Jerusalem hosts free Poetry and Song Ushpizin Festival

The vast majority of the shows feature poetry excerpts from various cultures and eras, with some discussion by specialists in the particular field.

BASSIST-TAMBURA player Naor Carmi and his trio will present singular readings of melodies by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. (photo credit: OHAD ROMANO)
BASSIST-TAMBURA player Naor Carmi and his trio will present singular readings of melodies by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
(photo credit: OHAD ROMANO)
There is something of the wandering Jew ethos about the free Poetry and Song Ushpizin Festival, which will be Zoom-facilitated across the country and, surely, around the globe October 4 to 6 during Hol Hamoed Sukkot. The Confederation House project, which is supported by the Culture and Sport Ministry and the municipality’s culture administration, traipses gaily across cultural boundaries and geographic milieu in a program devised by author and poet Benyamin Shvily.

The roster catches the eye and invokes some grey matter dynamics too, in an expansive thematic and stylistic beat that takes in intriguing synergies that marry seemingly disparate areas of artistic and cultural creative pursuit. Take, for example, the opening slot in the Ushpizin rollout, which references the tradition of inviting ushpizin (guests) to the sukkah.

Shvily, under the auspices of Confederation House CEO and artistic director Effie Benaya, has put together a broadly roaming program that kicks off at 5 p.m. on October 4, with an alluring encounter between Japanese haiku poetry and internationally lauded Nazareth-born oud player and composer Wissam Joubran. Considering the concise poetry format originally served as the overture to the longer renga form of Japanese collaborative poetry, it seems fitting that it should be the curtain-raiser for the three-day agenda.

The vast majority of the shows feature poetry excerpts from various cultures and eras, with some learned discussion by specialists in the particular field. The scholastic tete-a-tetes will be followed by musical performances, and Shvily has brought in some of our leading purveyors of ethic music across numerous strains, as well as more commercially oriented Western sounds. The aforementioned opener, for example, will have poets Alex Ben-Ari and Edna Gourni examining the path to enlightenment inherent in the haiku discipline, with Shvily moderating, before Joubran brings some of his own cultural and regional baggage to the Far Eastern fray.

Pathways, transitions and searching for meaning and some higher spiritual plane, are very much to the fore in the whole three-dayer. That, says Shvily, should have been tangibly presented in the original festival format.

“The concept of the festival, which started last year as just a one-day event – we started planning it prior to the corona outbreak – was to have a live, buzzing program with a sukkah outside the Confederation House. And there were supposed to be bookstalls and a stage with live jazz and other music, and live performances in the Confederation House auditorium. It was supposed to be a sort of pilgrimage to the Confederation House. It was going to be a fantastic happening.” That feeds off the millennia-old custom of Jews making their way to Jerusalem on foot on Sukkot. Then there is the tradition of asking people into the sukkah as ushpizin, which also involves an official roll call of some of the Jewish forefathers and other leading biblical figures, such as Abraham, Joseph and King David, but the custom extends to all and sundry during the course of the seven-day holiday. Naturally comestibles make an appearance at some stage, SHVILY NOTES that the hospitality element is not a specifically Jewish-oriented social venture.

“It says in one of the Prophets [biblical books] that all the nations of the world will make the ascent to Jerusalem to worship God. It is something very universal.”

Hence the wide cross-cultural reach of the Shvily lineup.

“The idea was not to have a festival that was limited to Hebrew poetry. We wanted to host poetry from around the world. There are so many kinds of poetry we appreciate and love, and that have been translated [into Hebrew].” The accent, Shvily stresses, is very much on an inclusive, accepting and harmonious mind-set.

“The poetry we will be looking at includes themes of peace and togetherness, and an appreciation of other cultures. There will be Hebrew poetry, but we also want to introduce people to material from other parts of the world, from other cultures, so that people can get to know something about them.” In this time of pandemic madness when our traveling opportunities are severely curtailed, the Poetry and Song Ushpizin Festival goes beyond the borderless virtual movement of the Internet-fed data, to dip into the substrata of cultural climes that, hitherto, were not on too many people’s horizons. “We want to make poetry from around the world accessible – to talk about it and to host it, as befitting the ushpizin custom.” That includes the English-speaking world, and the second day of the festival will close with a concert led by Jerusalemite singer-keyboardist and spoken-word artist Hadarah Levin-Areddy who spent some of her formative years in New York. The 10:15 p.m. show goes by the name of “I Sing Myself,” which references “Song of Myself,” the first of a dozen works by 19th century American poet Walt Whitman that comprise his masterly Leaves of Grass tome, which was first published in 1855. Levin-Areddy will be joined by trombonist-vocalist Avi Schneider, guitarist Shlomo Langer and drummer Haim Peskoff in a tribute to feted troubadour and Nobel Prize laureate poet Bob Dylan, whom Shvily describes, along with Whitman, as the “aristocratic wild seeds of American poetry.” It is, says the artistic director, a natural fit.

“All these poets, [beat poet Allen] Ginsberg, Dylan and all the rest couldn’t have existed without Walt Whitman.”

That, Shvily adds, applies in particular to Dylan.

“He talks about the whole of America, north and south and everywhere. Whitman also wrote about that. Whitman is part of Dylan’s DNA. When I hear country music, I hear Whitman’s spirit.”

Shvily infers that connecting to the likes of the 19th century American writer is more important now than ever before, in this time of heated internal strife.

“Whitman, first and foremost, represents democratic poetry, the poetry of the citizen. It is poetry that is positive, that says yes to everything. It doesn’t say no to anything, other than to evil and things that are damaging.” Shvily feels that Whitman’s impact goes far beyond the boundaries of his own time and his own country.

“He is also very present in Hebrew poetry. Even [Israel Prize recipient poet] Uri Zvi Greenberg, who did not much like poets who were not Jewish or did not write in Hebrew, greatly appreciated Walt Whitman and wrote very complimentary things about him. I think that any Israeli poet worth his salt has read Whitman, including Yehuda Amichai.” That all-embracing spirit runs through the entire three-day Confederation House program.

“What we do on Sukkot is leave our house and live in the sukkah,” Shvily explains. “It is about transitions, and the festival does the rounds of the world.”

THE ARTISTIC director also has a great interest in the work and life of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the late 18th century-early 19th century founder of the eponymous hassidic movement and who, today, has numerous followers the world over. The 210th anniversary of Rabbi Nachman’s death occurs on the last evening of the festival, and will be marked by the closing concert of the program led by bassist-Turkish tambura player Naor Carmi, a seasoned musician who has traversed numerous areas of music over the years, including ethnic material of various hues, jazz, blues and rock. He will be joined by the other members of his long-standing trio: guitarist Nadav Bachar and veteran percussionist Asaf Zamir, who will offer fresh readings of some of Rabbi Nachman’s niggunim, or melodies.

While not a Breslov Hassid himself, Carmi says he connects strongly with the spiritual leader’s messages, and that his popularity is on the rise.

“More and more people around the world glean material vitality from him. Their lives are influenced tangibly by his teachings, and in a corporeal sense, too.”

Carmi believes that we can all profit from Rabbi Nachman’s mind-set and teachings.

“He offers people emotional relief and makes people feel less lonely in this world.”

But it is not just the spiritual-remedial qualities of the rabbi’s niggunim that appeal to Carmi. He says that Rabbi Nachman was up there with the best of them, as a composer.

“His work is not inferior to the compositions of people like Chopin and Schubert. It is a great honor for me to play his music to the words of Ha’Ari [16th century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria].

Carmi and his fellow bandmates will not perform the niggunim as is, or as was. “Everything I have done in music, my time with Meir Ariel and Beri Sacharoff and all the rest, will all come into what we do. That’s a key part of me.” With poetry and music colored by sensibilities from India, Persia, medieval Spain and Sufism, to mention but a few of the cultural lines of attack in the three day program, the Poetry and Song Ushpizin Festival should appeal to many and sundry across the globe.

For more information: www.confederationhouse.org