly inaccurate — it?s just such a small piece of what is happening. For instance, just before spending the month in Tel Aviv, I was working in Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. Hearing what informed people had to say about the war there and its causes was enlightening in a way I never could have imagined before going there. So, I wanted to write down some impressions about Israeli reality that I have not seen addressed.

The Israeli music scene is, to my ear, the most dynamic in the world. I?m not talking here about the rightly celebrated Perleman?s, Zuckerman?s, et al., although there are plenty of world class Israeli classical musicians and composers. In fact, our visit coincided with a prestigious International Chamber Music festival in Jerusalem.

Israel has so many GREAT contemporary singer/songwriters: Chava Alberstein, Achinoam Nini, Shlomi Shaban, David Broza, Ehud Banai, Matti Caspi, Shalom Chanoch, Arik Einshtein and on and on. There are so many! Melodies are so often imaginative, harmonies intricate; chord structures interesting, technical production qualities first-rate. Lyrics – the poetry of song – are often profound, revealing deep inner experience and sensation. Thus, love/relationship songs seem meaningful, not syrupy — there is no lazy rhyming, of the June/Moon/Spoon sort. Topical songs are poignant rather than accusatory or harsh. Has anybody heard Achinoam?s words to Ave Maria, music by a guy named Bach? ??Hey there, Maria? things are looking pretty bad down here??

Just as groundbreaking to me is the instrumentation, which is often virtuosic. On a given cut, you might hear a sitar, African percussion, Arabic drums, a classical string quartet, horns and acoustic and electric guitar and bass.

Hearing such a musical fusion, I have surmised that a significant reason there has always been conflict in what the Romans named ?Palestine? is neither religious nor tied to specific political issues, but rather that Israel is the very real geographic crossroads of the Western World, where Europe, Asia and Africa intersect and collide. The very big upside is that disparate cultural influences pervade the music. Israelis today are creating a new important, mellifluous and touching music.

Then there is the resurgence of ancient liturgical music, much of it thought to have been lost, and much of it from the tradition of Jews from Arab lands — absolutely compelling melodies that penetrate our bones.

And this does not begin to describe the dance, poetry, drama, jazz and progressive rock scenes. Bat Sheva was dancing down at Timna, way far away from Tel Aviv, in a performance that was attended by thousands. Avishai Cohen, Geva Alon, to name but two, are as good in their respective fields (jazz trumpet and rock lead guitar) as any. In a given week, it is literally impossible to attend all the great performances available. And this does not include the growing trend of public kumziztim/hootenannies one can find several times a week in clubs, nor all the international artists who regularly come to perform in Israel. Furthermore, every performance we went to was sold-out. That is, the Israeli public enthusiastically partakes of music in a big way.

As it happens, a close friend of mine, painter Howard Fox (Toronto Habonim 1970?s ? check out if you want to be astonished), had a gallery show opening a couple of days after our arrival. To find the address of the gallery, we looked in the Haaretz weekend guide. There were two pages ? small-print ? of that week?s openings! There is some great art coming from Israel, a lot of very good art, and tons of, well, art. (I?ve heard it said that if you were to drop a stone from an airplane flying over Israel, it will most likely land on either a cat or an artist.) Having just arrived from Slovenia, 2 million people inhabiting a land the same size as Israel or Wales, blessed with the physical beauty of rivers, Alps, an Adriatic coastline and endless green, not to mention peace, we were blown away because in Slovenia we sought, but could not find, ANY quality painting, and very, very little of any painting at all. Howie suggested that contact with beauty does not give rise to great art; rather angst is what drives it. That strikes me as plausible, but I don?t know. But I do know what I saw, or rather didn?t see.

And at the same time up in Karkur, another friend, an amazing ceramicist, Mark Yudell, was taking part in an exhibition ? eight Jewish and eight Israeli Arab artists banded together for this one. He was disappointed that only about 1,000 people came through that day.

And novelists? Shalev, Yehoshua, Grossman, Agnon, Oz, Megged (and I know I am omitting plenty), from a population of 6 million people?about the size of Washington/Baltimore where we live most of the time.

It?s an amazing outpouring of extraordinary creativity.

Then there is the physical Tel Aviv itself. Of course, there is the Mediterranean beach front. But more than that, by virtue of its extensive Bauhaus architecture, parts of Tel Aviv have been designated, and therefore protected, as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Much of the city has been, and continues to be, refurbished, in a way that is, to my eye, aesthetically pleasing. Walking more or less aimlessly around Tel Aviv, we could not help but be struck by how the city, once ramshackle, is becoming beautiful and very pleasurable to look at. For example, the old Florentine neighborhood, adjacent to the more upscale Neveh Tzedek, until recently was a dilapidated warehouse and housing district for foreign workers. No more. Now, I suppose because rents are less expensive than in many other neighborhoods, Florentine is becoming a residential haven for university students. And new galleries, shops, bookstores, cafes, etc. are springing up all the time. Adjacent to Florentine, a bit further away from Neveh Tzedek, is Shapira, also full of warehouses and small car repair joints. Ehud Banai, whose studio is in Shapira, explained to me that Shapira is ?still the East Village. Florentine is Soho.? And Shapira too is beginning to come alive as a more welcoming neighborhood, with more commodious apartments and interesting places for people to gather. Tel Aviv is becoming hip.

But on this trip, we rented a flat right off of Bograshov, near the beach but right in the middle of town. We?d be walking ?home? at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and the four (!) cafes on our block were all still filled with people. And this is not the café center of Tel Aviv. One night at 1:30 I had to drop something off to a producer who had a gig that (Friday) night at Habima. On the pedestrian bridge above Habima there must have been 250 people hanging out, drinking wine, talking — and that?s just one place.

And speaking of ?walking home? late at night?it is not unusual to see single women walking without fear of mugging, purse-snatching, rape, etc. I cannot imagine this in Washington ? or for that matter, in any American big city, where for good reason people seem to be terrified to be out late, on foot, and alone.

Food: the Israel of falafel, humus, and shwarma is now an anachronism. The tradition that on graduating from the army many Israelis travel for six months to a year — most often to Asia or South America because they are less expensive and more exotic destinations than Europe or America ?- means that young Israelis have tasted cuisine from everywhere, and they have not only brought these foods home, but also combined them in new and delicious ways. Try ceviche with Mediterranean spices! In other words, Tel Aviv has become cosmopolitan, a home to gourmands, and in the process a new uniquely Israeli cuisine is being created.

In the end, what I am left with wanting to say is that the intense focus, usually the only focus, on Israel as a troubled political entity is only a piece of what is happening there. And insofar as history remembers not only the generals/presidents/emperors/dictators, but far more passionately the Bach?s, Rembrandt?s, Shakespeare?s, et al, in generations to come, the Israel of this age will be remembered for its cultural contributions to humanity. Even now, at the international festivals in which I participate, musicians regularly ask me if I can help them to get gigs in Israel.

It was so hard to leave Israel. At 57 years old, I feel some regret that I did not take myself to live in Israel as a younger man. Instead, I had chosen to live my life (so far, at least) in an American culture that is, to me, numbing, and increasingly so, as opposed to the much more difficult but way more enlivening culture that is modern Israel.

Contemporary Jewish culture, and it?s a grand one, is being made in Israel today. Israeli Jews are in the midst of creating the most vibrant cultural and artistic society known to me, all of it being done in the face of unremitting hatred, nihilistic threats and significant isolation. I left Israel affirmed that we, the Jewish People (?Jewish Family,? according to Adin Steinsalz, with all the family distortions, dysfunctions and neuroses thereby implied) is a GREAT people. There is so much talent amongst us. I am so happy to have had the destiny to have been born to it.

About Steven Hancoff

Steven Hancoff is a guitarist and recording artist, as well as a long-time Rolfer (R) and psychotherapist. His four CD's of solo acoustic guitar music have been released by DGM Records. He is also the author of two books of guitar music for Warner BROS Publications and Mel Bay Publications. In 1993 he was formally designated an Artistic Ambassador by the US State Department, representing the United States all over the world. In that capacity, he has conducted master classes and performed concerts that describe and demonstrate the history and evolution of American folk music and jazz, and its relationship with the development of American democracy. In 2002, during the height of the intifada and in response to concert cancellations by some international artists, he organized a free, ten-city concert tour throughout Israel, bringing Andy Statman (and his trio - Jim Whitney, bass, and Bob Weiner, drums) and Peter Himmelman with him. Each concert also featured a prominent Israeli artist. Presently, he is at work recording his guitar transcriptions of the Six Suites For Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. Much more information is available on his website,
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One Response to Feedback to American Jews on the Israeli Cultural Scene

  1. jan says:

    steve; I got the CD set, and many thanks for that. Ill put it in my iPod so I can carry it wherever I go. So glad to see your missionary musical work. Nice venue to reach out and spread both joy and peace. thanks, Jan