Enjoying music and art through Beit Avi Chai online

“The Beit Avi Chai staff is continuously updating our special website for this period, and launching a new series of interactive online classes, lectures, programs for children and families."

Beit Avi Chai's Voca musical ensemble will teach children songs to sing at the Shabbat dinner table (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beit Avi Chai's Voca musical ensemble will teach children songs to sing at the Shabbat dinner table
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you’ve ever been over to Beit Avi Chai, you will surely have been impressed by the design aesthetics and carefully crafted spatial layout. Going there for a show, to attend a lecture or get an eyeful of an exhibition is always a joy for the senses.

Sadly, among the other distressing fallout of the ongoing pandemic, the firsthand pleasure to be had by visiting the King George Street edifice is currently on hold, until God-only-knows-when. But the powers that be at the cultural and arts venue aren’t exactly sitting around engaging in collective and individual tooth-gnashing and hand-wringing calisthenics.

As of this week, the institution, under the guiding hand of chief curator Amichai Hasson, has been putting out all manner of intriguing, edifying and pleasurable material and activities tailored to the forthcoming festive season. Naturally, the offerings are condoned by the man in charge over there who has adopted a typically constructive take on things. 

“Despite the difficulties that face all of us, we very much believe that this period also offers an opportunity for all of us to come close,” says Dr. David Rozenson, Beit Avi Chai’s executive director. “To that end, the Beit Avi Chai staff is continuously updating our special website for this period, and launching a new series of interactive online classes, lectures, programs for children and families as well as special online projects, trying to bring bursts of light during these difficult days through Beit Avi Chai’s rich world of Jewish ideas, thought and culture directly to people’s homes.”

Hasson goes along with that mindset and feels adversity can generate opportunities for changes of tack and, thus, lead venue administrators and artists alike into new and exciting directions of thought and application. 

“We are feeling the effect of the substantial aftershock, and I think that has forced us all [people who oversee cultural facilities] to reconsider how we go about things,” says the curator. “We have to see how we can get our content out there without a physical setting.”

That is easier said than done. It is not a matter of just uploading the information and video clips to the organization website and allowing surfers to merrily click away. Yes, it now becomes a virtual experience – for the time being there’s nothing Hasson or any curator can do about that – but, he says, the fact that the data is being proffered via a screen, however large the user’s plasma monitor may be, has to be taken into account in conveying the works in question. 

“I don’t think that people from outside the field can possibly appreciate that it is no simple matter to take an event and transmit it via Zoom. It is very complex. There are events that are very important to experience live, with the energy and ambiance, and the electricity you get from the audience. The virtual domain is different, with different requirements. And the audience’s focus on what is happening is different.”

All that, and more, came into the curatorial equation when Hasson helped to put together an ongoing program of lectures, discussions, workshops, music and study groups, which is now available on the Beit Avi Chai website, in Hebrew and in English.

In the lead-up to Passover, Dr. Yair Furstenberg, from the Hebrew University’s Department of Talmud and Halacha, is giving a daily Talmud class based on Tractate Pesachim at 9 a.m. this Sunday. That will be followed, at 11 a.m., by the Who’s Afraid of the Song of Songs slot based on a new tome, called The Book of Song of Songs – A New Israeli Reading, by Bible studies Hebrew University lecturer Prof. Yair Zakovitch and Prof. Avigdor Shinan, professor emeritus from the Departments of Hebrew Literature, Yiddish and Comparative Jewish Folklore at the Hebrew University.

The global shakeup and, specifically, the recently imposed lockdown have, says Hasson, reshuffled the pack so that we are now in completely foreign pastures. How, for example, are we to celebrate Passover apart? 

“Passover has always been the most family-oriented of religious holidays,” he notes. “You know the regular query that comes up: when are you spending the Seder? That’s now become where are you spending the seger (curfew),” he laughs wryly. “We have to see how we can achieve a sense of being together even though we are physically apart.”

Virtual study groups are one way, with filmmaker-author Yair Agmon leading the way, on Sunday at 8:30 p.m., with his Hebrew language “It’s A Good Time for Rabbi Nachman” online gathering, which will collectively examine Passover while we also take some time out for some introspection.

There is also the In Preparation for Passover! series, in English, presented by an impressive roll call of lecturers and experts in various relevant fields. The second slot is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Monday and goes by the name of “Psalms of the Exodus: Rebuke and Songs of Praise.” The class, which will be moderated by biblical studies lecturer Dr. Yael Ziegler, will look at different viewpoints taken by various biblical prophets on the story of the Children of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, the baseline of the Seder night narrative. Tuesday’s “ChagHaPesach and ChagHaMatzot: Leaven from Heaven” class will see Halacha lecturer Rabbanit Shani Taragin take a close look at Passover subtexts.

Cchildren, with no school to go to, and increasingly confined to their own domestic patch, are also catered to in the new Beit Avi Chai Internet-based rollout. Today at 10 a.m. the “Song for Shabbat” kids’ event is spearheaded by the center’s Voca musical ensemble, with junior culture consumers joining in a Zoom session and learning new songs to sing by the Shabbat dinner table. And things get seasonal on Monday morning (10 a.m.) when singer-guitarist Yahala Lachmish fronts the “Children’s Songs for Passover’’ event.

If any of you have small children of the Hebrew-speaking ilk, they may very well have read books by internationally acclaimed children’s author Yannets Levi. His many literary creations, some of which have been translated into numerous languages, include the highly popular Uncle Leo’s Adventures series. The pre-Passover program features a coronavirus-tailored session with Levi in which he will present his “Uncle Leo in Isolation” special issue.

There is also plenty to disinter and enjoy from the Beit Avi Chai archives, taking in lectures, concerts, articles and exhibitions. Past gems to be joyfully revisited include shows from the annual Piyut liturgical music festival and sessions with various leading members of the Israeli rock and pop community, emceed by iconic radio show presenter Yoav Kutner.

Hasson says there is plenty to dig into. 

“We have a wealth of documented material in our archives, after 12 years of work at Beit Avi Chai,” he notes, adding that virtual viewing of exhibitions, for example, can in fact enhance the consumer experience. “I wasn’t sure, for example, how the ‘Emerging from the Shadows’ exhibition would come across in the virtual world,” Hasson says, referencing the fascinating photography showing of works by late Israeli espionage officer Sarah Ayal. “But it is amazing in a digital format -- even better than seeing it in person,” he chuckles. 

Naturally, using digital means for presenting works of art allows the user to zoom in on the exhibits and examine them from very close range. And there will be more where that lot came from after Passover, too. 

“There will be the Remembrance Day memorial films,” he explains, in the context of the annual “A Face. The Day. A Memorial.” slot of the Watching and Remembering program, which presents short films about soldiers who fell in Israel’s various wars. 

“I am sure it will be a very important and moving digital event, especially this year when people won’t be able to convene and to go to cemeteries together.”

Hasson says that he and his colleagues at Beit Avi Chai are painfully aware that the corona constraints are not going anywhere soon. 

“We have to think about the near future, and how to create new material that accommodates remote consumerism.”

The curator is not concerned that the center’s patrons may become accustomed to enjoying the institution’s offerings from afar, and may continue to do so when things get back to normal. 

“I think people will be so eager to come to Beit Avi Chai to be in the actual physical space, and attend events here. There is no substitute for the human touch.” 

If Hasson has any worries it is about not being able to satiate the public’s renewed demand. “We will have to work hard on that,” he laughs. 

It would be a nice problem to have.