An artist walks into Jerusalem

The American Academy in Jerusalem, is sponsoring four fellows as they lay artistic groundwork and build connections with local organizations.

Lynne Avadenka studio 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of the American Academy in Jerusalem)
Lynne Avadenka studio 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of the American Academy in Jerusalem)
A choreographer, a playwright, a visual artist and an urban planner arrived in Jerusalem on a fellowship in October, unsure of exactly what they would encounter. They arrived with project proposals, expertise in their fields and a desire to be inspired by this city of stories and intractable conflict. Nearly nine weeks later they are feeling more at home as they gear up to showcase a taste of the work on which they have collaborated with their Israeli and Arab colleagues.
A panel of writers, artists and professors, including Prof. Gannit Ankori, chairwoman of the Art History Department at the Hebrew University, chose the fellows from 35 applicants. The recipients, Donald Byrd, the artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, Washington; David Karnovsky, the general counsel to the New York City Department of City Planning; Lynne Avadenka, a visual artist from Detroit, Michigan; and David Herskovits, the founding artistic director of the Target Margin Theater in New York City, are the first fellows of the recently launched American Academy in Jerusalem, a project of the Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Bringing senior-level artists and an urban planner to live in Jerusalem, to feel the city when they walk out the door, says program director Lisa Preiss-Fried, has allowed the fellows to build bonds with struggling artistic organizations in Jerusalem, lead workshops, deliver lectures and lay the groundwork for a play, a dance performance, a book and urban architectural innovations inspired by the city. The hope is that they will return to Jerusalem to continue their relationships and projects. In fact, the success of the fellowship is measured by the number of times they return to work with colleagues here, says Preiss-Fried.
Byrd, a Bessie Award winner for The Minstrel Show and a Tony Award nominee for choreography on the Broadway musical The Color Purple, says that Israel has been a refreshing change from the US. He is struck by the trust and respect Israelis and Palestinians bestow upon writers and poets as the moral conscience in society.
“In the United States we tend to say, ‘Well, what does an artist know?’ We tend to minimize how artists think and how they contribute,” says Byrd.
His proposed dance theater project is inspired by Amos Oz’s phrase “Chekhovian resolution,” which describes the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian conflict that continuously leaves the parties embittered and disillusioned. Four years ago Byrd showed “Chekhovian Resolution,” featuring several Israeli dancers, in the US. For the fellowship he proposed a return to Jerusalem to continue this train of thought but hoped that this time he could find Palestinian dancers who would agree to work with Israelis.
“That was my first personal disillusionment and an indication of how naïve I was in my thinking,” he says.
Things have changed somewhat. He has been working with dancers Shaden Abu al-Asal, an Israeli Arab, and Anat Yaffe, Irad Mazliach and Or Avishai, Israeli Jews, at Machol Shalem based out of the Musrara Community Center in Jerusalem. He will also be working with the Batsheva Dance Company.
In homage to the role writers and poets play in Israeli society, Byrd says, “I decided I would make something that in a sense is like a piece of poetry, and also because Jerusalem is a place of religions I thought I would also take my inspiration from the Bible.”
Byrd says the piece he is creating is inspired by the biblical story of Abraham, the patriarch of both Jews and Muslims; Sarah, the Jewish matriarch; and Hagar, considered a Muslim matriarch, as he views the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as a sort of family feud.
“There’s a strange thing that’s indifference or what I call feigned indifference,” he says. It’s the active way you might ignore a good friend or relative you’re upset with, he says.
When Byrd arrived, he felt somewhat disillusioned – “I’m a walking Chekhovian resolution,” he says – but over the last weeks he is more optimistic about the conflict.
“I don’t really have any resolution to [the conflict], and I don’t think it’s my job to come up with that, but [rather] to create interesting, provocative, intriguing imagery so the viewer will think a little bit differently than before,” he says.
Working with dancers in Israel has been quite a change from the dancers he works with in the US. Here the dancers are not shy about voicing an opinion. “It’s much more of a negotiation here,” Byrd says.
The American Academy, which has branches in Berlin and Rome, is about allowing the city to affect the artist’s outlook. By letting the dancers be who they are, the work acquires a Jerusalem personality.
Byrd finds the creation process slower here than in the US, more contemplative and an opportunity to better understand and experience Jerusalem.
WHILE THE fellows are not expected to complete their projects during the nine weeks, the foundation hopes Jerusalem will inspire their work and the fellowship will allow them time to begin their processes. Preiss-Fried says the relationships the fellows have fostered with local groups and individuals while in Jerusalem should continue to support their projects.
“My goal has been to learn enough that I can then in turn work with people in a way that will then have a continuing life after I leave,” says Karnovsky, who has been working with municipality officials, urban planners, architects, lawyers and interested citizens on ways to strengthen the appeal of downtown Jerusalem.
As the city adjusts to its overdue light rail, which tore up Jaffa Road for over a decade, Karnovsky has proposed a “green roofs” initiative of public parks on top of buildings along the central street for residents to enjoy. Karnovsky says this idea, which he has been examining with city officials and architects in Jerusalem, could take off on the roof of the Jaffa 23 gallery space of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Its large terrace overlooking the Old City lends itself to housing “a little jewel up in the sky” that would be accessible or semi-accessible to the public.
“The idea would be to create a... kind of urban oasis or refuge for people traveling along Jaffa Road as well as a space that can be used in conjunction with the gallery space and for various kinds of events,” Karnovsky says.
He brings to the table experience working with academic institutions on strategies for blending into their urban environments. He worked with Columbia University from 2005 to 2007 during its campus expansion program in Manhattan and is planning with New York University its expansion in Washington Square Village. A major component of his vision is professional exchange between Jerusalemites and New Yorkers in the urban planning profession. As Bezalel prepares to move its facility to the Russian Compound, leaving its temporary home at the Hebrew University, Karnovsky has discussed with administrators how they want Bezalel to contribute to the city around it.
Karnovsky has also confronted bureaucratic challenges in the city. As the summer was rocked by protests for affordable housing, Karnovsky says he has been focusing with city officials and architects on this issue but has been struck by the level of national control over city revenue and planning, which he does not encounter in New York City. National ministries here appear to “disfavor affordable housing strategies” based on zoning, which makes it hard for the municipality to get national approval and implement solutions.
“There is a lot of energy and creativity and willingness to explore new solutions at the local level, but it’s not clear to me that at the higher levels there’s a receptivity to that, and I think there’s going to be a struggle to see how the municipalities are going to move forward with interesting and innovative solutions to their problems,” he says. As Jerusalem changes demographically, revitalizes its downtown and struggles to make housing affordable, Karnovsky says New Yorkers can relate to a sometimes- painful fight to hold on to a city in transition. Both metropolitan cities are composed of neighborhoods with distinct characters, and fierce advocates will fight to maintain their neighborhood’s unique features against a tide of change.
“That kind of energy and activism is extraordinary,” he says, adding that the Jerusalem Municipality and residents are engaging in this process.
After touring east Jerusalem, Karnovsky is troubled by the poverty and lack of infrastructure he observed there. He is looking to build his relationships with Palestinian colleagues working on urban development. The state of the roads, the vacant lots and garbage he saw in east Jerusalem, he says, are festering problems.
In the future, Preiss-Fried says the American Academy would like to establish more connections in east Jerusalem, which she admits will take more time to nurture. The academy is already working with organizations like the al- Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in east Jerusalem. She says that organizations like the Jerusalem Printmaking Workshop and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel are breathing renewed cultural life into the city even as they are “struggling to keep their doors open.” These are groups the academy wishes to encourage through collaborative projects with its fellows, garnering attention and support for them.
Avadenka has spent a great deal of her fellowship at the printmaking workshop on Shivtei Yisrael Street, creating collages using ephemera and combining and layering passages and letters from Jewish and Islamic sources. Layering, she says, “seems to be a metaphor for this place.” Avadenka, who creates art “inspired by the idea of the book,” focuses on printmaking and calligraphy incorporating Jewish and Islamic religious texts, Arabic and Hebrew into her pieces. Her work has been shown at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the British Library in London, among other places.
In their book Root Words, Avadenka and Muslim calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya study language commonalities between Arabic and Hebrew. “Language can be the solution and the root of the problem,” she says.
For her project in Israel, she is researching at the National Library and elsewhere on the narratives of Joseph and his brothers in the Torah alongside the story of Yusuf in the Koran. Her proposal involves creating a book representing these narratives. Narratives are layered, she explains. “Things are on top of each other and they bump up against each other.” Everybody has a story to share, a personal and collective narrative. “I think what I was looking to get from my experience was to get a more complex story told to me.”
Political, she says, she is not, but Avadenka cares deeply about finding common ground and building coexistence through art. Once a week she volunteers at the Bilingual School in Jerusalem, where the students learn both Arabic and Hebrew. She is helping students produce their own books. “My activism is through my work, if you can call it that,” she says.
IN CREATING a show inspired by the history of Yiddish theater and its intersection with the early 20th-century avant-garde movement, Herskovits, who has directed dozens of classic plays and works in experimental writing, says context is everything. “It’s the moment where Yiddish theater becomes the locus for really sophisticated aesthetic adventure,” he says of his theme.
In the Israeli context, the story is very different. Herskovits has spent his time in Israel delving into Israelis’ evolving relationship with Yiddish, its place in Zionist lore and whether the language and culture are experiencing a rebirth in Israeli society.
“In the early 20th century the artistic adventure of Yiddish theater took place within the context of historical competition between Hebrew and Yiddish languages,” Herskovits says. “That competition was of course a part of the early wave of pioneering Zionism and the dream of the Jewish state long before 1948.” The nascent state needed to exclude Yiddish in its narrative of the Sabra; “The Yiddish person is a victim and the Hebrew person is a victor,” Herskovits says. But in rejecting Yiddish, Ashkenazi Israelis were in ways rejecting themselves.
Herskovits says in some ways he can see the language returning.
“New generations of Israelis are confident enough to be curious about that and engaging with it. Yiddish is cool in those quarters,” he says. Not to mention the communities in Jerusalem that speak Yiddish as their everyday language.
Herskovits has run workshops in Jerusalem at theaters, schools and with community groups about the Israeli relationship to Yiddish language and culture. From these workshops he has gleaned roughly 10 people – actors, designers and a writer – with whom to collaborate on his project. Herskovits is also conducting one-on-one interviews with Israelis to capture their “deep or distant” relationships to Yiddish and to gather anecdotes to incorporate into the play. For example, he heard from Israelis that they have heard Arabs use Yiddish phrases like alte zachen (old items) on the streets of Jerusalem. “What a wonderful little core sample of the culture here,” Herskovits says. “I don’t want to explain moments like that. I want to open them up and enjoy the complexity of them.”
With his core group, Herskovits hopes to develop the seed of the project to take back to New York to work on with colleagues there. Eventually he hopes to bring both Israelis and New Yorkers together on the process, and show the play in both locations in the next year or two.
“[The show] will remain rooted to the inspiration of Jerusalem that we’ve got,” he says.
The Foundation for Jewish Culture, which was created in 1960 to fund artistic and scholarly work promoting Jewish culture, estimates it costs about $60,000 per fellow to support material costs, housing, airfare and living stipend.
Preiss-Fried says the academy will search for a permanent residence in Jerusalem and evaluate the fellowship for ways to improve.
“The program needs to be longer... I believe, to give [the fellows] time to see and feel the city and be inspired by it and then create,” she says. “They’ll have to come back.”
Lynne Avadenka will present “Excerpts from an Ephemeral Archive: Works on Paper” on December 18 at 7 p.m. at the Jerusalem Print Workshop; Donald Byrd will show “Maybe a Genesis” and David Herskovits will present “Listen!” on December 20 at 7 p.m. at Machol Shalem at the Morasha Community Center, and David Karnovsky will speak with Dr. Roy Brand, director and chief curator of Jaffa 23, and Ayal Ronen, architect and Bezalel lecturer, on “Landscaped Roofs on Jaffa Road: A New Green Line” on December 21 at 7 p.m. at the Jaffa 23 gallery. Seating is limited. Call the American Academy in Jerusalem at 570-2769 for reservations.