All Israel’s a stage

For a group of young American entertainers, being part of a Taglit program provided them with a firsthand experience of the country and the culture it has to offer.

September 15, 2013 00:04
Broadway star Alexa Green.

Alexa Green370. (photo credit: Courtesy PR)

Over the past 13 or so years some 340,000 young Jews from all over the globe have gained firsthand experience of this country as part of the Taglit-Birthright program.

However, it unlikely that there has ever been a more entertaining bunch of 18- 26-year-olds on a 10-day whirlwind tour of Israel than the one which was here around three weeks ago.

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The group was led by US-born comedian Avi Liberman, founder of the Comedy for Koby entertainment-philanthropy vehicle, and managed to cover numerous geographical bases around the country and, naturally, get some idea of what we have to offer on the performance front, too.

The whistle-stop round of the country was a real eye-opener for 23-year-old actor-singer Jenny Harrisonberg, from Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I have heard about Israel since I was little, things like the Dead Sea and Masada, mainly through friends and family that had been to Israel before, and they said ‘you absolutely have to go,’ and this opportunity came up, and here I am!” said Harrisonberg when we met up on Jerusalem’s jam-packed Ben Yehuda pedestrian street. “I knew about Jerusalem and the other major places in Israel, but I knew absolutely nothing about the entertainment business here.”

Harrisonberg and her cohorts on the Taglit trip got some inkling of what Israeli show biz has to offer when they went to see a performance of the Ah Jerusalem! musical comedy. “It was interesting to compare the similarities and differences between American theater and Israeli theater,” she says. The Americans also got something of a handle on the music education scene here.

“We went to Rimon [School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon],” continues Harrisonberg.

“They had some kind of high school camp going on, and we got to hear a small group play some jazz stuff and that was pretty cool. We also heard a lecture there, which was very interesting.”

The Taglit group included some budding entertainers, and also experienced professionals. Among the latter was 27- year-old Alexa Green, a New York Citybased singer, actor, dancer and recording artist best known for her role as Glinda in the Los Angeles and San Francisco productions of hit Broadway musical Wicked. She also appears alongside Neil Patrick Harris and Patti LuPone in the cinematic release of Stephen Sondheim’s multi-Tony Award winning musical comedy Company, with The New York Philharmonic.

Green, for whom, because of her age, this was a “last chance saloon” Taglit foray, found the Rimon lecture highly enlightening. “I applied for Taglit when I was 26, so I sort of got in the back door,” she notes. “The lecture was about the history of Israeli music, and about trends and what is popular right now and that sort of thing. A lot of the elements were the same [in Israel and the US], but I think the history is pretty different.

It was also interesting to see where the artists came from, what cultural stuff they brought with them, and to hear about artists who came here from America.”

Green says she sees a cultural melting pot common denominator between the two countries. “They are both countries with a large immigrant population, and that influences the way that the arts and culture have evolved.”

Green has the professional experience and insight to compare the corresponding entertainment sectors. “I graduated from college in 2008 and I worked in Los Angeles for a while. Now I live in New York and I do a lot of voice over and recording work, and I am now working on my own, developing my own music and my own cabaret show,” she said.

Thespian and musician base notwithstanding, the Taglit trip wasn’t all about learning about how Israeli artists strut their stuff. The group members spent time on the road too.

“We started in Caesarea, literally right after we got off the plane,” says Harrisonberg.

“After that we went to Netanya overnight, we went to the beach there and we got our soldiers” (Several boys in khaki accompanied the group on its trips around the country).

The Golan Heights was next on the agenda. Considering all the talk about the possibility of an impending American strike on Syria, and all the violence going on across the border, were the Taglit guys and gals at all apprehensive about that part of the 10-dayer? “Our tour guide was so open about things that are going on here, and he explained everything so well and I think that put us at ease about all the issues over the borders and things,” Harrisonberg continues. “I found it interesting, and also comforting to have this entire group of 40 people plus staff that were so close to the border, but I felt so safe. I think [tour guide] Zak was a huge part of that because he could have easily have just said ‘there’s the border’ and left it at that. But he explained things really well, and I think that helped that process for a lot of people.”

Seeing the situation with their own eyes, rather than filtered through agenda- oriented media channels, was an important element of the group‘s visit here.

“I was so inspired and blown away by everything I have seen. Coming here is just so different from the things you see on the news in America,” says Harrisonberg.

“And having our soldiers with us changed my mind about a lot of things.

It was so inspiring to see they were so different from us, but also the same.

They were so passionate and had such pride in Israel. They showed us so many good and wonderful things about Israel that I hadn’t even thought about.”

So, after spending 10 very intense days here will we see Green or Harrisonberg treading the boards at some stage in the future? Green says she is considering it, and is grateful for the pointers she got from the cast of Ah Jerusalem. “We talked about things like agents and how to get jobs here, and how to make a living. Of course the market for English speakers is much smaller here and I’d be a bit nervous about getting my Hebrew up to scratch.

I might come to live in Israel and see if I could start up a musical theater here.”

Maybe Green, Harrisonberg and co., if they made aliya, would help to expand the musical and English-speaking entertainment sector and – who knows? – even start exporting stuff from here to the US. “That would be amazing,” says Harrisonberg.

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