Rhyme and reason in Metulla

As usual, the program covers numerous bases, with writers of different generations, cultural baggage and literary bent spread across the four-dayer agenda.

Veteran ethnic music artist Piris Eliyahu (photo credit: RIVKA ELIYAHU)
Veteran ethnic music artist Piris Eliyahu
(photo credit: RIVKA ELIYAHU)
For some, Shavuot may mean cheesecake, while others may be gearing up for the tikun leil Shavuot all-nighter.
Then there are others who head north – practically as far north as you can go in this country – to Metulla for the annual Poets Festival, which runs June 9-12 under the auspices of Confederation House in Jerusalem and its director, Effie Benaya. The diminutive town has been hosting the fundamentally lyrical event for 18 years now, and the 19th edition shows all the signs of being perfectly capable of keeping the audiences duly riveted.
As usual, the program covers numerous bases, with writers of different generations, cultural baggage and literary bent spread across the four-dayer agenda. The proceedings kick off with the customary Teva Prize award ceremony for newcomer poets, which will be attended by Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev. There are a number of music shows dotted across the schedule, starting with the Tov Shehaolam Gadol (It’s Good That the World is Big) concert based on the works of Ukrainian-born Israeli poet Yechiel Perlmutter – better known by his nom de plume Avot Yeshurun – with vocalists Shai Tzabari and Karmi Zisafel, and guitarist-vocalist Eran Weitz doing the musical honors.
In the last decade or so, shira betzibur – community sing-along – has enjoyed an impressive renaissance. That is something that will be addressed at the Friday night (8 p.m.) slot at the Beit Shalom hotel in Metulla, when preeminent 64-year-old Israeli song historian, researcher and performer Ofer Gavish gets together with 78-year-old poet, songwriter and translator Yossi Gamzu. The evening will include readings of some of Gamzu’s work, with the septuagenarian also offering the audience some insight into the creative machinations behind the poems, and Gavish will perform some nuggets from the Great Israeli Songbook.
Gavish has been in the field for a long time and, for him, songs are not just about putting lyrics to music, or vice versa.
“Music is a language. That is clear to me,” he states. “But songs also convey a sense of history. That is something relatively new. In the past, you had historical documents and you had songs and folklore, which were something very different. But now you have songs that contain important stories, just like the letters of David Ben-Gurion are related to as historical exhibits. The poems and songs give you a sense of historical perspective.”
Although he is some way past his first flush of youth, Gavish does his best to keep up with the times. The Hebrew language has changed pretty dramatically in recent decades, with all sorts of expressions, even including old idioms being invested with new meaning.
“I respect and accept that,” he says. “In every generation there are two phenomena. One is that the new generation creates its own language, and the other one is that it scorns whatever came before it. People look at TalkBack and Facebook messages and they say what terrible language. But they forget that their parents laughed at the way they spoke, too.”
That is not to say that there are no younger artists out there who uphold the finer points of lyric-based communication. “Values change and the language develops, but today, too, there are artists like Idan Raichel and Yali Sobol and Keren Peles who write lyrics in very nice Hebrew.”
Gavish is also, naturally, delighted with reemergence of community singing and is a major contributor to the genre. “That is something particularly Israeli,” he says, with more than a hint of pride. “There are places where you have people joining in with the singer, but it’s not like here where you have the lyrics screened so that everyone can sing along. People like Saraleh Sharon and Einat Sarouf are not singers per se, but they are so good at enthusing people and creating a special ambiance and getting them to join in with them.”
Of course, it helps to have good raw material, and Gavish’s counterpart in the Poets Festival has been providing an abundance of that for over half a century. “Yossi’s songs frequently feature in shira betzibur, and he writes constantly.”
Like Gavish, the 78-year-old writer is adept at going with the generational flow. “He includes all sorts of newer words and expressions in his lyrics, like sababa (great), and that sort of thing. But his work is also very beautiful and very cultured.”
Gamzu’s ability to embrace the here and now, says Gavish, helps to keep him at the forefront of in the entertainment public eye. “I perform with him quite a lot, and it’s fascinating to see youngsters in the audience. We also do covers of old songs, and that is very popular, too.”
The latter, Gavish notes, is partly fueled by the success of reality TV shows. “You see young competitors on programs like Kochav Nolad (A Star Is Born), taking old songs and presenting them with a new reading. I think that is wonderful.” The airs of yesteryear, it seems, are not the exclusive preserve of the oldies.
There are plenty of celebrities on board for the Poets Festival, including veteran media personality, journalist and songwriter Yaron London, who will illuminate his audience – at his intriguing “If Donkeys and Swans Could Sing” slot – about numbers he wrote to the music of Saint-Saens’s “Carnival of the Animals.” The session will be moderated by writer Benny Tziffer, who also serves as artistic director of the whole four-day shebang.
There is also another salute to Slovakian-born 92-year-old Israel Prize laureate poet Tuvia Ribner, who will be joined by a member of the highly talented younger writing crowd, Shlomi Hatuka. And there are sure to be some fireworks at the tribute to poet and outspoken literary critic Menahem Ben, which will also be overseen by Tziffer.
Iraqi-born poet Ronny Someck is a fixture at the festival, and his turns in Metulla are always entertaining. This year he will be joined by writer and political science lecturer Prof. Sami Shalom Chetrit in a session that goes by the curious name of Being an Uncursed and Unblasphemous Poet, in which the protagonists will take a look at social protest.
There will also be a tribute to Jerusalemite poet Yisrael Eliraz, who died earlier this year a day before his 83rd birthday, and there will be some guided tours of the locale. Add to that some quality musical entertainment from the likes of veteran ethnic music artist Piris Eliyahu, who will be joined by his kamancheh (spike violin)-playing son Mark, guitarist Idan Armoni, percussionist Gil Hameiri, and vocalists Itai Ben-Zaken and Nissim Lugasi, and the Shoteh Ahava (Drinking Love) poetry-music show, and you have yourself one well-rounded festival. 
For tickets and more information: http://www.confederationhouse.org, (04) 837-7777 and www.barak-tickets.co.il