Jerusalem's sacred music festival takes pluralistic approach

For music lovers, Mekudeshet at the magical venue of the Tower of David (September 7-15) never fails to inspire.

A SCENE from last year’s Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival at Tower of David Museum. (photo credit: MICHAL FATTAL)
A SCENE from last year’s Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival at Tower of David Museum.
(photo credit: MICHAL FATTAL)
JERUSALEM’S THREE-WEEK Mekudeshet (Sacred Music Festival) kicks off on August 23 with an impressive array of events around the capital, challenging any preconceptions you may have had about Jerusalem as a cultural center.
This is just Mekudeshet’s second year, but the festival is a condensed version of the previous Jerusalem Season of Culture’s summer festival which, over the past six years, has established itself as one of the highlights of the Israeli cultural scene with consistently high-quality events that are invariably innovative, creative and fun to boot.
Among the highlights this year: Above and Beyond rooftop exhibits; Dissolving Boundaries tours; a collective all-night session assisted by a DJ, jogging along Jerusalem’s seamline with a headphone guide; an artistic event that is also a scientific experiment; the revival of an ancient ceremony; an experimental sound experience in the Valley of the Cross; and much more.
For music lovers, Mekudeshet at the magical venue of the Tower of David (September 7-15) never fails to inspire.
This year’s festival will include concerts by the influential Jamaican reggae dub duo Sly and Robbie, and by Khaira Arby of Mali (the Queen of the Sahara), who will perform in an all-women closing concert on September 15. An impressive list of Israeli performers, including Eviatar Banai, Ester Rada, Dudu Tassa and Yael Deckelbaum, also will play at the Tower and other venues.
“Night Stroll” presents original productions created especially for the festival, showcasing local musical talent, which keeps seven stages going simultaneously all night long across the Tower of David compound.
In all, 195 local artists and 25 from abroad will perform this year.
Mekudeshet, which means sacred in Hebrew, is at the core of all the festival’s artistic content, but not, as the festival organizers put it, in the narrow, religious sense.
“Mekudeshet is the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s signature event. It’s an enormous festival: it’s multidisciplinary, contemporary and specific to Jerusalem,” explains Philadelphia native Karen Brunwasser, Mekudeshet’s deputy director. “It attempts to take a pluralistic approach to sacredness bringing audiences and artists from all over the world from every shape, size, color and orientation to Jerusalem and express that which is sacred to them.”
Artistic director Itay Mautner hopes Mekudeshet can change people’s perceptions.
“We are asking questions about what is holy and what is sacred in our lives. We try to bring people to all kinds of different sanctified moments. Art and culture is one way of allowing ourselves to break out of our automatic responses, thoughts and ways of looking at ourselves and others, and maybe, for a brief moment, reach a different or higher level.”
Anyone who has looked down on the roofs of Jerusalem’s Old City will notice that the areas are often used for sleeping, entertaining or growing plants. In west Jerusalem, rooftops tend to be abandoned areas. Hence, the idea behind the Above and Beyond project.
MEKUDESHET WILL open 10 usually inaccessible roofs along Jaffa road from the Clal Center to the Old City for 10 nights, each featuring a special art installation. The project invites audiences to change their perspectives, literally, by climbing up to some of the capital’s most extraordinary rooftops.
“We want to point out that roofs are here and we can use them in many beautiful ways,” explains Mautner. “For example, urban agriculture – we can produce food on rooftops or look at our lives and the city differently. Over 10 days, you can visit roofs and engage with different kinds of artistic forms and with the city in an alternative and more radical way.”
Dissolving Boundaries, which also featured in last year’s festival, is being expanded this year.
“It’s a fabulous project, very innovative,” says Brunwasser. “Essentially, Jerusalem is a place that people love to put into a box, to characterize very narrowly. But, in reality, the people of Jerusalem dissolve boundaries ‒ they have very complex identities. People are characterized by the way they look, but then you discover it’s much more complex than that.”
On offer are meticulously planned fivehour tours, or as the organizers call them, journeys, by minibus or on foot, accompanied by an audio guide that includes music. This includes an English-language journey that will run once a week throughout the festival. You won’t find any of the usual tourist attractions, however, as you embark on a trip into the unknown ‒ the itinerary is not revealed ahead of the event.
“We take audiences around the city and they meet four, five or six different boundary dissolvers. These are people who are pioneering new models, new ways of dealing with Jerusalem and Israel’s complexity. They might be leading change in education, art or community engagement, but it’s people who are hopeful, complex and thinking with open eyes,” says Brunwasser.
This year’s festival comes in the wake of two tense weeks at the end of July when the dispute over the Temple Mount again threatened to plunge the capital into a new round of violence. The celebrations in June around the 50th anniversary of Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War also laid bare the strikingly different Israeli and Palestinian narratives.
“Kulna”(All of Us), a musical gathering produced especially for Mekudeshet, will try to put these differences aside, featuring for one night the best of Israeli/Palestinian/Arab music with references to some surprisingly contemporary Middle Eastern trends in Mitchell Park outside the walls of the Old City.
“For one night, we are going to imagine the Middle East of our dreams,” Brunwasser explains. “Imagine what the Middle East would sound like if we didn’t have all this political conflict.”
The East West Orchestra (formerly the Jerusalem Andalusian Orchestra) will host Muhammad Mughrabi, Dikla, Saliman, Nasreen Qadri, Apo Sahagian and Ziv Yehezkel with an eclectic Hebrew-Arabic musical extravaganza.
And, if you have energy left, don’t miss the “Kulna” after party, with DJs and musicians, focusing on the hippest Levant music.
Yet, despite its growing popularity, the Jerusalem Season of Culture has been criticized over the fact that many of its leading artistic team are not actually residents of the capital.
THERE ALSO has been criticism that some of the most popular events of past years have been dropped from the schedule, such as Contact Point, which transformed the Israel Museum, and Balabasta which brought thousands of revelers to the Mahane Yehuda market. The organizers’ insistence on innovation and creating new programs each year will naturally disappoint some festival goers who want to revisit the events of previous years.
Mekudeshet also launched a brand new digital platform this summer with a specially commissioned clip, “Open Jerusalem.” The platform will provide access to the festival’s events to audiences around the world; share specially created digital art; and generate a robust debate about the city, art, Mekudeshet and everything in between.
The festival began with a pilot session eight years ago, and last year changed its format to a three-week condensed festival called Mekudeshet, produced by the Jerusalem Season of Culture. This will be the last Mekudeshet festival with Mautner in charge and it remains to be seen how the event will develop without his guidance. But, after almost nine years at the helm, he feels it is time to take on new challenges.
“I really believe in movement and I think I’ve had my say and done my stuff,” he says. “It’s time for me to move to other places and for other people to give Mekudeshet and the Jerusalem Season of Culture their own thumbprint.”
More details about Mekudeshet events can be found at