Word on the street

By Mahaneh Yehuda, the Poetry Place is bidding to revive cultural tradition stretching back to the Bible.

poet 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
poet 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Beautiful land Delight of the world City of Kings My heart longs for you from the far-off west I am very sad when I remember how you were Now your glory is gone, your homes destroyed If I could fly to you on the wings of eagles I would soak your soil with my tears These words of longing in praise of the Holy City, written by the famous medieval Rabbi Yehuda Halevy (c. 1075-1141), are part of a continuum of Hebrew poetry stretching from biblical times to the present. From the Song of Songs to modern Hebrew poetry's beginning in the 19th century and the subsequent work of contemporary Israeli writers, the Jewish people have always found a way to express their deepest feelings and aspirations through Hebrew verse. And the city of Jerusalem has always taken center stage. Today, in the city which has inspired so many poets throughout history, poetry has, according to many local writers, finally arrived at its deserved place in the cultural landscape, as part of a larger revitalization taking place in the capital. Five years ago Dr. Gilad Meiri initiated and created a center for local poets and poetry, Makom L'Shira (Poetry Place), at the Lev Ha'Ir Community Center near the Mahaneh Yehuda market. The Poetry Place has grown into a thriving center, with ongoing poetry and prose workshops for youth and adults, monthly evenings of poetry readings and a series of classes on autobiography and memoir writing. According to Meiri they receive more than 6000 visitors each month and are planning a neighborhood poetry festival for September entitled "Meter on Meter." In addition, the first printed issue of their poetry journal is planned for the end of this year, and in the fall the Poetry Place will start a poetry workshop in English, taught by Dr. Lisa Katz of the Hebrew University. "It seems that a very special way of thinking is taking place here, which promotes a deconstruction in the traditional perception of culture in the community centers," says Meiri, who was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for poetry in 2001 and in 2002 won first prize in the Ha'aretz novella competition. "From here, from the Lev Ha'Ir Community Center, which serves as a meeting point for communities with common interests and not just geographical proximity, there is an opportunity to build new edifices in the rich cultural life in the city." He insists that the somewhat unorthodox location was chosen not out of necessity, but as part of the message he wishes to convey. "Culture is not just another word for filling up your free time. We must fight against this image, and bring it back to the community where the people are, and bring it back to its deserved, honorable place," he says. "The Poetry Place," says Meiri, "works on the social and community level, unlike any other initiative connected with poetry or prose in Israel. Anyone can take part in an exciting encounter with community creativity, as part of a very high cultural but not specifically academic dialogue. "We create evenings of social involvement around poetry, which we also export to the periphery as part of poetry festivals all over the country. Some of the material created here is later put to music and performed by local musicians," he continues. "We also have workshops with kids and parents from underprivileged communities," he adds. "We really believe that culture is for all and should not be a remote and inaccessible thing. We really hope that the model we have created will become a model that will be applied all over the country." At the least, he says, "It will help improve, if only a little, the stigma of amateurism that has been attributed to the community centers." Reviving poetry among the masses is part of a recent trend of bringing culture into the streets, says Meiri. "We wanted to see that the present, and the situation on the ground [today], could also find expression. Culture, in opposition to what we see and hear, has lots of customers." Makom L'Shira is one of several new cultural endeavors located in the heart of Jerusalem, including the Barbur art galler and performance space, which also hosts poetry readings and writing workshops, and the Agrippas 12 Gallery, a cooperative venture primarily for visual artists. "It is not just a coincidence," says Meiri. "It is all part of the same process. We paved the way and now it has become a norm." Meiri admits that being part of the Lev Ha'Ir staff helped get the poetry center off the ground. "Uri Amedi, the head of Lev Ha'Ir, is the perfect person who will share your ideas and walk with you on new paths. It is very simple: If we, the artists in all fields, are not going to take the ploughs in our hands and do the job that has to be done, there will be no cultural life in Jerusalem." For twenty years the Lev Ha'Ir Community Center, under Amedi's direction, has been a prime mover in the revitalization of the Mahaneh Yehuda and downtown area. Providing services and activities to the young Arab workers in the market, organizing the merchants of the city center into a business association and creating the Nahlaot Heritage Center are only some of the center's accomplishments. Amedi's backing was crucial to the establishment of the poetry center and he admits that it was not hard to convince him of the project's worth, despite the obstacles inherent in such an endeavor. "Today it is much easier to obtain funds for the needy than for poetry, but I will not renounce [my path]. I am a strong believer in the profoundly genuine, human need for culture as culture and not as entertainment for one's free time. "The city center can be a place of steak houses, bazaars and eateries, or it can become the place for developing culture that comes from and goes to the people of the city," he says. "It doesn't mean that we want to wipe out other expressions of culture, like what we call popular culture. There is a legitimate place for this also, but we should not surrender to this kind of trend, that says shopping and fun at the mall are 'culture' instead of the real thing." Amedi uses an unexpected example to illustrate his vision. "Think about the signs in front of the shops in Jerusalem. They are large, aggressive - the very look of the shops conveys a message of rudeness. It is not a trivial issue, it is part of the larger picture. The way the public area looks means a lot and says a lot about the situation of culture "What has already been done about the look of the shops, an initiative of our community center with the support of volunteer architects and the shopkeepers in the city center, has already created another social climate." For Amedi, the physical state of the Mahaneh Yehuda market is the ultimate example. "Remember how the market looked not so long ago? Dirt, garbage and noise. Look at it today. A few years ago, even before we began the cleaning and rehabilitation project of the market, we brought poetry to the market, and it worked. We put signs with parts of poems and recipes on Rehov Egoz and Rehov Shaked. It was a great success and nobody destroyed them. For me, the market is like the lab of life. What works out there will work elsewhere." He also mentions the Streetsongs project, which for the second year is adorning Jerusalem's streets with poems. The project was first conceived at Lev Ha'Ir, with input from Meiri and his poet friends, and is funded by the Jerusalem Foundation. "People expected a high level of vandalism. Well, nothing happened, no one touched them. Isn't that proof that there is a thirst for real, non-imported or faked culture?" says Amedi. "You see, in the face of all this 'business thinking' that swamps us, what we acknowledge is that people still want to stop in the street in order to read a poem. What else do we need to realize that culture is not an ornament, but a genuine, deep and natural need?" But of course, that kind of optimism doesn't mean that investing in the cultural landscape is so easy. "The traditional concept of a culture and community center does not include these kinds of projects," Amedi admits. "We usually work with difficult budgets, and this type of project doesn't bring us any income. On the contrary, it needs money and it's not easy these days. Fundraising is so connected with issues of poverty and the needy - you have to struggle hard to get these funds, but we still manage." THE POETRY Place isn't the only place where poetry is coming back to life in Jerusalem. The Confederation House held a weekly poetry reading series during the winter and there are regular poetry readings at Beit Avi Chai as well. In addition to the long-running, semi-annual International Poetry Festival, this year saw the inauguration of the Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers and Poets, or Kisufim, which in Hebrew means "longing." The conference was organized by Hava Pinhas-Cohen, the editor of the literature, arts and culture journal Dimui, and herself a well-known poet. "I created Dimui in 1989. It came as an answer to an existing need that we identified in the public, but it was first and foremost a declaration. We even published our manifest in the first issue," she recalls. "It was the first time that a literary journal was created and published in Jerusalem. Previously, this existed only in Tel Aviv and no one even thought to do such a thing in Jerusalem," she says. "We didn't want to be against Tel Aviv, we just wanted to say there is also a place for Jerusalem, and it is a different one." Dimui incorporates part of that difference by allotting a section for poetry and prose by religious authors. "We wanted to reach the traditional community and even the ultra-Orthodox and offer them something they couldn't get anywhere else. Thus it was from the beginning a very special journal. We didn't publish things or photos that could hurt the feelings of religious people. But besides that, it was from the very beginning a very high-level journal, and the fact is that even now, almost 20 years later, Dimui is still here and very respected." A religious sensibility isn't the only contribution Dimui has made, Pinhas-Cohen says. "We used Hebrew as a language deeply rooted in its ancient sources, before the modern Hebrew of the last century and the one created in the modern State of Israel. "We felt that Dimui was part of the next stage in this renaissance, both of the Hebrew and the Israeli Jewish culture," she says. "We offered a place for all poetry makers, whoever they were - all lovers of high-level poetry were welcome in our pages. "And today, we can see the new generation, especially the exciting amount of creativity from young religious people in Jerusalem, many of them from the settlements, who find their way to literature and poetry," she continues. "What we did above all was to establish a thread that connects our Jewishness and our Israeli identity," she says. "That's how we came to the conclusion that we needed to gather here in Jerusalem. Thus was born the idea and the concept of Kisufim, the meeting of Jewish writers and poets from all over the world in Jerusalem - the perfect place for verses." Pinhas-Cohen says that now that poetry and writing are slowly but surely gaining their deserved place in the city's cultural life, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the way Jerusalem is perceived in those very writings. "Jerusalem is still a very problematic place in the poetry written today. For centuries, Jerusalem was a kind of dream, something so remote that it was almost not part of reality anymore. I can see how things have improved and the love for Jerusalem has come a long way, but there is a need for a poet, bold enough and most of all gifted enough, to say in Hebrew the words that will allow us to love Jerusalem again." Perhaps just such a talent is already attending a workshop at the Poetry Place, finding the inspiration and support to bring a lofty vision down to earth as part of the next generation of Jerusalem's poets.