The Aharit Hayamim Festival is back in Gush Etzion again, with 12 hours of live music on two stages. What began as a family tribute to a beloved musician who died young has morphed into a large event showcasing what the organizers call a “Jewish indie rave.”
Religious-oriented musicians who draw inspiration from the Psalms and other biblical sources will be on hand, as well as ethnic world-music players, ranging from klezmer to Sephardi and Middle-Eastern rhythms.
One returning act will be the Jon Hock Blues Band led by Steve Rodan, who took part in the first festival in the mid-1990s on a hilltop in Gush Etzion.
Jon Hock Blues Band: An Israeli group playing in a tribute for a late, beloved musician
Rodan spoke to In Jerusalem about the event. It was a tribute to his friend Emil Leuchter, a musician who died of cancer and left behind a wife and children. The family organized a memorial jam session. Leuchter’s son Yehuda, a promising musician himself, and then approximately 14 years old, greatly impressed his father’s colleagues and friends.
After the younger Leuchter finished the army, circa 1998, he joined Rodan’s newly formed Jon Hock Blues Band with two other friends of the same age.
“I was the ‘old man,’” said Rodan, “a good 20 years older. We played blues and rocked it up and vice versa, and we played all around Jerusalem. Our home base was the Jerusalem Syndrome on Hillel Street across from the Italian synagogue,” he reminisced.
The name of the band was an alter ego they created. “Jon Hock is a fictional character,” Rodan explained. “He was supposed to be a guy who sang a minor hit in the late 1950s and was never heard of again. At every performance, we announced that Jon Hock was supposed to come but was not feeling so well.”
About six years ago, Rodan reformed the Jon Hock Blues Band, and they have been playing in Jerusalem venues such as Blaze and Mike’s Place. “We even played the streets during corona,” Rodan said, remembering the days of the pandemic.
“We played outside Mike’s Place for a good six months when it was closed [due to the lockdown]. After COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, the band began playing to packed crowds every Thursday evening.”
Street performances are something Yehuda Leuchter knows well. His band, Aharit Hayamim, not only headlined the festival of the same name but also jammed outdoors in Jerusalem’s Zion Square and other spots on a regular basis during the mid-2000s.
The band released several self-produced demo CDs, as well as a nationally distributed major label release in 2008. The band mixed Hebrew, reggae, world beat, and other styles. After a 10-year break, Aharit Hayamim – the band and the festival – returned in 2019 for a bigger and more organized event, sponsored by the Gush Etzion Regional Council.
Yet, despite the more organized logistics, the event still retains a hometown, family atmosphere.
“The vibe is, to use a Hebrew word, amcha,” said Rodan; “just plain people with a love of being Jewish and of others in their heart. I have been to quite a few festivals in Israel, and many have a very commercial air. You pay for your ticket, find some little corner to stand, or sit if you’re lucky, and then after the show is over, you go home. This is a chill festival. You can just hang. No pressure to be here or there,” Rodan said, “because it’s a relatively small festival without a crushing crowd. I like it. I’m not a headliner, but I appreciate the fact that Yehuda invites me.”
A member of one of the younger bands concurs. “It’s truly something amazing to be part of, whether it be from an artist’s standpoint or one of the crowd,” said Avraham Dovid, drummer for Shlepping Nachas which performed at the festival for the first time last year.
Formed in 2019, Shlepping Nachas consists of “shleppers from America who came to Israel, felt the holiness, and decided to stay and make Eretz Yisroel home again,” the drummer said.
“We feel the festival is very much a representation of Jews who recognize their roots and want to run towards them, not from them,” he told In Jerusalem. You truly feel elevated, part of Am Yisroel and reaching towards geula, together, with simcha.”
Not all the musicians come from a religious environment. Lea Shabat, who gained fame in the 1990s, will be returning to the Aharit Hayamim festival this year. She penned several hits with her brother, well-known vocalist and musician Shlomi Shabat. Her debut album was produced by acclaimed Israeli singer Arkadi Duchin.
Also on stage will be legendary bass player, composer, and producer Yossi Fine, who was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1991 for his work with jazz musician Stanley Jordan.
In the 2000s Fine released several albums as a member of the Ex-Centric Sound System, which mixed African music with electronic and hip-hop sounds. He has produced numerous Israeli performers such as Ofra Haza, and has performed on albums with David Bowie and Lou Reed.
To have musicians from the secular Israeli mainstream perform at the festival is no longer a novelty. Over the years, big-name acts such as Ehud Banai, Kobi Oz, and Shlomo Bar have performed there. Religious and non-religious musicians and attendees enjoying good music in a colorful atmosphere have become a given.
Other performers will include Aharon Razel featuring Akiva, Erez Lev Ari, Eldad Zitrin, Abu Tabla, Assaf Harush, Lazer Lloyd, Sinai Tor, David Lifshitz, Nachat Ruach, Solomon Brothers, Shira Zaydman, Muna Camuna, Yifat Israel, Musica Organit, Moti Weiss, Oren Tsor & Nadav Bachar, Dapha Project, Akiva, Niv Klil Hahoresh, Sangit, Chany Natura, Si’ach Rotem, Shin Shim Mem, DJ Mr Hemulin, and indie band Nuriel, with brothers Yonatan, David, and Michael Attias, plus Benny Firszt and Tzvi Solomons.
There will also be food stalls, children’s areas, workshops, and locally produced arts and crafts.
One mainstay who will be missed this year is the Leuchter matriarch, Rachel Doron, who passed away in May at the age of 97. Yativ Leuchter, a brother of Yehuda and a co-organizer of the festival, spoke about his grandmother.
“She was the one that sent the messages to the Israel Defense Forces when Kfar Etzion fell in the War of Independence in 1948,” he said. “Afterwards, she and her husband were taken prisoner by the Jordanians. They were released in a prisoner exchange deal.”
This makes the Leuchters third-generation Gush Etzion residents, and for them the location of the festival is significant. Many of the original festivals were held outside Kibbutz Masuot Yitzhak, founded in 1945, destroyed in 1948, and rebuilt after the Six Day War. Rachel Doron and her family were among the former residents who pioneered the rebuilt communities.
Yehuda Leuchter said that his grandmother had been proud of the festival. “My Safta cannot be on stage singing with us now, so it is up to us to continue the light,” he told In Jerusalem.
“One year, Saba and Safta went on stage and said they never knew, during their captivity in Jordan, that one day so many young people would be dancing at a festival in this place, and it was all worth it for them.” ❖
The Aharit Hayamim Festival will be held on August 3 at Havat Eretz HaAyalim (Deer-Land Park) in Gush Etzion. For ticket information: tayarut-gushetzion.tickchak.co.il/47812