They say nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but try telling that to the folks over at The National Library of Israel.
After 63 years of long, devoted and much-appreciated service, the country’s official repository of treasured and other books, manuscripts, photographs and practically every document that ever saw the light of day in this country, and plenty from farther afield too, is moving house.
Its new premises are slotted fittingly between the Knesset and the Israel Museum. The state-of-the-art 10-floor, 45,000 square meter affair is due to open later this year for, no doubt, continued robust business. But for now, all eyes and ears are trained on the venerable institution about to take its last curtain call at its current address.
The events marking the Givat Ram campus building’s retirement from its current capacity include the Epilogue program of shows, vignettes, lectures and tours set for June 21. The fun starts at 10 a.m. and runs for a full 13 hours, culminating in an entertaining, throwback-slanted show by the mercurial Uzi Navon and his Experiences troupe, hosting stellar Mizrahi music vocalist Avner Gadasi. There are fun and games, points of intrigue, and inviting fare on offer everywhere you look.
Ruty Rubinshtein, for one, is not taking Epilogue, or the impending departure, lightly.
“It is almost impossible to say goodbye to this place,” says Rubinshtein, who has served as head of the library’s Culture Department for the past 11 years and is responsible for compiling the agenda for the longest day of the year. And, by the way, the choice of date was not entirely incidental.
“Yes, it is not by chance,” Rubinshtein chuckles. “We gave some thought to that. We don’t want to say goodbye to the building.”
Indeed, it can’t be easy trying to encapsulate over six decades of an accrued institutional and, for many, a very personal timeline.
“We did our best to cover as many aspects as possible,” she says, noting that while one long chapter may be closing, another is about to begin.
“We are not taking our leave from our collections. We are taking them with us to the new building. But this is a day on which we want to pay our respects to this place which has been so important to so many people who have such precious memories of it.”
That includes some perilously close calls by users who were probably so caught up in their reading matter that they very nearly had a happy accident there.
“We heard from some women who almost gave birth in the library!”
That is very much part and parcel of the thinking behind the programming which includes confluences with artists, men and women of letters, musicians and researchers who will put in a stint and doff their headgear to the historic edifice and its venerated contents.
The lineup kicks off with the Separation Salon in the Berman Hall. It appears to be a cozy kind of free admission item, with former and current library employees together with veteran researchers and regular readers taking turns, in twos, to share their recollections – ranging from the intimate to fun to downright weird – of the library, still considered to be an architectural jewel in this neck of the global woods.
THE UNDER-50S among us may not be fully cognizant of the zeitgeist of the then-still-young state when the library took up residence at the sprawling Givat Ram Campus. David Ben-Gurion was prime minister, Golda Meir was foreign secretary, and the idea of a local Billboard pop music chart had not even been mooted.
Establishing an official home for Israel’s literary works of art, research papers and other relevant artifacts was quite a feather in the nascent national hat.
“Yes, I think we should remember that the spirit, the intellect, was important back then, and is still important today,” Rubinshtein notes.
“At the time, it was considered to be of sufficient value that we should have a building that accommodates all sorts of needs – researchers and more casual readers alike. There was also a process of renewal which brought in new sectors of the public.”
Indeed, over the years the National Library has also spread its wings beyond the strictly defined boundaries of its official appointed service purview. All manner of events have taken place in its hallowed and largely hushed interior spaces, such as lectures, workshops and concerts. This last item is core to the Epilogue rollout.
One artist who stands out from the roster crowd is Gilad Kahana. The 52-year-old artist spreads his multi-pronged gifts across rock and other areas of music – including as front-man for the Girafot band and as a songwriter – and inter alia, has made a mark as an author. Rubinshtein set aside an appropriate berth for Kahana.
“We asked him to come into the most meaningful space of the National Library,” she says.
Kahana has never been afraid to say his piece and is a particularly eloquent gent, so it made sense to have him take up his Epilogue position in a spot that is normally governed by hushed hallowed decorum.
“We asked him to appear in the Readers’ Hall, to ‘violate’ the silence there,” laughs Rubinshtein. Sounds right.
“He will resonate the thoughts of the people that normally sit there on a daily basis.”
It is a matter of crossing disciplinary lines and imparting the core element of the library in all kinds of ways.
“Gilad will look at the importance of the word, of writing, of texts. Maybe there are things that readers would like to say but don’t do so. What really happens in a space that is normally quiet, when all the thoughts come out?”
That is quite a philosophical notion – and an almost subversive one at that – to entertain and express.
Kahana won’t be on his creative lonesome for his performative diptych. His 8 p.m. slot features musician, sound designer and producer Guy Moses, who joins in what is described as “striving for the present: separation is holding on.”
Kahana’s contribution to the parting shot incorporates two half-hour works, without an intermission, which also takes its cue from the written word underscored by beats generated by Moses. It will, says Rubinshtein, be something of an interactive venture with the locale rather than with the audience.
“It will be a sort of stream of consciousness. Gilad will work with what there is in the air, in the reading room. I think it will be Gilad’s stream of consciousness, and Gilad’s stream of consciousness of the hall as well, and they will fuse to create a sort of resonance that you don’t hear in the normal run of things.” That seems to be the general idea.
There is more music in Epilogue, with singer-songwriter Aya Zahavi Feiglin doing her 8 p.m. thing in the snug surroundings of the cafeteria patio.
Naturally, literature is front and center throughout the 13-hour itinerary with the likes of actress and writer Dana Modan; musician, writer, comic and actor Yair Nitzani; actor-filmmaker Kobi Farag; and writer and stand-up comedian Shir Reuven joining forces to take a penetrative left field look at some of the major literary works that have caught their eye, captured their heart, and even inordinately annoyed them over the years.
Writer and academic Yuval Plotkin will chair the occasion and, possibly, maintain some semblance of rational order as, presumably, each of the panelists goes off on his or her own incisive energized tangent. The comedic unexpected should be duly expected.
Celebrated 78-year-old novelist and poet Haim Beer, one of this country’s foremost people of letters, also features prominently in the Epilogue lineup. His 8:30 p.m. tête-à-tête with writer and curator Tzila Hayoun, who also heads the library’s Education and Culture Wing, should be an eye opener for the public and offer some deeper insight into the way he ticks and what the institution means to him.
Beer’s personal archive also resides in the library, under Hayoun’s supervision, and he will talk about special junctures in his working life connected with the library, how it has inspired him and the works in his oeuvre that were fueled by it.
The pair will dip into a broad swathe of topics.
“Haim Beer has a place of honor at the National Library,” says Rubinshtein. “He will talk to Tzila about the importance of libraries in general, their role in his work and his relationship with the National Library. It is a personal relationship.”
WHILE LIBRARIES may generally be perceived as the domain of “the older crowd,” nothing could be farther from the truth.
For starters, the National Library serves as an indispensable resource for university students and, judging by a recent visit to the delightful municipal library in faraway Mitzpeh Ramon, quite a few kids these days spend a considerable portion of their waking hours perusing actual physical books. For those of us who have concluded that holding a corporeal tome and turning its pages from beginning to end is a thing of the past for most youngsters, the Epilogue event may come as a pleasant surprise.
The library cafeteria patio 9 p.m. show “How Do You Say Phrasing in Hebrew?” sees writer-musician Sharon Kantour team up with hip hop artist and music producer Michael Cohen. Together they will take a no-nonsense look at the Hebrew language-music interface, with plenty of beats thrown in.
For the first few decades of its life here, the combination of rock music and the Hebrew language led a troubled existence as vocalists did their damnedest to bend and soften the fundamentally staccato language against its rhythmic will. That hurdle was eventually, to a degree, navigated by the likes of Aviv Gefen, but hip hop is entirely another metrical kettle of fish far more suited to Hebrew pronunciation. Kantour and Cohen will offer their own take on the matter and cast a young contemporary eye on the old-versus-new divide.
Rubinshtein appears to have done a good job of balancing the serious and the entertaining with the official and the personal in her Epilogue curatorial capacity. Naturally, she has made good use of the material available to her.
“We found, in the library archives, letters sent to it in the first year of its life in the building,” she explains. There is a broad sweep of sentiment in there.
“There were letters with compliments and also complaints.”
That provided plenty of fruitful raw material for the Letters to the Library evening slot which will be presented by the Ruth Kanner Theater Group. The company specializes in storytelling theater based on literary and documentary texts. Seems like an excellent fit for Epilogue. The actors will work with the yesteryear letters, imparting their theatrical portrayal of the thoughts and feelings behind the 60-year-old epistles.
The library’s iconic Ardon stained-glass windows also found their way into the artistic program, with the day-long thought-provoking, emotive and entertaining commemorative bash winding up with an appropriate musical and stylistic blast from the past, at 10 p.m., when Navon and his “Experiences” take the outdoor stage in front of the building.
The leader should not be confused with Uzi Fuchs and the Styles which shone brightly in the local pop-rock firmament in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This Uzi [Navon] works with a suitable period persona.
“He created an image as someone who was a star in the 1960s and 1970s,” Rubinshtein explains. “He made a ‘comeback,’ as it were.”
The sense of nostalgia will be enhanced by some evocative visuals.
“We will screen pictures taken in the earliest years of the library, and Uzi will host Avner Gadasi,” she says.
The septuagenarian singer hails from those days and should spice up the onstage action with some authentic vibes.
“Uzi is a very unconventional artist.”
Sounds just the mind-broadening ticket. ❖
For tickets and more information: epilogue-nli.nli.org.il
Epilogue takes place while the annual Hebrew Book Week is in full swing (June 14-24), principally at Sarona Park in Tel Aviv, and a hop, skip and a jump away from the Givat Ram Campus, over at Jerusalem’s First Station.
If you need any proof that printed books are going to hang around in this online digitized virtual world of ours, at least for a while longer, Book Week should provide that. The seeds for the event were sown almost a century ago, and it has been a fixture on the national calendar since the 1950s.
And, while books seem to be getting cheaper and cheaper – a blessed strange phenomenon in these increasingly economically challenging days, although authors, no doubt, are not best pleased with that – and readily available in bookstores up and down the country, the Book Week fair events offer added values.
The buzz of book lovers of all ages congregating and checking out the goods at the stalls is palpable and exciting. You even get to meet some of the writers themselves, which is always a thrill and enlightening.
You can also catch an overview of the local literary world’s output all in the same place. That, naturally, can lead us into previously uncharted reading and cultural waters, which can’t be a bad thing, for readers, writers and publishers alike.
For more information: www.sfarim.org.il/about