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Considering that both Menahem and Yehudit Vinegrad have spent most of their working lives as teachers, one might have expected them to be a little better at counting to 30. While this year's Jacob's Ladder Festival (May 12-13) is being advertised as marking the event's 30th anniversary, the JLF's attractively revamped website lists the first festival as having taken place in 1978. You don't have to be a math wiz to work out that that doesn't quite make 30 years. "We had a few mini-festivals in between," Menahem hastily explains. "We had a wonderful interim two-day event with the great French guitarist Marcel Dadi a few years ago." "We had the 25th anniversary festival five years ago, so this year is definitely the thirtieth," adds Yehudit, settling the mathematical conundrum once and for all.
The British-born husband and wife team have been running the festival since it started, although Yehudit has shared the helm only for the last few years. The event has relocated several times since it first set up shop - as a folk club - in an old stone building at Kibbutz Mahanayim in the Golan Heights. After several temporary stops, the festival arrived at Hof Ginossar on the western shore of the lake. "It's much better at Ginossar," says Yehudit. "There's more room for everyone there."
Because it is - or may be - the 30th Jacob's Ladder Celtic-Anglo musical fling, one could forgive the Vinegrads for indulging in a bit of nostalgia. "We've spent the weekend digging out stuff from every year," says Yehudit, adding that their memorabilia excavations have a practical purpose, too. "We've got hand-made programs and photographs and cuttings. We've sorted it out according to the locations of the festival, and we're going to have an exhibition at this year's festival."
This year's Jacob's Ladder festival brings the festival and the Vinegrads full circle, back to where it all began. "We came over from England in the late sixties and we missed the folk scene there, and all the music that was going on at the time," recalls Yehudit. "The [Jacob's Ladder] festival, which was started off by Menahem and Morris Cohen and Yigal Sela - initially as a folk club in 1974 - was born out of our longing for the music we'd left behind in England."
One of musicians the Vinegrads most admired was folk singer-cum-political activist Pete Seeger. Now 87-years-old, Seeger made his name, among other artistic and political ventures, as a member of the seminal folk group The Weavers. So it is more than a little fitting that this year's billtoppers at Hof Ginossar are a folk-singing quartet that goes by the name of Work o' the Weavers, featuring David Bernz, Martha Sandefer, Mark Murphy and James Durst.
"We received Pete's blessing a while ago to carry the torch, as it were," said Durst in a telephone interview from his New York home. "It is a great honor to do so, and to come to Israel to perform some of the songs he made so famous."
Durst, who recently turned 60, belongs to the generation that grew up listening to the radio and playing the records of Seeger and other singer-songwriter pioneers of the time. "As I lived on the West Coast, I didn't get to see and hear Seeger and the other guys on the Greenwich Village scene at the time perform live. I only read about the folk boom, but I listened to all their records, and they were a great source of inspiration for me."
There will be plenty beyond the Work o' the Weavers to keep this year's Jacob's Ladder patrons tapping their feet. Durst will team up with his Indian wife, Madhumita Chakrabartti, to perform songs from around the globe. Over the years Durst has sung songs in a multitude of tongues, including Vietnamese, Icelandic, Turkish, Chinese, Swahili and - yes - Arabic, Hebrew and Yiddish.
Elsewhere on the program, stellar Irish singer-songwriter and social activist Tommy Sands will regale the Hof Ginossar audience with Celtic-style songs about social concerns, blending in his Irish gift for spinning a yarn for good measure. Sands, too, has a strong bond with Seeger and his legacy. Seeger has been quoted as saying, "Tommy Sands has achieved that difficult but wonderful balance between knowing and loving the traditions of home and being concerned with the future of the whole world." Heady praise indeed.
Also on offer will be musical fare from outside the English-speaking world, with French melodeon (accordion) player Bruno Sabalat playing and explaining the origins of folk tunes from France, northern Italy, Ireland and Quebec.
Many of the festival's staple features will appear again this year. Galilee-based singing duo Ada & Diane will return with an extended line-up, as will Evergreen, Simon & Garfunkel specialists Moni and Larry, multicultural threesome The Goldoolins and Jug O' Punch, with CG and The Hammer providing some blues entertainment. For those looking for a chance to dance, Cyrelle Forman-Soffer, the so-called First Lady of Folk Dance, will lead the 30th Anniversary Grand Opening Square Dance session. Limor Shipponi will also be on hand to tell Scottish tales in Hebrew.
Thirtyish years on, Jacob's Ladder appears to be going from strength to strength, attracting crowds of around 3,000 each year, many of whom are sabras. "I think many people come to the festival to enjoy the special relaxed atmosphere we have," notes Yehudit Vinegrad. "I don't think any of us thought we'd still be going strong after 30 years, but we're still having fun. That's the main thing."
For more information about the festival, call (04) 685-0403 or visit www.jlfestival.com.