Southern comfort

The arts scene is alive and well in... Beersheba. If you didn't know then best to check out the Smilansky Festival, accessible by train.

smilansky festival 248 88 (photo credit: Dani Machlis)
smilansky festival 248 88
(photo credit: Dani Machlis)
Six years ago the Beersheba municipality started work on the city performing arts center. A sign was put up that gave the project's completion as the year 2006. However, that sign was changed twice as the end-date got closer, each time postponing the deadline by one year. Despite such tricky construction snafus, Oren Amit, one of the founders of Beersheba's Smilansky Festival, sees the center's opening day this June, as a joyous occasion. "The important thing is that culture is finally becoming part of the Beersheba agenda. However, it's still coming from the ground up. Not enough comes from the decision makers," he says. Amit believes that the city council doesn't understand Beersheba's regional importance. "This city doesn't see itself as a metropolis," he says. "The city council always tries to brand the city. But are we the city of Abraham or the city of students? I say, let the city speak for itself. There is art happening here and tradition and history - everything. This city should know it's a regional center and as such does not need to distinguish itself from other cities." Amit runs a Beersheba community center. He got to know the city as a student. As opposed to the trend of most students deserting the place the minute they finish school, Amit decided to stay. "I love this city. It's very convenient. Everything is a five-minute drive. And it's a city that enables growth. When something happens here you feel it, every cultural event is important," he says. Four years ago Amit, along with friends who share his desire to build culture in Beersheba, decided to create the Smilansky Festival in Beersheba's beautiful old city. "It's an area rich with cultural history. There used to be great pubs and bars there. A few years ago the city council renovated it and we thought that it's time to bring it back to life as a cultural center." The festival's main goal is to serve as a focal point for all that's good in the city while giving a stage to local artists. "Beersheba creates an atmosphere for art that is different from other cities. Marioneta Sol, a band performing at the festival, has a song in which they say, in this city, the battle for one's future starts from childhood. It's a grim picture but I believe it's changing," says Amit. Music takes the center stage at the Fourth Smilansky Festival. Besides Marioneta Sol, there is the reggae group Hahavura, the punk band Censorship, world music group Simtat Peham (Coal Alley) and 30 other local bands from the South. An art show titled Sin-Drom presents several exhibits by leading southern artists Maragalit Shelly, Michael Elkayam, Yoram Perets and Ezra Orayon. And, for the first time, it will feature original creations by the Bat Dor and Kamea dance troupes. Other attractions are short movies screenings of works by students from the local Sapir College, street theater performances and special shows by the Negev and Playback Theaters, discussions with poets Roee Chiki Arad and Moshe Ohayon and an ecological area where organizations will hold lectures, creations and interactive exhibits in cooperation with The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. When the festival started it had an average of 300-400 visitors per day. Last year there were 2,000 on the closing day alone. Amit expects the numbers to rise this year, "There is an audience thirsty for culture and art in Beersheba. Three years ago we started sending out weekly text messages informing people of cultural events taking place around the city. Over 2000 people are signed up for the service. They tell me that even if they don't go, they're happy to know things are happening." The Smilansky Festival takes place from June 1-4 in Beersheba's Old City from 7 p.m. each evening. Entrance is free. For more information visit