Mekudeshet – Jerusalem Season of Culture

The three weeks of happenings harness the talents of hundreds of performers, producers, directors, actors, students and more.

Jerusalem at night (photo credit: NOAM SHUGANOVSKY)
Jerusalem at night
(photo credit: NOAM SHUGANOVSKY)
From September 4 to 23, parts of the city center will look different. Expect the unexpected from The Jerusalem Season of Culture – an independent, nonprofit arts organization created to share the city’s extraordinary yet often overlooked cultural life with the world.
The three weeks of happenings harness the talents of hundreds of performers, producers, directors, actors, students and more. Orchestrating it all are a pair of dreamers: JSOC general director Naomi Fortis and artistic director Itay Mautner.
The JSOC is preparing for its most thrilling and moving activity – the sixth annual Mekudeshet (“sanctified”) festival.
This outstanding cultural event, beyond marking the end of the summer, endeavors to make a bold statement about Jerusalem and about us all. Fortis and Mautner took an hour from their incredibly intense schedule to share the understandings, discoveries, surprises and even fears they experienced while working on the event.
“This is not just another cultural event. It is an attempt to delve into the essence of Jerusalem and bring it back to its residents and visitors, to the city’s lovers and those who, maybe, are still afraid of it,” says Mautner.
About seven years ago, philanthropist Lynn Schusterman instructed her foundation to support the new enterprise generously, in part as an attempt to show the world that Jerusalem is more than the waves of terrorism or conflicting political interests that often dominate the news.
What is the concept behind Mekudeshet? “It is from the city and to the city,” says Fortis. “Over our years of work we have developed a city-specific framework of artistic events giving the public a flavor of the city, a glimpse at what lies behind and beyond daily life, a look at what this city is, has and can offer.”
Mautner was born and raised in Jerusalem; Fortis was not. Yet both admit that their JSOC work has opened their minds and changed them completely.
“Until I began with the JSOC,” Mautner explains, “my lookout was narrow, and now it is wide open.”
Fortis says that her experience since she came to the city has made a radical change in her approach and understanding.
In her former position as CEO of the Batsheva Dance Company, she traveled extensively around the world.
“When I arrived here, I was sure I had seen everything and I knew everything. I had my ready-made opinion of Jerusalem – a small city, obscure, violent, haredim everywhere, religious coercion, right-wingers, poverty, ignorance. I was sure that I was an open-minded, tolerant pluralist, yet I had all the prejudices possible.”
After a short pause, she continues, “I have gone through a complete change; I have sloughed my skin totally. I put my old skin away and today feel that I am a Jerusalemite. Jerusalem has become mine, I can see all her faces, understand and feel it from inside.”
“The change came when I was ready to stop looking at this city from a two-sided standpoint – either love or hatred,” adds Mautner. “When I felt that I was ready to look also at those who are not like me, things began to change. Jerusalem, unlike other cities, forces you to look at and accept people who are different from you – haredim, seculars, Jews, Christians, Muslims and others. When I became ready to accept Jerusalem as a whole, as it is – that was the turning point.”
“And that is exactly what is so scary, so intimidating here,” adds Fortis.
From that point, the fact that Mekudeshet would become the focus and a major part of JSOC was just a matter of time, Mautner explains.
“From an artistic point of view, it was clear that if we want to convey a message of renewal from inside – we couldn’t merely provide, year after year, the same materials, the same ideas, the same products.
Not that we couldn’t do that also – many cultural venues and events here actually provide, with a few changes in details, the same product, and it’s fine, it works out well. But that is not our vision.”
There is more, adds Mautner, and it is rooted in what is going on and develop- FESTIVAL Mekudeshet – Jerusalem Season of Culture ing on the ground.
“There are so many beautiful, interesting high-quality cultural and artistic things happening here every day. I run to three or four events per day and what is taking place here is simply outstanding.
Why wouldn’t we bring it to a larger public? After all, isn’t that exactly the primary task of JSC and Mekudeshet?” “We are attentive to the voices and the daily words of this city. We don’t just deliver a series of cultural performances to the public – we listen, understand, digest, grasp, evaluate and feel what this city is going through and brings to us – and then we take it and give it back to the public,” explain Mautner and Fortis.
Other than musicians from around the world who participate in the music part of Mekudeshet – everything proposed is “made in Jerusalem,” conceived and brought to life here.
“We highlight things that cannot happen in any other place in the world but here, in Jerusalem,” notes Fortis. “Things that are unpredictable, unbelievable, that are impossible anywhere else, but can happen only here – that’s our raw material.”
One of the aspects of this approach is that some of the events are not presented by artists at all. “People from Here,” one of the projects in this year’s Mekudeshet, references people who, in their daily lives and occupations, are dissolving the borders between them and others in the city’s life.
“We present activists, dreamers, revolutionaries, educators – people who believe in change and in breaking down the separating borders. It is all made here – we only move it to the forefront,” says Mautner.
Fortis emphasizes, “Mekudeshet means sanctified, not holy. It is very important to make the distinction between something passive (holy) and an active attitude, hence sanctified, in which we all take part – seculars, atheists, religious people from all religions here – this is where the most important and amazing things are happening, not in the news of a stabbing or a political statement. Amazing things are happening in this city – we bring them to the front.”
It is hard to grasp the amount of work done on this festival. Hundreds of people are part of this enterprise throughout the year, culminating in the frenzy of activity in the last month before the festival kicks off. Not all of the ideas and the projects reach the final stage; Fortis says they admit from the beginning of every project that it could fall by the wayside and be canceled. This has happened more than once.
However, many thrilling projects did make it to the finish line. One of the most interesting is the “Amen” project, building a house of prayer for a whole week, located in the Ben Hinnom Valley.
It will host rabbis, priests and Imams, men and women, who will lead prayers from the three key monotheistic religions in Jerusalem. This project, on track against all odds and publicly announced, is a particular source of pride for Mautner and Fortis.