Things appear to be changing – for the better – in Jerusalem, at least on the entertainment front. On more than one occasion, I have heard gripes from Tel Aviv-based artists about how tough it is to entice Jerusalemites out of their homes to go to various cultural venues. That, they groan, is particularly challenging in the winter when culture consumption entails venturing out into the biting, if not downright freezing, Jerusalem air.
According to Ann Deych, that is simply no longer the case. As artistic director of the annual Xoref (Winter) Festival, which is having its second run at numerous points around the capital December 21-23, she should know. “We did it at HaMiffal [“The Factory” arts community hub] last year, although on a smaller scale. The idea was to have something sort of cozy. It worked really well. Loads of people came to it,” she enthuses, and with good reason.
Deych – and plenty of her fellow Jerusalemites – are more than happy to brave the seasonal elements to meet up for some social interaction or cultural enrichment, she says. “I really like it when it’s raining and you go out to some bar to meet people or go to a cultural venue or café, and there is a warm ambiance inside.”
The festival base, she says, offers a suitable welcoming setting. “HaMiffal really flourishes in the winter. It is a large place. There is plenty of space, and it’s heated. Winter is the best time of year for HaMiffal.”
“HaMiffal really flourishes in the winter. It is a large place. There is plenty of space, and it’s heated. Winter is the best time of year for HaMiffal.”Ann Deych
By the way, the season in question is referenced in the festival moniker, which feeds off a subtle multilingual play on words. The X is pronounced as in Russian, like the first letter – chet – of the Hebrew word for winter: choref.
Winter festival at HaMiffal in Jerusalem
ANYONE WHO trotted along to the late-19th-century downtown HaMiffal building last year will now find that they have many more cultural, entertainment and social options to pick and choose from this time round. The three-day program spreads across all manner of artistic disciplines, from movement, dance and music, to a thought-provoking art exhibition, Hanukkah- and Christmas-themed tours, shows for the junior crowd and a tantalizing performance-sketch offering.
The latter is overseen by UK-based Israeli artist Ram Samocha who, together with US-born painter Ethan Dor-Shav and German-born multidisciplinary artist Belle Shafir, devised the Draw to Perform festival segment.
The title basically says it all. In recent years, Samocha has gained global renown for his performative drawing presentations which allow members of the public to follow the unconventional process of creation and see the magic unfold before their very eyes, often with some musical underpinning, recorded or live.
A graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Samocha started the captivating mixed media venture around 10 years ago and, in the interim, has spread the word – and visual and sonic aesthetics – around the world. The Xoref drawing marathon will incorporate three slots, spread over two days, with the largely pre-planned works also leaving generous room for improvisational maneuvers. Some of that may also involve onlookers getting in on the artistic derring-do.
It won’t just be about observing how works of art come into being. Creatively inclined folk can also get some tips on the requisite dynamics over at HaMiffal, with Samocha expounding on his artistic philosophy in a talk on the first day of the festival, followed by a workshop on his theatrical approach to drawing.
And you don’t need to turn up armed with a bulging portfolio of your own work to get in, as the December 22 morning workshop is for beginners. Dor-Shav and Shafir also take a step outside the confines of drawing with their respective Zazua and Non Finito performances.
RUNNING YOUR eye down the Xoref agenda, you get the distinct impression this is very much in the street-level, grassroots vein. It is also about getting Jerusalemites – and any out-of-towners that make their way up the hill – to put in a shift to get a taste of what the local arts scene is up to these days.
“We came up with the idea of collaborating with other centers of creativity in Jerusalem,” Deych explains. She and her programming partners did the rounds. “We went to the YMCA, the Train Theater, Museum on the Seam, Tower of David and Muslala, and we suggested they join in a joint project. They all said yes.”
That came as no surprise to the festival artistic director. “One of the things I feel is special about Jerusalem is the cultural facilities we have here, and the people who run them.” It was also about straying a little beyond the mainstream-arts run of things. “There are lots of festivals, but this is an independent venture,” says Deych. “We came up with the idea, but this is something that came up from the ranks – from the centers themselves.”
If the peripatetic line of thought rings a gentle bell, you may not be the only one who is reminded of the Shaon Horef (Winter Clock) program which takes place on Mondays every February. One of the main ideas behind both festivals is to get people up on their feet, roaming around town in search of culture, arts and fun.
When I mentioned the similarity between the two, Deych immediately put me straight. “Yes, that’s also about people moving around, but Shaon Horef is about people going to different business enterprises on particular streets. It is not about cultural centers.”
That, she says, makes a fundamental difference to the core concept and to what the public gets. “Each center has its own perspective. For instance, the Train Theater has shows that address Hanukkah, [while] the YMCA has all sorts of events for the whole family on the theme of Christmas. And the Tower of David has guided tours, with hanukkiyot [menorahs], and also in the Old City with the Christmas market there. It is all about the approaches of the centers themselves to the religious holidays at this time of the year.”
THE LATTER also sounds somewhat familiar, conjuring up thoughts of another seasonal festival: the Holiday of Holidays bash up north in Haifa, which is currently underway. It began life over two decades ago, when Ramadan, Hanukkah and Christmas coincided.
“I actually wanted to call our festival Holiday of Holidays,” Deych laughs, although adding that the initial inspiration came from farther afield. “I thought of all the Christmas fairs they have in Europe and the United States. There is an element to it that is so nice and cozy and community-oriented. I think we manage to create that spirit in Jerusalem, too.”
Deych also confesses to having something of an ulterior motive to the Xoref undertaking, particularly after I’d expressed the sense that the work produced by Jerusalem-based artists offers some added value, some unique ingredient that you don’t necessarily find at the western end of Route One. “I think so, too,” she concurs. “That’s why I stay here.”
It is no secret that many budding artists come over to Jerusalem, from Tel Aviv and elsewhere around the country, and spend three or four years studying, say, at Bezalel. But once they have their diploma safely in their grasp, they scuttle back west where rents are cheaper, employment is more plentiful and, yes, the winters are more temperate.
Some years ago, a sound artist told me that, as there was little chance of his making a good living from his chosen profession, he simply did what he liked. That was the positive flip side of the existential Jerusalem conundrum: that there were no commercial considerations to sully his artistic judgment. Deych believes things have improved here, driven by a sincere quest for creative truth and a sense of “we’re all in this together.”
“In the final analysis, [art] comes from the people who live here. They understand they have to create a reality that they want to see materialize. They know that if they don’t do something, it simply won’t happen. So people get on with it.”
That, she says, has a ripple effect across the entire Jerusalem arts scene. “The people that now manage cultural institutions started out in the margins. They worked sort of underground when they were younger.” They duly grew up and had to deal with ensuing financial and other responsibilities, of having a family and all the concomitant brass tacks.
Art may be their driving ambition, but they still need to feed mouths and pay the utility bills. “They became more serious and decided to do something tangible about their work – and set up new places which helped other artists, and help keep them in Jerusalem.”
That pureness of mind and creative intent, says Deych, filters through to the festival hub. “There is a sense of community and the collective about HaMiffal. It is an arts and cultural center that has been around for six years now. It is a special place.”
FESTIVALGOERS WHO opt to hole up in the cozy confines of HaMiffal can catch quite a few of the Xoref events while they sip their hot cider or sink their teeth into some tasty wholesome vittles. You can also contribute to the festival’s festive spirit by joining artist Hadas Golan in putting up holiday-compatible decorations.
In addition to the aforementioned performative drawing itinerary, there will be some festive cheer on offer with the Novy God traditional Russian New Year celebrations, a little ahead of calendar schedule. (“God” here means “year” – it is a secular holiday.)
Kazakhstan-born Deych, who made aliyah with her family as a tiny tot, identifies with that and says the holiday is now embraced by the locals. “I think that now, more Israelis celebrate Novy God than Sylvester [the Gregorian calendar New Year].” That’s a surprise.
The Russian-Israeli interface will also get some gastronomic twists at the Novy God Mediterranean Party at HaMiffal, with Eyal Asolin working his culinary magic for the occasion. The chef describes the oxymoronic taste bud teasers as “the connection between the memories and information together with local Middle Eastern ingredients [that] create the wonderful, improbable and exciting mix which, to my mind, is Israeliness.” Eating is believing.
If you fancy exercising your vocal cords, you might want to pop along to Muslala on December 21, on the top floor of the Clal Building. The Naharot Shel Or (Rivers of Light) song circle takes place, fittingly, on the shortest day of the northern hemisphere year. The sing-along will be led by Netanel Goldberg, with the repertoire coming from Hebrew and English songbooks, plus some Goldberg originals. There will also be an instrumental trio to support our earnest crooning attempts.
The Xoref lineup features professional musical entertainment, too, including an intriguing take on traditional Yemenite music courtesy of singer-guitarist Amitai Aricha and his band at the underground music venue Mazkeka (Distillery) on Shushan Street near Safra Square.
And if you’re into thought-provoking works of art, make your way over to the Museum on the Seam on Kheil ha-Handasa Street by the light rail between Mea She’arim and the east Jerusalem YMCA to see its Alpha exhibition, which offers several compelling views of masculinity.
Happy holidays! ❖
For more information: xoref.com/en/home-en/