The Israel Festival is undoubtedly the jewel in the annual national cultural crown. For nigh on three weeks, the country - primarily Jerusalem - hosts a plethora of top-grade entertainment acts from all over the globe, and from home, ranging from classical music to rock, jazz to modern dance, Yiddish theater and much betwixt. This year's 35-show itinerary (May 24-June 11) - some repeat two or three times at various venues - includes Indian dance, Baroque works, fado music from Portugal, a couple of nostalgia trips into the bygone days of Israeli rock, jazz from New York, Italy and closer to home, classical ballet, the pulsating endeavor of our very own Mayumana dance troupe and much more. In short, the festival agenda offers something for practically all cultural tastes. One of the homespun items that is sure to raise a chuckle or dozen - if not gales of unbridled raucous laughter - is a performance of Shalom Aleichem's Die Kleine Menshlich (The Little People) by the Yiddishpiel Theater, which will take place on June 7 and 8 at the Gerard Behar Center on Rehov Bezalel. The show was first performed in 1962 and starred Eliahu Goldenberg, Shmuel Rodenski and Shmuel Atzmon. Atzmon will also feature in this year's Israel Festival rendition, alongside Ya'acov Bodo and Yisrael Treistman. Atzmon says he is delighted to have secured a berth at the country's most prestigious cultural event but adds that it is no more than the Yiddishpiel Theater - and the language itself - deserve. "One of the great travesties committed by this country is that Yiddish was pushed to the sidelines when the state came into being. There was this stigma about Yiddish being the language of the Diaspora. But I can tell you that Jews might pray in Hebrew, but when they're really in trouble they switch to Yiddish," he says. Surely, though, that only applies to Ashkenazi Jews. Not according to Atzmon. "Take the Yemenites, for example. When the first Yemenites came over here a hundred years ago, they immediately appreciated the beauty of Yiddish, and they learned to speak it themselves." For most of his working life, Atzmon has endeavored to redress the Yiddish imbalance here. His efforts gained incremental ground 20 years ago when he founded the Yiddishpiel Theater. "People line up for tickets to our shows. You can have the best theater in the world, but if no one comes to see the shows, that's not worth much," he states simply, adding that he is greatly heartened by this success, although he doesn't forget the bad old days. "Between 1948 and 1956, the government charged entertainment tax on tickets for Yiddish theater shows because Yiddish was considered a foreign language. That's ridiculous!" Originally Die Kleine Menshlich, and other works by the likes of Shalom Aleichem and Jacob Gordin were generally considered presentable here only after being translated into Hebrew. "In the first years of the state there were bigger audiences here for Yiddish theater than Hebrew theater," Atzmon says. "It is wonderful, and only fitting, to be able to perform plays like Die Kleine Menshlich in the original Yiddish. I think the Jerusalem audiences are going to have fun at our shows." Die Kleine Menshlich is part of a mini-tribute to mark the 150th anniversary of Shalom Aleichem's birth, also denoted at the festival by the Shum Tzipor Lo Teida (No Bird Will Know) comedy inspired by Aleichem's book Chai Kiat. Shum Tzipor Lo Teida, which will be performed at the Jerusalem Theater on June 2, tells the tale of three women who take a vacation somewhere in Europe. During their stay, each of the women sends her husband a letter, the contents of which are somehow revealed to all and sundry. The cast features Einat Atzmon, Irit Natan-Bendak and Yael Leventhal. As always, there is a plethora of musical entertainment available across the 19-day festival spread designed to cater to all tastes, fashions and cultural leanings. The entire festival shebang kicks off with a gala concert of Polish works performed by the Israeli Philharmonic, which also marks the end of the Israel/Poland Year of Culture. The program opens with Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3, followed by two Chopin works. And there is more bilateral diplomacy-engendered music on offer on June 9, when the celebrated Keller Quartet of Budapest presents a program of works by Haydn, Bartok and Tchaikovsky to mark the 20th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic ties between Israel and Hungary. Other classical music slots hail from England in the form of the Fretwork Baroque sextet performing works by Bach and Henry Purcell (June 2); from Germany with the Cantus Colln vocal ensemble presenting compositions by 17th-century composers such as Matthias Weckmann and Dietrich Buxtehude (June 7); and a piano recital of Liszt's arrangement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for solo piano and Chopin etudes by Maurizio Pollini from Italy (June 9). Meanwhile, an international synergy, featuring The Elysium Ensemble of Australia, the Jerusalem Trio and Pollini will perform Viennese-oriented works by Beethoven, Schoenberg and Berg at Tel Aviv's Enav Center on June 5. Beyond the classical pale there is plenty of vicarious musical fare to be had, ranging from foreign and homegrown jazz, ethnic material and a couple of blasts from our rock past. The latter includes a historic reunion of the Tislam sextet, which ruled the rock roost here from 1980 to 1983. The over-40s, and possibly even some of the younger crowd, will no doubt be grooving in the aisles at the Israel Museum on June 4 (a second gig is scheduled for Caesarea on June 11) as the veteran rockers roll back the years and pump out such smash hits as "Radio Hazak" and "Boker Shel Kef." On June 8 the Jerusalem Theater will host three of our most illustrious rock guitarists - Haim Romano, Shmulik Bodagov and Erez Netz - who will team up with veteran vocalist Riki Gal, vocalist-guitarist Peter Rott and vocalist Maor Cohen. Emmanuel Witztum, who was responsible for choosing many of the festival's musical offerings this year, says he is delighted with the quality and range he has been able to put together, financial challenges notwithstanding. "For a start, we didn't have any support from the Jerusalem Foundation, which had funded much of the festival's jazz content in the last couple of years," he explains. "But we still decided not to forgo the jazz, and we did our best to bring some top artists over." You could say Witztum managed that with aplomb. Consider the likes of saxophonist Joshua Redman (Jerusalem Theater, June 3), who will be more than ably supported by bassist Ruben Rogers - who appeared in the International Jerusalem Jazz Festival in 2006 - and stellar percussionist Eric Harland. And the impending arrival of Italian trumpeter Paulo Fresu and his Devil's Quartet (Jerusalem Theater, June 1) has many a local jazz fan's pulse racing. Add to that a gala concert of our very own internationally renowned bassist-turned singer Avishai Cohen, who will showcase his new Blue Note debut album Aurora in an eagerly awaited performance on June 2. Venturing more into the realms of musical ethnicity, stellar French bass player Renaud Garcia-Fons will present a program of flamenco, Turkish, jazz, African, Celtic and tango-inflected compositions, along with his Arcoluz trio of highly energized flamenco guitarist Kiko Ruiz and percussionist Jorge "Negrito" Trasante (Jerusalem Theater, May 31). Besides offering quality, Witztum says he and his colleagues are also looking to bring audiences from as wide a hinterland as possible. "People have always come from different parts of the country for Israel Festival shows, and we very much want to draw in people from the peripheral regions of the country, too. One of the ways we do that is by offering tickets via local community centers. Don't forget this is the Israel Festival, not the Jerusalem Festival." Depleted budget or no, Witztum was also keen to cook up some unique cross-cultural synergies that would help to keep the festival at the forefront of artistic endeavor. "We want to generate continuity and to develop a brand, a brand that people will look for in the festival program." One of the cultural crossover items features internationally renowned Israeli oud player and violinist Yair Dalal and compatriot flutist Eyal Sela, who will join forces with Indian tabla player Sanjay Saha and US-born Swiss resident sarod player Ken Zuckerman. "This sort of artistic confluence can only happen here," says Witztum. "Ken Zuckerman is greatly appreciated by the Indians as well, not just by Westerners." Besides the blending of creativity and musical directions, Witztum says he also looks for freshness and spontaneity. "You have musicians of amazing caliber who get together for the first time, rehearse for a day or two and go out and improvise and produce amazing performances. That's what I find really exciting." Brevity of available working time notwithstanding, the artistic director believes that the top exponents of the genre don't have that far to go to bridge seeming cultural divides. "Hundreds of years ago there was far more common ground between cultures," says Witztum. "We're not talking about the globalization of today, where cultural boundaries are blurred. There are things that run deeper, that make different cultures closer than they might seem. These artists draw on these roots." One of the ethnic music artists Witztum is particularly pleased to have at the festival is Portuguese fado singer Misia (Beit Shmuel, June 8). "There are a lot of fado artists around, but Misia was the first to return the genre to its roots," he says. "She performs barefoot, but that isn't a gimmick; it symbolizes the music of the simple folk who enjoy their music in bars and poor neighborhoods. Today people write and perform fado music to suit hit tune radio stations like Galgalatz, but that isn't where fado comes from. Fado is about the concerns of day-to-day living, about the cruelty of the sea and about longing and loving." Despite Misia's roots orientation, she has no qualms about introducing extraneous instruments to liven things up. "Misia adds violins and a piano to her performance. That doesn't mean she strays from the sources, it just adds color." Theater has always had its fair share of the spotlight at the Israel Festival and this year's program, besides the Yiddish slots, offers a couple of highly contrasting productions, in terms of both cultural definition and entertainment intent. The Tricicle 2 threesome from Spain should have their audience rolling in the aisles with a performance based on the life of celebrated 18th-century British actor David Garrick. Garrick's ability to entertain his audiences was, it seems, so formidable that the iconic man of letters Samuel Johnson, on hearing of Garrick's death, said: "I am disappointed by that stroke of death that has eclipsed the gaiety of nations and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure." Tricicle 2 will perform at the Jerusalem Theater June 2-4, with additional shows in Beersheba and Holon. The Georgia State Theater from Tbilisi, meanwhile, will offer festival goers a new angle on Chekhov's The Lady and the Lapdog (Jerusalem Theater, May 25-27). The production combines puppets and human actors, in a minuscule setting, and tells the story of an adulterous affair and its inevitable consequences while leapfrogging between reality and fantasy. Dance, too, is well represented at the festival, kicking off with a mesmerizing new production, suitably entitled "Momentum," from Jaffa-based globe-trotting troupe Mayumana (Jerusalem Theater, May 25-28). Heading farther afield, the South Indian dancer Alarmel Valli offers her own take on the Bharatanatyam dance (Gerard Behar Center, May 25-26). Meanwhile, Alonzo King's Lines Ballet contemporary dance company from San Francisco will cull classic inspiration from the Baroque musical efforts of the likes of Vivaldi and Corelli in its Irregular Pearl production, followed by Rasa, which salutes the artistic endeavor of nonpareil Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain. Along more classical dance tracks, the Montreal Grand Ballet will perform Noces, with music by Stravinsky, and Cantata which draws on the rich musical heritage of Naples (Jerusalem Theater, June 5). The Spanish National Ballet presents its take on the history of Spain and the Muslim influences there, in Gnawa, and Castrati, which refers to the dark days when women were banned from singing in church and young boys were castrated in order to ensure they maintained their soprano vocal qualities into adulthood. On the local front, mime artist Hanoch Rosenne makes a return to the limelight after a decade-long hiatus with Return of the Mime, which gives us some silent insight into how an individual copes with the world around him (Jerusalem Theater, May 30-31, and elsewhere around the country). Junior entertainment this year features a couple of past favorites. Oren Ya'akobi's The Soulbird (Beit Shmuel, June 6) tells the tale of a young boy who sets off on an adventure and comes across some intriguing characters. And there is a new rendition of songs from the ever-popular classic The Sixteenth Lamb (Beit Shmuel, May 30; Jerusalem Theater, June 7). Both productions are overseen by Moshe Kaptan. As every year, there will be a range of free entertainment available over the 19 days, including jazz and Jewish music concerts at Mamilla; nightly post-main show jazz in the Jerusalem Theater lobby; classical music in Ein Kerem; and puppet theater, music, dance and video presentations in the plaza in front of the Jerusalem Theater. For more details: www.israel-festival.org.il

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