Voices of Jerusalem: Capital culture

Loren Minsky speaks to Karen Brunwasser, 36, one of the founders of the innovative Jerusalem Season of Culture.

June 26, 2013 13:30
Karen Brunwasser

Karen Brunwasser. (photo credit: Courtesy)

“I fell madly in love with Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, on my first visit here when I was 16,” recalls Karen Brunwasser. “I found an excuse to visit every year until I made aliya eight years ago.” Karen eventually used her passion for Jerusalem in her career and is one of the founders of the Jerusalem Season of Culture and their current Vice CEO. 

One of the highlights in the annual Jerusalem events calendar, the Jerusalem Season of Culture offers a diverse selection of exciting arts and cultural events over the course of the summer season.

Karen studied theater her whole life and always wanted to be an actress. “I spent time in Hollywood where I was thoroughly humbled and worked as a waitress, not an actress. They say one should never become an actress if there is something else you can do. Fortunately in my case, I had another love – Jerusalem and Israel, which I ultimately chose.” Karen reflects how grateful she is that her current job combines both of her loves: the arts and Jerusalem. “I’m involved with artists on a day-to-day basis even if I am not the one creating.”

In her early 20s, Karen spent a total of four years in Israel, including a year as an undergraduate and then a year in graduation school. “At the age of 28, I realized I had to make a decision as I was not getting over my love of Israel, no matter how hard I tried,” smiles Karen. “I decided to make aliya and have never really looked back. It felt right, and I still feel that chemistry.”

“Fifty percent of my aliya was to Israel and the other 50 percent to Jerusalem,” says Karen. “Although initially I spent a lot of time away, I came back when I realized, that as much as I love Tel Aviv, there was clearly something about Jerusalem that was meaningful and unique. I knew it was where I wanted to be.”

According to Karen, about five years ago a lot of young creatives were running away from Jerusalem, and one had to make a conscious decision to leave or stay. “Those of us that weren’t conventionally religious felt a bit like the Last of the Mohicans. But the elections served as a catalyst, and those who stayed became active – and then kept going. All sorts of individuals refused to give up,” says Karen. “I began looking for a way to help the city become a place where my friends wouldn’t want to leave.”

“Just as despair can be contagious, so too can hope be,” says Karen. The response was the burgeoning establishment of new cafés, cultural institutions and social enterprises that celebrated the city’s diversity. “I was proud and honored to be part of that community.”

Through contacts from a previous job, Karen was invited to join the Schusterman Foundation, one of the leading Jewish philanthropies in the world. She began work by researching urban renewal projects in other cities, namely what they had done to shift from negative to positive trends, and began meeting with people in Jerusalem in a variety of fields from business to education to community activism. “It soon became clear that culture, more than job creation or affordable housing, is a catalyst for urban renewal,” says Karen. “We also saw that philanthropy could make an important contribution in this field.”

“It also made sense to focus on culture with Jerusalem’s magnificent aesthetics and soulful nature,” says Karen. “Jerusalem has inspired poets and writers through the ages more than any other city.” Once they determined the focus, it was obvious that summer was the cultural peak with the Chamber Music Festival, Wine Festival, Musrara Mix Festival and other amazing events already taking place. “We thought we’d focus on strengthening what was strong already.”

The idea was to create very original and diverse contemporary events that in some way seek to explore what happens when excellent contemporary creativity meets the city of Jerusalem. “The team is madly in love with Jerusalem. The city is our muse,” says Karen. “We are always trying to discover more, to find what we never knew existed like the Afro Palestinian and gypsy communities. Jerusalem has endless depth and is such a fertile place to be.”

The team behind the Jerusalem Season of Culture works together with everyone from established local partners like the Israel Museum to young edgy arts groups. They are well known for the raucous Balabusta event at Mahane Yehuda market, which won’t be taking place this year. “Balabusta realized its potential and we have to be careful to preserve the market as a market,” shares Karen. ‘The shuk doesn’t need it anymore with its current vibrant nightlife scene.”

The Jerusalem Season of Culture’s events are often interactive, and favorites include Under the Mountain that is about the creation of art based on the interaction of people in public spaces. Last year’s festival featured political karaoke, namely karaoke with political speeches instead of singing. “The aim was to break down walls between art, public life and politics,”says Karen. Another highlight that “fits Jerusalem so well”is the Sacred Music Festival, which takes place in unconventional spaces like places of worship of different faiths in the city. “It’s about holy music, not necessarily religious music,” says Karen. “We take the notion of what’s scared to someone, and invite people to celebrate it without judgment.”

Karen is looking forward to a new event this year, Food trip. Chef Assaf Gornit of Machneyuda fame will be the resident chef in a mobile truck, designed especially for the project,which will feature different cuisine on a daily basis. All of the food will be at cost and kosher, and no alcohol will be served, making it accessible to all. Every day the truck will drive with a Jerusalem personality into a different neighborhood that they have a culinary memory associated with and connection to. The public are invited to participate and at the end a book will be published with recipes and stories of the project.

The Season of Culture features a mix of local and international talent, and ideas are generated by artistic director Itay Mautner, Naomi Fortis (Beersheva Dance Company) and the team and also come from artists who make proposals and suggestions.

“Jerusalem is an incredibly colorful city,” says Karen. “It is very inspiring and mysterious. Perhaps you can explain the city from a religious point of view but it can’t be explained rationally. It’s fascinating to live in such a place but it can also be challenging.”

“Living with such diversity can be harsh as it forces decisions upon you every day,” admits Karen. “You can choose to respond to someone who’s different to you with judgment, or use the opportunity to learn something new. Jerusalem forces you to examine yourself all the time, which is so important. The city attracts thinking, journeying people. These people are my tribe whom I connect to most of all.”

Karen attests that she adores Mahane Yehuda market, which is why she lives there. “I also love how easily one can traverse worlds,” says Karen. “I love the fact that one can go to a religious friend’s house and then to east Jerusalem. You can walk in and out of worlds. These realities, which are so nearby in proximity, maintain authenticity, integrity and character and are not diluted.” Karen shares how often she is surprised in Jerusalem. “It’s so easy to make assumptions about people from their politics to social opinions and yet one is often surprised and you realize how human we all are.”

For Karen the best part of what she does is working with “amazing people at such an amazing time”. “I work with individuals who are incredibly passionate about the same thing as me. They are exceptionally talented and hard-working and I learn from them all the time.”

“To unwind, I go to Tel Aviv,” laughs Karen.“When I’m in Jerusalem, I’m obsessed with what’s new in the city and have to know about every little café, restaurant and hotel. I walk a lot and enjoy the element of discovery. This gets integrated into work.”

Karen’s plans for the future include getting married at the end of August. “We joke that it’s the grand finale of the season,” says Karen. No co-incidence, Karen’s fiancé is a Jerusalemite with a diverse array of backgrounds – Mizrachi, Yemenite, Kurdish and Spanish. “I’ve always been attracted to different cultures and it is part of his appeal. Since he’s a local he doesn’t always get my amazement of the city, but is very supportive and proud of my work.”

On the work front, Karen’s goal is to bring cultural life in Jerusalem to the attention of the world, and to invite the world to engage. “Jerusalem should be an international cultural capital,” declares Karen. “Though Jerusalem may lack the infrastructure, money and institutions like some cities, it has the greatest stories ever. The art that emerges from here is like no other.”

ITravelJerusalem.com is a new online international travel portal offering all the latest information on things to do, places to eat and places to stay in Jerusalem

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