The beloved Jacob’s Ladder Festival rises from the post-corona ashes

As far as Yehudit Vinegrad is concerned, she is just mightily relieved the festival has survived, and can’t wait to see it all happen over at Kfar Blum.

ATTENDEES DANCE to a live performance during a past Jacob's Ladder Folk Festival. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
ATTENDEES DANCE to a live performance during a past Jacob's Ladder Folk Festival.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

For many of us, the Jacob’s Ladder Festival is a veritable institution. It is a place, event, whither people gravitate from all corners of the country to catch folksy, Celtic, country, blues, bluegrass and even a little pop and rock-oriented music, not to mention impromptu jam sessions and, basically, to simply catch up with each other.

For the past couple of years, the festival faithful have been denied their inalienable right to their twice-yearly helping of musical and social fun. But now Jacob’s Ladder is back in all its joyous glory, with the spring bash due to take place at Kfar Blum June 10-11.

The festival kicked off a full 44 years ago and enjoyed a robust, albeit somewhat peripatetic existence over the decades, eventually anchoring at the idyllic Nof Ginossar spot at the northwestern corner of the Kinneret. With its expansive lawn, sturdy shade-giving trees and the gently lapping waters of the lake just a stone’s throw away, it was perfect.

But then the COVID shenanigans began, and everything went pear-shaped.

“We canceled the festival the first time in December 2020,” says Yehudit Vinegrad, who has been running the show, together with hubby Menachem, since its inception. 

“We canceled [ahead of time] because... at that time there were lockdowns, and everything was so bad that it was obvious it was going to be canceled”

Yehudit Vinegrad
JACKS of Diamond bassist Ziv Grinberg. (credit: Jennifer Abessira)JACKS of Diamond bassist Ziv Grinberg. (credit: Jennifer Abessira)

Besides the pandemic constraints, the Nof Ginossar folks said they could no longer accommodate a one-dayer in the winter, due to other seasonal commitments.

It was clearly time to take stock, and the Vinegrads began traipsing the length and breadth of the country, looking for a new venue, before settling on the Pastoral Hotel at Kibbutz Kfar Blum.

The clock had been mercilessly counting down, and it was time to put their expected takings where their mouth was. The Vinegrads had considered opening their Kfar Blum account in September last year, but things at that time were very much in the balance.

“There was, I think, the Delta variant around, and people were scared to come,” Yehudit recalls. “And people were calling us and asking whether the festival was on or not. We had to make a decision. In the end we said we’d have it in June. We already had the dates. The people in Kfar Blum were understanding, really fabulous. But we had to decide, on the spot [whether to hold the September 2021 edition], and it was so hard to decide.”

In the end the Vinegrads opted for safety first, despite the personal emotional cost. “We decided not to have it then, and people thanked us because they were afraid of coming. I was shattered by then. I was really heartbroken. So we had to wait until June.”

And so it is, finally, coming to be. There are plenty of usual suspects in next weekend’s lineup, including festival fixture evergreen guitarist-harmonica player and sometime vocalist Shay Tochner, together with vocalist-pianist-flutist Gabriella Lewis, bassist Betty Maoz and drummer Yonatan Bar Rashi. Tochner & co. will roll out the usual folksy repertoire with, no doubt, the entertaining Mr. Tochner dropping the odd tongue-in-cheek between numbers aside.

Other Jacob’s Ladder returnees on the program include bassist Gilad Ephrat and his quartet, blues singer and harpist Dov Hammer, and traditional Scottish folk trio Jug O’ Punch, with Tochner guesting on guitar. The latter show will also serve as a tribute to late band member festival perennial Frank Donnell.

Celtic-leaning band Black Velvet, which played at the very first festival over at Kibbutz Mahanayim just down the road from Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee, is also in next week’s mix, as are ’60s-’70s sing-along king and queen Larry and Mindy.

Jacks of Diamond has also been around the Jacob’s Ladder block a couple of times, with bassist Ziv Grinberg adding a solo spot to the festival agenda. While the quartet’s stylistic purview could be loosely associated with country, folk and bluegrass, tying Grinberg down to any particular genre, subgenre or, for that matter, instrument would be tantamount to committing musical classification perjury.

Grinberg has a healthily developed sense of humor. He also seems to be utterly devoid of sitzfleisch, in the best sense of the term. The man simply can’t sit still for a moment, and is constantly looking for some outlet for his abundant creative and musical gifts and skills.

His solo show at Kfar Blum is called Ukelele Fantasies, but, in truth, the 34-year-old is likely to pull out any old string, wind or keyboard instrument at the drop of a hat.

“I can’t understand why anyone would want to play only one instrument,” he declares. Considering his work routine, it is not hard to see where that idea comes from. “I do recording, and sound and mixing, anything. I never focus on just one thing.”

It is, he modestly suggests, a matter of being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. “I take first place in being in second place in everything I do,” he laughs.

In fact Grinberg has paid his dues, studying composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and playing in all kinds of bands and numerous recording sessions. He also had something of a blistering start to his performing career.

“I was in a progressive metal band called Sheba,” he recalls. “We used to play at the Barby club [in Tel Aviv] to crowds of 300-400 people when we were in high school. Of course, those 300-400 were also kids like us,” he laughs.

Jazz also came into Grinberg’s evolving musical consciousness, although today he largely eschews modern jazz, aka bebop. “I need my jazz to be played like a masterpiece, and it shouldn’t be too long. We should play beautifully.”

That comes across clearly in a slew of pieces he has recorded over the years, such as “I Don’t Get the Lesson,” which is delivered in a happy-go-lucky ragtime style, or “Waltz for Elephants.”

The bottom line is that this year’s Jacob’s Ladder patrons should expect the unexpected from Grinberg’s show, and also a load of fun.

As far as Yehudit Vinegrad is concerned, she is just mightily relieved the festival has survived, and can’t wait to see it all happen over at Kfar Blum.

“It’s weird and wonderful to be at work again. It’s challenging and exciting. And, thank God, we don’t have to ask people if they are vaccinated anymore,” she laughs. “We were dealing with all that craziness as well. And it is wonderful that no one is forced to wear masks.”

Sounds like a breath of fresh air.

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