Three festivals, one Jerusalem

The Holy City is alive with things to do this summer, and the list is topped by three iconic events that are transforming the city.

Performance: Miss Revolutionary. (photo credit: ISRAEL FESTIVAL/ CYCLONE A)
Performance: Miss Revolutionary.
Every summer, Jerusalem residents and visitors enjoy a broad range of cultural events and festivals, yet three of them stand out: the Jerusalem Israel Festival, the country’s most veteran and prestigious official cultural event; the bold Oud Festival; and Mekudeshet, a relative newcomer to the scene, but in some ways the most challenging.
The Israel Festival is the most senior of the events, but with Eyal Sher stepping into the general director position, a significant transformation is under way.
Not only has the tone changed, but so have some of its goals, perhaps making the event more relevant than ever.
The Oud Festival, planned and produced by the Confederation House, has been under the aegis of its general and artistic director Effie Benaya since its inauguration in November 1999, providing a close encounter of the not-to-betaken- for-granted kind between Israelis and classical Arabic music and art. The beautiful sounds of this music have become an integral part of the listening landscape of many people over the past 18 years. The fact that the event has never been canceled, ignored or boycotted through local wars, intifadas and waves of terrorism is in itself a kind of miracle – such as this city has produced time and again.
Just nine years ago, a newcomer stepped into the arena of the capital’s large festivals – the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which, over the years, has profoundly changed its character and some of its purposes.
Better known today as Mekudeshet, it has created awareness of a range of issues, shaking long-accepted theories regarding the capacity of this city to boldly face new and unknown paths in terms of cultural and artistic events.
While there are numerous people behind every successful event, the general directors of these festivals – Sher for the Israel Festival, Benaya for the Oud Festival and Naomi Bloch Fortis for Mekudeshet – stand out for the exceptional vision and adventurousness that have had such a significant impact on the capital’s cultural and artistic landscape.
They shared their thoughts, fears, credos and visions for the city with In Jerusalem.
ALL THREE agree that planning, conceiving and producing a major festival in Jerusalem is different from doing it in any other city.
“Jerusalem is such a complex city – its population, its socioeconomic situation,” says Sher. “This is a city rife with complicated images and issues for its own population, for the general public, and of course in the eyes of the rest of the world. So yes, it is totally different.”
For Fortis of Mekudeshet, there is no question. “Of course it is different.
Nothing resembles Jerusalem in its uniqueness, depth, sensitivities and emotional impact. I am sure that we [Mekudeshet] are regarded differently here than we would be if we were doing this elsewhere. With the unorthodox approach of our festival – not taking place in conventional locations, the topics we tackle, the questions we raise – what we do here in Jerusalem raises a different kind of awareness.”
Benaya smiles at the mere question.
“This kind of festival [Oud] can happen only here, nowhere else. Despite the conventional images people have about Jerusalem, only here can one find such diversity and openness. People from the outside often fail to comprehend the genuine and profound need for the particular culture that this festival provides.
So yes – it can happen only here, in Jerusalem.”
Mekudeshet is a very demanding kind of festival – a series of events that take the public further each time, exposing it to new experiences, challenging people both physically and emotionally.
Many of the events in the festival do not take place in conventional locations like halls. Asked if the Jerusalem public has accepted this different approach, Fortis replies, “Yes. We demand more from the Jerusalem public year after year, and that public trusts us and makes the journey with us. Think of it – for example with the “Melting Frontiers” program – we ask people to come with us for five hours, without telling them in advance where we are taking them, yet they come. It could happen only here.”
SHER ADMITS that since stepping into the general director position three years ago, he has brought tremendous changes in the character of the Israel Festival – and not only because a few of the performances include nudity
Any cultural event you do in Jerusalem involves issues beyond art and culture – tourism to this city with all its implications, socioeconomic aspects and more. This city has various images both in Israeli eyes and foreign ones. This is such a complex city that any artistic and cultural activity is intertwined with so many other issues, such as questions of coexistence and the social fabric. Anything related to art we do here has implications that do not exist elsewhere.
This gives us a sense of pioneering in our endeavor here; it’s not just simply producing a festival, it is much more.”
In terms of “demanding” and “challenging,” Mekudeshet and the Oud Festival stand out. Mekudeshet blurs all of the conventional ideas about a festival.
Its events cross borders, explore new frontiers – physically and emotionally – and lower barriers between sectors and communities. The same goes for the Oud Festival, which, from its inception in 1999, positioned classical Arabic music and culture in the limelight and invited Jews and Arabs (including Palestinians from the east side of the city) to join together in the same halls and listen to that music.
“I wanted to give Arabic culture – which is the cultural background of many Israelis who came from those countries – a home, a respectful, honorable position. Bold? Maybe. Yet the public came, continues to come and has never stopped coming, even during the most difficult times we had here – intifada, wars, terrorism. We continue to run this festival, putting Jews and Arabs together – performing on the same stage and watching shoulder-to-shoulder in the same hall. That could be done only here in Jerusalem, nowhere else.”
Additionally, all three directors point out that Jerusalem also has its own elements that add to the success of any large cultural event. “There is a local creativity that doesn’t constantly mimic what is done in Paris or in New York or elsewhere in the world,” says Sher.
“As a result, any artistic activity done in Jerusalem is unique and highly interesting.
We also have quite a few arts schools here, the best arts schools in the country, which in our eyes are the basis for the next generation of artists and knowledgeable public as well.”
Sher notes that due to Jerusalem’s image in the Center of the country – namely from Tel Aviv region – it has become more difficult, over the years, to bring that public here, although this is less of a problem for the Oud Festival, which has its aficionados – including Arab residents – who come faithfully each year.
“We had to work hard to bring that part of the public back to us,” admits Sher. “Over the years since the Israel Festival began as the only serious venue for art and culture, lots of new events have been coming to Israel. It is a natural process, but we have managed by now to bring much of our audience back to us by refreshing our programs, proposing new ideas and maintaining a very high artistic level.”
As for the cost of attending these events, considering that Jerusalem is a poor city, all three directors insist that they are sensitive to that issue and are doing their utmost so that cost won’t prevent culture lovers from attending.
“We have dramatically reduced the prices of the tickets,” says Sher. “No tickets cost more than NIS 200 and the majority cost less. We seek ways to subsidize tickets for young adults, students, seniors and residents of lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, with good results.”
Benaya says that he hasn’t hesitated all these years to seek solutions to bring the public – including organized low-cost transportation from the North (for Israeli Arabs from Nazareth and the vicinity),
and to find funding to reduce prices for target segments of the population – such as special grants from the Jerusalem Development Authority for Ethiopian culture events that the Confederation House produces. The same goes for Mekudeshet, which has a policy of affordable tickets prices, as well as presale offerings at greatly reduced prices.
THE ISRAEL Festival dares to propose a broad range of programs that attract secular and religious sectors – including some performances including nudity – all the while managing to remain above stormy criticism; Mekudeshet provides innovative and unexpected encounters with some of the most remote and unknown sectors of this city; and the Oud Festival fosters genuine coexistence, without trite rhetoric but with lots of shared pleasure from a high-quality musical experience.
All three festivals underscore the validity of the conviction that things like this could happen only here in Jerusalem.