No more hegemony
By Jacky Levy | 15/10/2009
Jacky Levy drew up a grocery list of everything that is good and bad in Israeli culture. There is a short list and a long list. He nevertheless is convinced that “Somewhere within the gruff, pushy, aggressive and Darwinist Israeli, another spirit has also developed, and it is devising a different cultural possibility here”
The world of the piyut singularly touches on the
repressions and denials that lie at the heart of
the Israeli complex
A few years ago, crowded together on a tiny stage in a small auditorium in Beit Hillel on the Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem were a minstrel from Jerusalem, a musician from Ramat Gan, a flautist, a violinist, a drummer, an oud player – and a lone storyteller: me.
During the initial moments of the evening, still reverberating in my head was a phone call in which a pleasant-voiced young woman explained to me that the evening would involve an encounter on stage with Yair Dellal and Moshe Habusha. She told me that this would be one of a series of meetings between secular music and the piyut – Jewish liturgical poetry – between the up-to-date contemporary and the traditional.
I yawned, thinking to myself, it's a good thing you didn't say hevruta – study pairs. I recalled the bulletin boards I used to pass by as a student. Who in God's name did these activities interest? It was obvious to me that the audience would be made up of about twenty bored students, most of whom would be religious or formerly religious. Okay. I find it difficult to refuse initiatives of this kind. I am an oldest child with all the complexes that go along with that status. I may even be the victim of an education that was too good. But just the same, some resentment began to build up inside me: What will this be if not yet another one of those sticky conciliation events. A slight nausea was indicative of an impending case of self-righteousness poisoning. On the other hand, I told myself, I like Habusha and Dellal. Even if it is not entirely clear how this is connected, why not give it a try?
On the stage, before a capacity crowd, I gradually became aware that something was happening here and I hadn't realized it. The air was sensual. No hint of an atmosphere of recycled panel discussions and constrained dialogue. Beyond the doors were scores of disappointed students forced to remain outside, and inside, representatives of Beit Hillel distributed handouts with the words of the songs and piyutim and served arrack in plastic cups. Yair Dellal had a long pony tail, as did I (too long if you ask me) and round glasses. True, we were the pretend Ashkenazim of the bunch. Despite our Mizrahi roots, we felt most at home with the Beatles, the cinema, jeans, Bob Dylan, and this was all just as true for sounds as it was for words and thoughts. Moshe Habusha was a different story. When he began to strum the oud and sing, you had to ask yourself how old this guy was (250?) and when he first came to Israel (yesterday?). How could it be that a fellow younger than Berry Saharof and born in Israel on top of it sings as if his ears have never heard the Roosters or Shalom Hanoch, Reshet Gimel or Galgalatz radio. As if he had never been outside the neighborhood, the alleyways, the synagogue. As if all the borekas that he ate during his lifetime – and forgive me for the awful comparison – were borekas served at memorial ceremonies. Geographically, just a short distance separates the Beit Yisrael neighborhood where Habusha lived and the Mount Scopus campus. Culturally, oceans divide them. I looked at him. Did he ever imagine that he would perform at the university? Before students? Coeds?
Moshe began to sing Bakashot right from the guts of the synagogues in the alleyways. He didn't do anything by halves. Heavy singing in which the perception of time and tempo are entirely Arab. I began to lose my cool. What was he doing? He would lose them in a moment! He should sing something light, something friendly to the foreign ear. He should give them something they were familiar with, like Adon Haselihot, for example. Or Zur Mishelo Akhalnu sung to a melody by Moshik Afya. Why is he singing Lekha Ana? Even Nagila Haleluya he chose to sing to a less familiar tune. I began to sweat, and for a moment I forgot that it was arrack that was in my cup. I looked around and suddenly realized that I was the one who was an idiot. The fear that took hold of me had sprouted from old, defective habits that I myself did not really believe in.
Above the stage hovered a rare, loving attentiveness that emerged from a combination – one that was hardly self-evident – of respect, humility and humor. It was contagious, so it turned out, because that attentiveness, that love, was suspended over the entire room. It hung there between the audience and the performers. Suddenly Yair Dellal began to sing a piyut by Najara, and Habusha sang Ronny Someck. I looked at the audience and was forced to admit that it caught me off guard. One thing was clear: This audience had not come to hear folklore. They did not want to applaud politely and then pay lip service at the end by saying that it had been “very cultural.” They wanted to experience living, eyes-open and eye-opening culture. And I, who I admit may have pushed it a bit with the third arrack, leaned over towards Moshe Habusha and asked: Tell me, what the hell is going on here? You think maybe the Messiah is just outside the door looking for a place to park his donkey?
At home, after everyone was already fast asleep, I sat in front of the television screen and at breakneck speed zapped the entire slope between the climax and the anticlimax, between Mount Scopus and the Valley of the Apes. Just a moment earlier, I had blessed the Lord with all my heart for being given the privilege of playing a modest role in the riveting process of cultural revival, and now with the remote control in hand, I stare and wonder if there are any signs of life in this corpse.
On the screen flickered high-budget studios designed to the nines. Loud, tasteless, but mainly, almost identical to one another. Blondes bearing index cards whispering the same lines, and self-evident collections of nicely wrapped celebrities sat on designer sofas. Who are they to me? What am I to them? This confusion, I would like to report, was a dominant sensation in my experience of Israeli culture.
This confusion, so I observe, is not a personal-subjective experience. Israeli culture gives its progeny a mercurial experience, one that is manic-depressive in its deepest essence. For a moment, you may be swept up in a sense of euphoria that here it is, the golden age, and that after all, we have here a few new phenomena more or less, that would take a large measure of cynicism not to be amazed at. But don't worry, the anticlimax always comes in the end and it always stings like a slap in the face. It always carries with it that terror that oh no, this is it, this is the true face of Israeli culture, and that in this trampled courtyard, nothing more can grow.
The blessing list and the curse list
I am going to draw up a list in two columns. Mount Gerizim opposite Mount Ebal. The blessing and the curse. The lights and the shadows. It is of course all based on my very own and very personal taste. It is not an easy matter. After all, most things are not found on the peaks of those extreme mountains. Most things probably occur somewhere in the valley midway between Gerizim and Ebal. In the Valley of the Not-Bad. In Wadi Okay. (Besides, if you will forgive me, I will not include any of the people that I work with, people who are close friends and who will certainly understand and forgive me for not mentioning their names here.)
I will never tire of waiting for Ehud Banai's next song. The Shotey Hanevua [Fools of Prophecy] band – I long ago reached the conclusion that I could never get sick of hearing their song Ein Ani. The clear and precise voice of Rona Kenan. The wonderful and not-well-enough-known albums of the Madregot and Shaharit. Besides, I have no intention and am incapable of remaining indifferent to the fact that within a fairly short time, Berry Saharof managed to breathe new life into Od Hozer Hanigun, Boom Pam and the piyut Yaaleh Yaaleh. The new Israeli cuisine can drive one to tears with its tendency to adopt seasonal trends and overuse passion fruit. But all in all, I would like to congratulate it for sobering up and weaning itself of its provinciality, and rediscovering the local raw products, grandma's kitchen and that fact that tradition does not have to clash with the joy of creativity.
Literature: Dawning of the Day by Haim Sabato and Boris Zaidman's Hemingway and the Dead-Bird Rain. The Book of Creation by Sarah Blau and Yosef Bar Yosef's wonderful Not in this House. I am crazy about the renewed interest in Hebrew and slang. I joyfully read the works of Ruvik Rosenthal and Zvi Triger and Amalya Rosenblum. The poetry of Eliaz Cohen and Admiel Kosman. The “StreetPoetry” project that scatters the verses of Yona Wallach's poetry alongside those of the Song of Songs throughout the streets of the neighborhood. In the area of good taste, I thank God that religious women have finally returned to wearing the headscarf, instead of all those dreadful hats that look like a cross between a potted plant and a motorcycle wheel. And also, what has recently been happening on Tisha B'Av eves and Shavuot nights. The emergence from the ghetto, or at least from the attic, of Jewish study and language. The new “secular” Beit Hamidrash study halls. The new Midrash itself, which is perhaps the whole story, and runs like a scarlet thread through everything that I have enumerated here, which have something of that good quelque chose in everything good that is happening in Israeli culture.
The list of awfuls I draw up reluctantly. The song Want Girls and I am Toro Rolling in Dinero. The culture of the playlist. Premiers and other such gala evenings to give away something gold in myriad categories and of zero interest. The tyranny of the trend. The enormous, incredible involvement of media consultants in our public life. In-your-face billboards. Billboards in general. Open and subtle pedophilic erotica in television advertising. Hell-and-brimstone sermons by uneducated rabbis. I have no words to describe my revulsion at the sticker “God Almighty we love you.” The lack of supervision over the importation of the most insubstantial and useless English words: agenda, sister – even sis, and of course, sorry. The disproportionate acceptance of the chemical-drenched slang of the drug scene. Gossip columns. Culture programs. The complete and total overlap of the words “culture” and “gossip.” The complete overlap of satire and just plain cynicism and contempt. The daily threat to every public space. The exhausting fact that every playground, park, green area or even fields where L'ag Ba'Omer bonfires can be lit have become the target of powerful and reckless real estate sharks. The unremitting sense of foreboding that has yet to be disproved that time is on their side.
And of course, there is more.
One does not need the good services of an accountant to comprehend the budgetary disparities between these two partial lists. All you have to do is read them to get it. Mount Grizim is a qualitative but bald mountain. Mount Ebal is as shiny as a brand-new premium platinum credit card.
Between synagogues and workshops
Antonin Artaud's book The Theatre and Its Double, which I have been reading and rereading for years, has enormously influenced how I relate to culture. Artaud spoke a great deal about Western culture in terms of life and death, and influenced by him, I have pondered the symbolic gap between the museum and the artist's studio or atelier, his workshop.
The differences are clear. The museum is almost a temple. The workshop is almost a factory. The museum is a clean, orderly and grim place that people visit with a solemnity and graveness of expression that is quite amusing. The workshop is a messy, dirty place where one can eat, laugh or argue aloud. According to Artaud, the workshop is where art is born, the expanse in which culture lives, while the museum is an institution where art is laid to eternal rest. Indeed, there are certain similarities between the body language of museum visitors and that of people making a condolence call. Artaud detested the European worship of anything dead. He viewed this tendency as a clear sign of cultural decadence and decline.
At the time I became familiar with Arnaud's philosophy, I was writing Jacob's Ladder – a weekly critique of synagogues that appeared in the local Jerusalem newspaper Kol Ha'ir. During those long walks I took on Shabbat to visit the hundreds of synagogues scattered all over the city, a question began to hammer in my head – How many of the synagogues that I visited were museums and how many were workshops? Where, on the scale of life and death, can the synagogue culture of the early twenty-first century be situated? Do, in most cases, Jews come to the synagogue or study hall in order to live the fact that they are believers and the descendents of believers, or do they perhaps come in order to commemorate the memory of an ancient and beautiful faith towards which they harbor mainly feelings of nostalgia?
As an avowed fan of Jewish rituals and synagogues of all stripes, colors and denominations, I was forced to admit to myself that the answer is – how should I put it? – complex. That said, there was a feeling in the air that one must not speak ill of the synagogue. After all, we're talking about prayers and sanctity, and a fair number of people said that I ought to be ashamed of myself: How could I even dare to hand out grades to a synagogue service as if it was no more than a theater play.
How can there be anything important in culture?
And so, what happened there on that piyut evening on Mount Scopus that so moved me? Why did the audience's reaction and that of us there on the stage differ so clearly from the usual reaction? Why did we feel that something – forgive me – “important” was happening there? How important can words and melodies be? How can there be anything important in culture?
I believe that the world of the piyut singularly touches on the repressions and denials that lie at the heart of the Israeli complex. The piyut is ancient, it is the hope of parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and it is Mizrahi, Sepharadi or Arab. And the piyut is Jewish – oh, how it is Jewish. A simple calculation: ancient + Mizrahi + Jewish = anathema times three.
The Mizrahiness, ancientness and Jewishness are three areas that Israeli culture did not want to touch. One example is the marginalized and much disdained song festivals. The first was the Hassidic song festival. Vocalists sang texts from the Scriptures to melodies from the attic, and the kippa precariously perched on their heads blanched in embarrassment. The next disdained festival was the Mizrahi festival. It was called Lamenatseah Shir Mizmor [For the Music Conductor: A Song, a Psalm] because as the official title of the Chief Sephardi Rabbi indicates, your average Mizrahi apparently likes to have some kind of ornament added to his title, in the style of the Rishon Lezion or Lamenatseah Shir, etc. In short, these two festivals were intended as a consolation prize for those who did not have the good sense to march forward with the rest the bandwagon. Those who are still a little backward and who look to the past. Those pathetic religious people who like that nasal liturgical singing, and those undeveloped, primitive Mizrahim, so filled with yearning and nostalgia.
In the 1970s, the years of the festivals, it was clear that no artistic genius, no young and truly innovative art would arise from the fallow fields of Mizrahi Jewish amateurism. It was also clear that these were dead areas.
That is why the living gust of wind, that is genuinely curious and absolutely devoid of nostalgia typical of the current interest being taken in the piyut is so moving. The treasure trove of piyutim that can be found on the Piyut.org.il website, the Singing Communities project and the program My Friend – Have You Forgotten. It is no coincidence – and also exiting – that Berry Saharof, one of the most original artists in Israeli rock, is returning at the very same time to Yaaleh Yaaleh and also to Boom Pam.
The hegemony is about to be upset
A unity of contrasts is the lifeblood of art. However, in order to create this kind of unity, there must be an ability to listen. Beyond that, one must relinquish one of the greatest and darkest temptations of all – the temptation to win. To defeat the other. Here, for some reason there is a powerfully intense opposition to anything related to integration, cultural mediation or dialogue. Major media figures, opinion makers with unlimited access to microphones have already accustomed the Israeli ear to automatic contempt for anything that smacks of the words “reconciliation” or “multiculturalism.” As if to even listen or show openness – Heaven forefend – are necessarily a sign of ineffectuality, hypocrisy and especially cowardice. They are lying of course, and they know it.
I look at the two lists that I drew up offhandedly. The column of the blessing and the column of the curse. All my efforts to find some common denominator – to define what makes the sublime sublime and the sordid sordid seem about to end in failure. Just the same, I'll risk as much as to say this: The common facet of the wonderful and exiting things that are happening here is their dialogic aspect. Somewhere within the gruff, pushy, aggressive and Darwinist Israeli, another spirit has also developed, and it is devising a different cultural possibility here. There are those for whom this possibility – that of a culture that would replace hegemony with a dialogue between equals at eye level – represents an existential threat that they are willing to fight against to the death. For others, like me for example, it is the elixir of life.