On Thursday, July 10, Asher Gelman was stressed. At the opening of his show, One Act Play Festival, the night before in Tel Aviv, everyone was pleased that no sirens had sounded. But in keeping with tradition, reality was shifting constantly, and for the next show Gelman wasn’t even sure he’d have a full cast.“People are on edge,” he says, in a hopeful, yet strained tone.At that moment, Gelman, the artistic director of The Stage, which is Tel Aviv’s premier English language performing arts community, was juggling moving one of the directors of the six one-act plays, to fill in for an actor called up for reserve duty. In addition, the act that was supposed to open the show had to be pushed back because one of the actors is an active service member, and was unsure if he would even be able to make the play.
For Gelman, who has lived in Israel for eight years, this was his first brush with rocket fire in Tel Aviv. In 2012, he was heading to the US for Thanksgiving just as Operation Pillar of Defense was launched. “I was a little embarrassed because the security guard at the airport said, ‘Leaving already?’” But of course, it wasn’t about abandoning his country in a time of war – and that’s not what he wants to do now. As rocket fire began to intensify, what looked to be a promising summer season of culture, music and activity, started seeing one cancellation after another. Any event that could not ensure attendees could reach adequate shelter had to be either postponed or canceled.Unbeknownst to Gelman, he was already adhering to Home Front Command instructions. The production, which finished last week to great fanfare, was performed in Beit Yad Lebanim on Pinkas Street in Tel Aviv. The building is reinforced and built into a hill; in the event of a rocket attack, the performance stage and seating area is the designated safe room. For those attending the show, “everyone is in the safest part of the building,” Gelman says.NOT ALL events were lucky enough to have a space that doubled as a bomb shelter, however.Itay Mautner, artistic director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, expressed these sentiments in the aftermath of the rescheduling of their opening program Contact Point, an interactive artistic event which was supposed to take place July 10 at the Israel Museum.The highly anticipated event, in which over 80 artists from across Israel use dialogue, discussion and various forms of creative expression to engage with museum exhibits, has been postponed until further notice.“The cancellation of Contact Point is [a small] point in huge picture; there is a much bigger, broader and sadder picture than delay. The most recent occurrences cause us, as Jerusalem-based artists, to reevaluate our role, beliefs and what we choose to express to the world.Since the Jerusalem Season of Culture seeks to capture the eclectic culture and viewpoints that encompass this city, when such dramatic events happen, it raises questions of what to do and how to deal with the complexities of Jerusalem as an artist... Should we stay quiet and return to our normal plan, or should we examine how to actually deal with the deeper problem?” June proved a particularly difficult time for Jerusalem, with the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students, the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir and the subsequent rioting in Shuafat.“The city was in trauma,” Mautner says. “Yet this may be a turning point… When we work and create in Jerusalem, we are always dealing with a volcano, but most of the time the volcano doesn’t burst… Art is one of the only ways to appeal change and touch people’s minds and hearts. That is our main role. Art is not about decorating, it’s about saying something, reading with one’s own mind, being moved and getting out of one’s safety zone. It is not about amusing or entertaining, but about making a change. Art is more relevant now than during quiet times.”Most of these rearrangements have come directly via military orders, which have come into effect in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as many other cities across the country. Due to the fact that many of these events were planned long before the crisis broke out, these particular safety concerns were unable to be addressed at the last minute, causing the inevitable delays.Yet despite the circumstances, maintaining a sense of normalcy is the preferred method of coping with the rocket attacks.“We’re not encouraging cancellation of events. Instead, we are encouraging life to go on as usual,” says Mira Marcus, spokeswoman for the Tel Aviv Municipality.“Looking over Rabin Square, people are riding their bikes, sitting in cafes... All of the shelters have been cleaned out and opened, so life can go on as usual.There are 241 public shelters throughout the city which can hold up to 800,000 people, and there are only 400,000 residents in Tel Aviv. Precautions have been taken.”The Jerusalem Municipality takes a similar stance, reassuring residents that the municipality is maintaining the routine of city life, “while adhering to instructions from the Home Front Command.” In a statement to the press, the municipality informed residents that most cultural events would take place as normal, and that anything scheduled in an open space would be postponed.While the municipalities try to maintain a sense of normalcy, for those involved in planning, executing and participating in these events, recent occurrences have served as a bleak reminder of the tense political situation here in Israel. At the same time, however, there is faith that art can offer a glimmer of hope and progress in the context of this crisis.By press time , notices kept coming in of more cancellations. The band America canceled its August 7 show at the Ra’anana amphitheater. On Tuesday, July 15, film director Spike Jonze canceled his appearance at the Jerusalem Film Festival. In a statement the director said, “I apologize for not being there with you tonight. [It] felt like the wrong time for me to be talking about movies with everything going on. I hope you understand. I will come back again and screen movies and talk film with you when the time is right. My heart is with you and everyone who is suffering right now.”Nadia Levene, of Jerusalem’s sixth annual Woodstock Revival concert, expresses the important role art plays as a stress reliever in tense times. “I believe all forms of art – but especially music – to be highly important, especially in times of stress. However, I’m proud to belong to a country where we place our citizens’ security as our top priority. Only when we feel totally safe can we enjoy art to the fullest.”“We were all expecting a very busy, fun-filled summer. There were at least two other big events scheduled for the same Thursday evening. I feel everyone is very tense... wondering when the next siren will go off, worrying about our soldiers and worrying about the unrest in the region as a whole. I know that music is an excellent way to enjoy, to let go of that tension and lose yourself. I suggest everyone who can get out to indoor, secure music events, do so. Music therapy – especially songs of peace, love and understanding – is the way to go right now.”The festival is popular for its artists, who dress up as the great rockers of the 1960s, and also offers activities for families like face painting, arts and crafts and different circus acts.Though saddened by the delay, Woodstock Revival will not let the rockets get in the way forever.“We really didn’t want to postpone. Everyone was so looking forward to the event, and we even received sponsorship money so that southerners could attend the event for free. However, after the first siren in Jerusalem on Tuesday night [July 8], along with our main sponsors, the Jerusalem Municipality, we made the correct decision to postpone the festival until August 21.“The decision was totally based on security reasons. There has to be a secure room or bomb shelter within 90 seconds of the event, big enough to hold everyone.We typically have between 1,000 and 1,500 participants at the festival. The Home Front Command had by then also banned events of over 300 people... We hope that nearly all of the artists will be able to make the August 21 date and we’re looking forward to an even more rocking Jerusalem Woodstock Revival VI, which will actually be closer to the original Woodstock dates [August 15-17, 1969].”In addition to the delay of large-scale cultural events, devastating news last week for many fans was the cancellation of the much-anticipated Neil Young concert. In a statement released by concert promoter and organizer Shuki Weiss, he said, “It is with great sorrow that we are forced to announce the cancellation of the concert by Neil Young and Crazy Horse this coming Thursday at Yarkon Park... The cancellation is due to the barrage of rockets that have been fired in recent days, and concern for the safety of an audience for such an event.”The last couple of years have seen an upsurge in acts agreeing to play in Israel, with bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode and The Pixies, to name a few, all having come to the Holy Land after previously canceling, either because of security threats or public pressure to boycott Israel.Weiss is credited as being one of the most influential concert organizers, responsible for bringing the bands mentioned above back to Israel. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in January 2013, only a few months after the previous operation against Hamas, Pillar of Defense, Weiss spoke of the heartbreak he feels when a band has to call off a concert because of the security situation.“It’s not like we did something wrong in marketing or the band did something wrong,” he said in the interview.“It’s beyond all of us.”What is beyond our control is the fact that 50,000 people in Hayarkon Park cannot be guaranteed safety if a Color Red siren sounds. “We can’t hide the fact that things happen here, and occurrences like Operation Pillar of Defense obviously prevent us from growing like other markets have,” he said at the time. “But I’m still encouraged when I meet promoters from other countries who tell me they are amazed that, beyond our professionalism, we are able to overcome the obstacles and deal with issues of security and insurance they don’t even know about.”And while visiting artists can’t argue with the Home Front Command about whether the show can go on, more and more musicians are speaking out against calls to boycott Israel. In one instance, Dave Mustaine, lead singer for the heavy metal band Megadeth, was quoted as saying on Hebrew news site Mako: “Artists who don’t come to Israel because of politics, propaganda or someone else told them not to come, I think they are just afraid.“There is no point in punishing your fans because the politicians… If you want to play music for money or politics, you immediately put the art in second place. And I want to play my audience my art… Above all, people in Israel are great, we have created a connection with them and now they are our friends.We [have gone] around the world for years and always love to come to you. I came to you at first alone, and later I brought my family with me. The place is beautiful, good culture, the food delicious and the family enjoyed.”Megadeth is set to perform on August 6. An update on its website on July 14 said the only difference made to its plans is a change in venue, to the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.In a video message on the website, Mustaine reassured Israeli fans that the band was coming to Israel, saying in Hebrew, “We will see you soon.”Other highly anticipated summer acts include Lana Del Ray, Lady Gaga, the Backstreet Boys and Cee-Lo Green.While artists like Stevie Wonder, rapper Talib Kweli and the outspoken Roger Waters of Pink Floyd have all vowed not to play in the Jewish state in solidarity with anti-Israel groups, there are still those who are equally outspoken about playing for Israelis.“F*** the rockets and the army, I play music,” Anton Newcombe of the psychedelic cult-rock band Brian Jamestown Massacre wrote on Facebook.Fearless performers are one thing, but skittish ticket buyers are another. Back in Tel Aviv, Gelman was fielding phone calls from nervous patrons about coming to see The Stage.“We’ve had a lot of people who have wanted to cancel their tickets because they don’t feel comfortable going out. What is our policy in this very unique circumstance?” Gelman grapples with the question.On the one hand, he wants to respect how people felt but on the other, he knows how important it is for people to go out and experience something fun and to take a break from reality. In many discussions with his cast and crew, the overall consensus is for the show to go on.“It is not what we set out to do, but we are very proud of it; to be part of a community that is so dedicated to making this happen no matter what comes,” Gelman says. “Everyone is willing to be so flexible, to live life. We are trying to live it normally and without fear. I think it’s a good message, and I’m really proud to help share that message.”War or peace, rain or shine, it seems the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv artistic communities do not fear the fire. While some artists respond by pushing boundaries and making statements which challenge the status quo, others simply seek to offer an escape and a sense of calm to those in their community.Despite the situation, the shows will go on and terrorism will never get in the way of Israelis living, thriving and continuing to share their fascinating creative pursuits with the world.“Speaking for myself,” Gelman adds, “I feel comfortable going on stage – and you can feel comfortable coming to see it.”