Science fiction and fantasy come out to play at ICon 2019

First organized by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1998, the ICon Festival geeks arrive from across the country to socialize and mingle at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

An elaborate cosplay costume contest rewarded Israeli geeks for their painstaking handiwork (photo credit: JONATHAN WIETZ)
An elaborate cosplay costume contest rewarded Israeli geeks for their painstaking handiwork
(photo credit: JONATHAN WIETZ)
For many people, Sukkot brings to mind familial gatherings, meals eaten in the sukkah and shaking the lulav and etrog at synagogue. But, for many Israeli geeks, Sukkot signals the arrival of the country’s preeminent geek convention. Spanning three days over Hol Hamoed, the ICon Festival has been a mainstay of Israeli geeks for decades.
First organized by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1998, the ICon Festival geeks arrive from across the country to socialize and mingle at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
Comparisons are made between this convention to those run by fellow geek organization AMAI, held in the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. There are two key differences. AMAI’s conventions are usually more focused on anime and manga, while ICon and other conventions organized by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy tend to cast a wider net in regards to geek culture.
For many, the vendors are the most popular festival attractions. Geek merchandise is spread about, with many booths run by independent artists selling homemade merchandise like hats or drawings resembling iconic geek culture characters. Others offer old video games or comics.
Of course, bigger-name retailers were also there. Most notably, Israeli comic book retailers CNV and Comikaza both had booths. Other notable retailers included the popular Tel Aviv-based Freak, which specializes in board games and video games.
The most popular vendor at ICon was the second-hand shop, as one would expect. Organized and staffed by the festival itself, the second-hand shop is indoors and is always packed, often with a long line outside. Novels, comic books, game guides, mangas, video games, even DVDs and Blu-ray disks are sold at very cheap prices, and it’s not uncommon for someone to come in with only NIS 200 and leave carrying away no fewer than 10 books.
“I think it’s nice,” Yehuda Broderick, a veteran of many geek conventions in Israel, told the Magazine. “Good location, plenty of merchandise booths, lots of lectures, panels and workshops that are quite interesting… and great cosplayers.”
He added: “Of course, your experience can depend on what you’re going there for and if you go alone or with friends.”
MEETING NEW people is also a big plus.
“Say you’re waiting in line for a lecture, buying tickets, or even in line for the second-hand shop,” Broderick explained. “Often people will talk to each other while waiting. If you participate in a tabletop game (Dungeons & Dragons, etc.) or a wargame, it’s another way to meet new people (assuming they aren’t kids left by their parents). Sometimes, you can even meet and get to know the guys at merchandise booths, especially if they come to multiple conventions.” He added: “Of course, if you sit by yourself, the chances of meeting someone new are close to none.”
Notably, in a first for the convention, Nintendo Israel had a presence this year. Nintendo Israel is relatively new, only opening their doors in March. They have been very active in their marketing in the Israeli geek community, quickly becoming a mainstay presence.
Inside the Cinematheque building itself, Nintendo had set up several Nintendo Switch consoles with a variety of games, including Mario Kart 8, Super Mario Maker 2 and, of course, the ever popular Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Nintendo also had a vendor of their own this year.
The presence of Nintendo “is a sign that the gaming industry [in Israel] is moving forward,” Dov Aloof, Israel’s Pokemon community champion and an experienced gamer who streams on Twitch and Mixer as FiendRiver, told the Magazine. “I applaud Nintendo on their efforts and initiative.”
The rest of the convention is set outside the cinematheque itself, geeks dressed casually or in cosplay make up the hustle and bustle reminiscent of a thriving marketplace. In the center of the vendors’ area was a fenced-off space so convention-goers could take part in mock duels with fake weapons. Continuing to the left past the small food vendor was a massive tent filled with tabletop games, several being played at once in the fairly crowded tent.
THE FOOD vendor wasn’t exactly kosher, as many religious geeks are fully aware. However, with small groceries and kosher restaurants nearby, finding food was hardly an issue. ICon provided sukkot, ensuring that all had a place to eat. This reflects the overall inclusivity at Israeli geek conventions.
Inclusivity is also seen in the willing inclusion of not only individual independent artists and vendors, but fan groups too, including the 501st Legion, one of the largest fan groups in the world, a mainstay at conventions across the globe. This group of Star Wars fans dress up in very meticulously crafted and accurate costumes, typically resembling stormtroopers.
“Being a stormtrooper at a convention was like being sci-fi royalty,” Adam Nahoum, founding member of the Israeli outpost of the 501st Legion, told the Magazine. “The ICon staff provided us [with] a stall free of charge, as the 501st is a volunteer organization. It was very kind of them, especially considering that they themselves are a nonprofit... ” Nahoum is currently the sole member in Israel, but he hopes it will grow. In fact, he met a fellow member of the legion from California who is currently working in Israel for a year. “I hope to be back soon, and in greater numbers,” he added.
Some come just for the vendors, mingling or for a turn in the game tent, others are drawn to lectures and events the festival hosts every year. While the convention is free, the events are not. You can buy a ticket on site, but often sell out in advance.
This year, several events centering around this year’s guest of honor, acclaimed fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, were sold out well ahead.
SANDERSON IS one of the most prolific modern fantasy writers, with an impressive bibliography of several critically acclaimed series such as the Reckoners, his interconnected Cosmere universe and several more, as well as a writing pace that far outstrips many of his contemporaries. As a result, the author has accumulated a very dedicated fan base across the world, and Israel is no exception.
To no surprise, not everyone was happy when Sanderson announced his intention to come to Israel.
“I did get [some] emails from people… asking me to reconsider coming,” he explained. “My general inclination is I don’t generally boycott no matter what. I don’t think it’s an effective way to cause social change. I think there are other and better ways. So I didn’t agree with these requests.”
Despite the humidity, the convention was as packed as ever. In fact, it seems to have grown.
“It’s certainly bigger compared to when I was last there,” Nahoum said. Despite the numbers, the venue is more than sufficiently large to accommodate the crowd.
An elaborate cosplay costume contest was held on the third and final day. The contest, like the ones at AMAI’s conventions, cosplayers competed in a number of categories. The effort put into many of these is astounding, as most Israeli geeks make their cosplays painstakingly by hand.
During the closing ceremony, the Geffen Award was presented. Geffen Awards are among the most prestigious literary awards in science fiction and fantasy. Being nominated is an honor in its own right; winners are determined by fan votes and support. A nomination means that the work must have been read and enjoyed by many Israeli readers.
“It means a lot, to know my readers support me and come to vote for me,” Dana Pines, one of the nominees for the Best Original Novel category for her novel The Curse of the Angels, told the Magazine. “I know of about more than 150 people who came to vote, and it warms my heart.
I write for others, to give them a place to escape for a while and find their individual truths within, and the recognition that it means so much for them is even better than winning.”
The awards were established in 1999 in memory of editor and translator Amos Geffen, one of the founders of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, who died in 1998.
THE SOCIETY’S MISSION is to popularize science fiction and fantasy in Israel, and the awards also recognize translators who introduce popular science fiction and fantasy works to a Hebrew-speaking audience.
The ceremony opened with Sanderson speaking briefly as awards were given in five categories: Best Original Novel, Best Original Short Story, Best Translation of a Science Fiction Novel into Hebrew, Best Translation of a Fantasy Novel into Hebrew, and Best Translation of a Young Adult Novel into Hebrew.
The Best Original Novel award went to Karen Landsmen for her novel Heart of the Circle, while the Best Original Short Story award went to “My Last Dragon” by Rotem Baruchin. The Best Translation of a Science Fiction Novel award went to the Hebrew translation of Andy Weir’s novel Artemis, while the Best Translation of a Young Adult Novel award went for the translation of Rick Riordan’s novel Magnus Chase and the Ship of the Dead.
Coincidentally, the Best Translation of a Fantasy Novel award went to the translation of Sanderson’s fantasy western novel, Alloy of Law. Despite joking that the guest of honor is supposed to win the year after he’s at the convention, Sanderson was overjoyed at the recognition of the translation and spoke about it.
“The reception in the community is directly correlated to how good the translations are,” he explained, suggesting that this is the reason for his books’ increasing popularity in Israel.
Translating fantasy novels into Hebrew can be quite challenging, due to linguistic differences and quirky gaps between languages. This is evidenced in the issues faced by J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when it was first translated, as the Hebrew language lacked a word for elf. However, as was the case then, the translators of Sanderson’s books found a way to make it easily understandable for Israeli readers.
This, too, is indicative of the inclusivity of the Israeli geek community, something many find unique.
As Naomi Chriqui, a 22-year-old immigrant to Israel from the US who is a veteran of geek conventions both in Israel and abroad, said back at AMAI’s CAMI convention in September, Israeli conventions such as ICon and CAMi are unique because “It’s just a wholesome and fun place for anime, manga and video game fans in Israel to enjoy each other’s company.” She added that “Trust me, when I went to [conventions] in America, I could point out five things off the top of my head that kids shouldn’t be allowed to see.”
This is a sentiment that Sanderson agrees with. “You have conventions that are diehard with capital ‘F’ fans,” he said, “and you have conventions that are more welcoming. They invite younger people, and feel like a festival. And somehow, you guys [the Israeli geek community] do both!”
He added, “I wish more conventions were like this, and I will certainly be back someday.”
There are more conventions on the way: the Society’s Mehorot convention in December, the two-day Olamot convention over Passover, not to mention AMAI’s Harucon on Purim. And just like ICon, it doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, or if you’re a diehard fan or a newbie. No matter what, you will be more than welcome.