By Avigayil Kadesh
Church bells ring, muezzins call Muslims for worship, and Sephardic Jews engage in Talmudic debate – all in the same multicultural neighborhood where four American fellows stayed during a nine-week American Academy in Jerusalem program
From left, Donald Byrd, David Karnovsky, Lynne Avadenka
and David Herskovits touring Jerusalem’s Goldman Promenade
The panoramic views and eclectic sounds that reached their rented quarters in Abu Tor served as a perfect inspiration for the award-winning theater director, Tony-nominated choreographer, visual artist and urban planner. Under the auspices of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture
(FJC), they came to collaborate creatively with local peers.
“The overall goal is to strengthen relationships between senior-level artists and the cultural scene in Jerusalem, and to support culture and academic study around Jewish identity,” says program director Lisa Preiss-Fried.
FJC president Elise Bernhardt envisioned a program modeled on American academies in Rome and Berlin. “She felt Jerusalem is worthy of having one too, with its varied ethnic population, its
drama, intellectualism and inspiration,” Preiss-Fried says.
Planning Jerusalem’s public spaces
David Karnovsky, general counsel to the New York City Department of City Planning, brought along his expertise in zoning incentives to preserve cultural assets and create new art and performance venues. His latest achievement in public-private development is a free theater complex being designed by architect Frank Gehry using basement space in the residential/hotel district along Manhattan’s Ninth and Tenth avenues at 42nd Street.
He’d been to Israel several times as a tourist and was pleased to learn he’d been nominated for the fellowship. “The opportunity to contribute on a professional level in Israel was unique,” he told the interviewer.
Karnovsky intended to explore land use and zoning to promote arts and culture in Jerusalem. “The larger theme here has turned out to be utilizing zoning to promote social objectives and public amenity, and the most significant issue in this area is affordable housing, which I came to understand once I got here,” he said.
“In New York we give developers additional building rights in return for providing affordable housing, but that has not happened in Israel. Regional and national planning authorities are raising legal and policy objections, but in my discussions with academics, practitioners and municipal planners I see a lot of energy being applied to work out this problem. I hope in some small way I am contributing to that dialogue. I think it’s something that can be done, on a different scale.”
“This is an enormous opportunity to rethink Bezalel in a new urban context that benefits the institution and the city around it,” he said. “It resonates with work I did in New York on Columbia University’s new campus, which is an example of an urban campus that doesn’t isolate itself from the city.”
Karnovsky worked with the director of Bezalel’s Yaffo 23 art gallery in the heart of downtown Jerusalem to plan privately owned public spaces – “a new green necklace,” as he put it -- along the rooftops of Jaffa Road. The street’s light rail system recently began operating along Jaffa, making it a quieter pedestrian space than ever before. “This would be an interesting way of complementing the rejuvenation of the street with public amenities,” said Karnovsky.
Dancing toward coexistence
After witnessing the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001, choreographer Donald Byrd concluded that Americans pay little attention to what’s going on in the greater world. Moving to Seattle from Manhattan, he started thinking about creative projects that might broaden their vision.
Four years ago, as director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater
, he visited Israel with the notion of getting Jewish and Arab Israelis together with Americans to create a work that would directly address longstanding Mideast issues.
“I naively entered into this big concept very optimistically and quickly was confronted with reality,” he said. “Most Palestinians wouldn’t work with an Israeli – with Jews, but not Israelis. And I had difficulty finding Israeli dance artists interested in doing something with a political context or with themes that might offend their funding sources.”
Being nominated as an American Academy fellow gave him another shot at the project. Though he came in feeling “disillusioned and embittered,” the second time has been the charm.
“I’ve fallen in love with Jerusalem,” said Byrd. “It’s been an opportunity to immerse myself in the cultures here and see how the immersion affects what I do and how I think about things in general. I’ve noticed my thinking has shifted. People here are always struggling with the proximity of other people who are nothing like them.”
As a result, he softened the focus of his work. “What’s really unique about Israel and the Middle East is that writers and poets are given importance as a moral voice and a way of articulating the aspirations of the country. So I wanted to do something more poetic.”
Drawing on the works of the Arab poet Taha Muhammad Ali, the Israeli poet Haim N. Bialik and the biblical Abraham narrative common to Jews and Muslims, Byrd worked with three Jewish Israeli dancers and one Arab Israeli dancer (though additional Arabs were willing to participate, he stressed).
“I hope to bring these dancers back to the US at some point and work with them there, and then come back to Israel and do more work here. A couple of people are doing festivals centered on young Arab dancers and I think they are open to having this piece performed. I want to use it also as a jumping-off point to come back here for a longer residency to do a collection of essays about Jerusalem and dance.”
Using language to solve problems
Detroit-based visual artist Lynne Avadenka
had an advantage over the other fellows in that she speaks Hebrew fairly well. “I lived on a kibbutz at 19 and have been back a number of times,” she said. “Now I have a Hebrew teacher who comes every week.”
She gestured toward the Jerusalem skyline: “The language is connected to everything here. I’m interested in the idea of language as a real tool that humans have for solving problems.”
Avadenka began her fellowship intending to create a body of work inspired by the biblical account of Joseph and his brothers, which appears in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Koran. “I was looking for things that have some contemporary connection,” she explained, “and since [the Joseph story] is about forgiveness and reconciliation in spite of everything, I thought it would be an interesting track.”
Over the nine weeks, Avadenka visited artists’ studios in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and created mixed media collages as a daily diary, piecing together “ephemera from Hebrew and Arabic newspapers, trying to create a new language of the two.”
She also worked with old plates at the Jerusalem Print Workshop
, a center for the advancement of graphic arts. “I decided to look at these old plates and add or subtract to make them my own, providing a connection to the idea that this place is about layers of history.”
At the National Library, she examined manuscripts of the biblical book of Joshua and researched the works of James Kugel (How to Read the Bible) and Marc Steven Bernstein on intertextuality in Judaism and Islam.
She wasn’t sure what form her final project would take. “This is a fact-finding mission for art I will do at home, perhaps in the format of an artists’ book,” she said. “I’ve had a chance to see layers of Jerusalem and that will find its way into a more sustained work. Often, people parachute in and do a project and leave -- in Detroit, artists from Europe do the same thing – so it has been great to just come here and listen.”
The (Yiddish) play’s the thing
As the founding artistic director of the 20-year-old Target Margin Theater
in New York City, David Herskovits has directed works ranging from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams. But lately his imagination is piqued by Yiddish theater. This Eastern European Jewish dialect nearly died out together with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and few American and Israeli Jews have perpetuated it.
However, Herskovits felt Israel would be an inspiring and nurturing setting “to develop a new play based on Yiddish theater, the early 20th century avant-garde movement and their unique moment of intersection.”
“There are fantastic Yiddish research centers elsewhere in world, but certain Israeli resources -- like the Gur Theatre Archive at the Hebrew University -- are extraordinary,” said Herskovits, “and finding a community of people related to Yiddish culture is of interest to me.”
His piece explores the position of Yiddish in Israeli culture. “Leaving behind the ‘old country’ and creating the story of the new nation of Israel is a conflict that exists to this day. The effort of the pioneering Zionists to leave that old Yiddish shtetl Jew behind both succeeded and failed, and Yiddish remains a seminal part of this culture that is expressed every day in different ways,’ says Herskovits.
Using Jerusalem’s Machol Shalem dance studio
as his home base, Herskovits met with the working community of theater artists and led an exploratory workshop with actors and theatrical designers in Jerusalem to help him shape his play.
David Herskovits leading a theater workshop
“This is the first phase, and I’m hoping to leave here with basic decisions made about the project,” he said during the interview. “My goal is to come back and bring my theater company to develop a project for performance here as well as in New York, because context is always important.”
The Brooklyn resident noted that “Yiddish is cool again” among a younger generation that has achieved an unprecedented level of confidence as Israelis. His own interest dates from 2008, when he saw a show at the Jewish Museum in New York called “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater
“It really turned my head around and made me excited about this phase of Yiddish theater,” said Herskovits, “so the opportunity to come to Israel was really a dream come true. It’s turned out to be very fruitful.”
Photos courtesy of American Academy in Jerusalem