We are a country of immigrants, and we have all come here with our own aspirations, doubts and hopes. By and large, Ethiopian olim talk of their dream of getting to Jerusalem. It is the capital which fired their imagination and which they longed to reach. Hence, it is only fitting that the annual Hullegeb Festival takes place in Jerusalem, under the auspices of Confederation House.
The eighth edition of event, which kicked off last week and runs through December 13, provides the Israeli public with a chance to sample the work of a wide cross-section of Israeli Ethiopian artists.
It is a comprehensive disciplinary package, taking in theater, dance and standup comedy, as well as a diverse slew of musical acts, from pop to soul and rock, ethnic sounds of various strains and, of course, Ethiopian roots music.
The Return to Zion: Longings for the Heavenly Israel (“Shivat Zion” in Hebrew) show, which takes place at Zappa tonight at 9 p.m., is a richly layered affair based on works by poet, writer, professor and researcher Haviva Pedaya, with the sonic backdrop provided by Ruhama Carmel and Russian-born, now Berlin-based Israeli musician Fika Magarik.
Pedaya’s texts address the “tension between Jerusalem-Tel Aviv-Beersheva, the Return to Zion and the Kingdom of Sheba,” as the festival information notes put it. The program text also says that the work “presents the multiple voices and dissonance between redemption that is exile and exile that is redemption.”
That sounds like something of balance-and-check approach, and also references the concept of the celestial Jerusalem and its terrestrial counterpart, and the sacred and material attributes thereof.
Pedaya has got quite a troupe on board for Return to Zion, including stellar Ethiopian-born jazz saxophonist and vocalist Abate Barihun, drummer-percussionist Roni Ivrin, and pianist-composer Meital Beracha Karni, as well as singer Orit Tashoma and four kesim – Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders – who will intone various psalms and prayers.
“This is a sort of full circle thing for me,” says Pedaya. “I got to know about the kesim around 13 years ago, and I worked with them on different productions. I met them through Moshe Bar Yuda.”
The latter was a Jewish Agency emissary to the Ethiopian Jewish community, in Ethiopia, back in the late 1950s.
“We did something together at the Van Leer Institute, in a series called By the Rivers of Babylon,” Pedaya continues. “We also put on a tribute concert to Bar Yuda after he died. Over the years I have tried to work with them, and to support them.”
The forthcoming production is a wide-ranging endeavor with melodies taken from the musical traditions of the kesim, piyyutim – liturgical material – and songs of praise of Jerusalem, sound recordings from synagogues and other places around the city, and incorporate segments composed by Barihun and Beracha Karni.
As her relationship with members of the Ethiopian community stretched and deepened Pedaya developed a close relationship with some of them, and learned more about their personal and communal baggage.
“I gradually became more aware of their pain,” she says, “that there was no support from the state for maintaining their traditions. This community is very special, and preserves something very ancient in Judaism.”
That also relates to the artistic genre in hand.
“In the Mishna we are told that the Levites sang in the Temple,” Pedaya observes. “It is intriguing that it is the same with the Ethiopian kesim, that there are kohanim [priests] who sang.”
For Pedaya, working with the Ethiopian community has wider implications.
“One of the questions that come out of this project is, why is it so hard for us to accept people from different communities. Is there only one way to be authentic? There is something challenging in Israel, in terms of the way immigrants are related to.”
The way the Ashkenazi establishment viewed Sephardi olim in the state’s early years is well documented. The Ethiopians have the added societal acceptance hurdle of being addressed differently because of their skin color. Pedaya would like us to be an all-embracing nation.
“Judaism comprises all the diasporas, all the colors, all the music – all the scales and maqams – that they have in Eastern and Western music. And there are also Jews who are black, which I feel is wonderful.”
We are not just about aesthetics here. Pedaya believes that Ethiopian Jewry offers us a direct link with our history.
“For me, the Ethiopian community is a sort of testimony of ancient Judaism. I think that is a treasure which we should be proud of.”
Pedaya aims to convey that inclusive ethos in Return to Zion.
“In the show we try to address Zion, in terms of the various diasporas, and in terms of black Jerusalem.”
Black Jerusalem? Isn’t our “eternal capital” normally associated with a very different hue? “People always talk about ‘Jerusalem of gold,’ but we should also be looking at black Jerusalem. In the Songs of Songs, Shulamit [the protagonist and King Solomon’s beloved] had black hair. Return to Zion addresses issues like refugees, aliens and identity.”
The musical spread of the project is also generous.
“This is a very complex venture in musical terms,” notes Pedaya.
“There is electronic music, but Abate [Barihun] stars on saxophone, the kesim embrace the whole show with their liturgical material, and the songs from the Psalms.”
“There’s a young girl from the Ethiopian community who does spoken word, in the role of Shulamit, and there’s a young boy from the Hebrew congregation of Dimona who does rap. And Roni Ivrin, who plays percussion with water, also connects with the Foundation Stone.” That refers to the large rock on the Temple Mount which is said to have been part of the Holy of Holies and which, in Hebrew, is known as the Foundation Stone.
At the end of the day, Pedaya would like Return to Zion to leave us with a long-lasting impression.
“There is great excitement between the different generations of the performers, including between the kesim and the younger members of the Ethiopian community,” she says. “I hope it brings the generations closer together, and also shows Israelis in general something of the richness of Ethiopian traditions.”For tickets and more information: (02) 623-7000, *6226 and http://tickets.bimot.co.il.