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Israeli Arts, Culture & Literature: Culture in Israel

by Asher Weill

A review of any country's cultural history over the last fifty years would show enormous changes - undoubtedly a quantum leap - and certainly more changes than in any other fifty year period in history. How much more so in Israel, where that same period was marked by a series of cataclysmic events which had - and are still having - an effect on the very nature and cultural character of this young but old nation.

Israel in 1948: a country of 640,000 Jews; just three years after the annihilation of six million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. A country on the eve of invasion by five neighboring Arab nations intent on wiping it out, or, in the words of one Arab leader, "driving the Jews into the sea." A country in the throes of absorbing the remnant of decimated European Jewry - despoiled of all their worldly goods and brutally severed from their cultural and linguistic roots, but intent on surviving and creating a new life in the one piece of land that was prepared to accept them.

Each of the decades that followed was marked by yet more social and political convulsions. The fifties were the years of the mass immigration of Jews from Arab lands: from Morocco, from the Yemen, from Iraq; and of tens of thousands of Jews from some 70 countries worldwide, all of whom had brought with them their own language, national heritage and cultural baggage.

The sixties were, above all, marked by the military victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, when a whole new national mythos and sense of euphoria engulfed not only the Jewish population of Israel, but indeed the entire Jewish Diaspora - only to be shattered to a large extent by the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and its aftermath, some of the effects of which are still very much with us nearly three decades later. The seventies and the eighties saw the first tentative bridges to peace with the Arab world, beginning with the historic visit to Israel of President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt in 1977.

New Relations With Arabs

As we cross over into the new century, Israel has embarked on the long path to normalization with much of the Arab world. There are full relations with Egypt and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and relations on various levels with several other Islamic countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Oman and Qatar. With the new winds blowing in the Middle East, high hopes are placed on the outcome of the peace talks presently being held at various levels with some of Israel's most bitter foes in the past, including Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Syria. The results of these talks will have a decisive influence, not only on the political life of the country, but also on its cultural development.

The first task facing the young state, once its physical security had been assured, was to confront the existing educational system and build a structure that would make one Israeli people out of the multi-stranded population that made up this new state. Many mistakes were made in the process. It took a great deal of time and often bitter experience to realize that the aim was not a "melting pot," to use the concept that was then current, but rather a blend in which every individual could proudly maintain his or her cultural heritage within a receptive society that ensured room for everyone, while still forging a homogenous cultural identity - a bouillabaisse of individual flavors that would combine into a harmonious whole. That aim has still not been wholly achieved, but it is accepted as the target.

Introducing Hebrew

A reform of the educational system was closely linked to the necessity to teach Hebrew to the new immigrants, most of whom had no prior knowledge of the language. Hebrew, one of the world's oldest tongues, had almost died out as a language of everyday speech, although it was still used for prayer. Its revival was largely the work of one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), who, together with a handful of adherents, created in one generation a "new" and dynamic language which increasingly became the mother tongue of the Jewish inhabitants of Eretz Israel (The Land of Israel). The Hebrew Language Committee, founded by Ben-Yehuda, coined literally thousands of new words and concepts based on biblical, talmudic and other sources, to cope with the needs and demands of twentieth century living. The acquisition of Hebrew became a national goal: a slogan current at the time was "Yehudi, daber ivrit" ("Jew - speak Hebrew"), an exhortation that was drilled into kindergarten pupils, schoolchildren and adults alike. Special intensive Hebrew schools called ulpanim were set up in towns, villages, kibbutzim and community centers throughout the country.

Pre-state Israel had, of course, a rich cultural life of its own, despite the paucity of its population. Literature flourished, with the national poet Chaim Nahman Bialik and the writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon leading the way. Agnon was to go on to receive Israel's only Nobel prize - for literature - so far, in 1966.

Art, Music, Theater

The Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, subsequently to become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, was founded by a renowned Polish-born violinist, Bronislaw Huberman in 1936, its opening concert being conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

The Bezalel Academy of Art, which had been founded by the Bulgarian-born Professor Boris Schatz in Jerusalem in 1906, had already trained a generation of painters, sculptors, carpet weavers, craftsmen and craftswomen, whose work was widely appreciated and had even been shown in exhibitions abroad. Painters such as Reuven Rubin, Anna Ticho, Mordechai Ardon, Yosef Zaritsky, Marcel Janco; the sculptors Yitzhak Danziger, Avraham Melnikoff, Chana Orloff and others, were beginning to receive international recognition.

The Habimah Theater, founded in Moscow in 1917, had moved to Tel Aviv in 1931 and attracted large and appreciative audiences for its dramatic offerings, which were already beginning to include works by local playwrights.

New Literature

But then the times called for change. The first signs came in literature with the work of a group of writers who became known as the "Palmach Generation" (the Palmach was the striking force of the Haganah, the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces). These writers, who had themselves fought in the War of Independence, and who have entered the pantheon of Israeli literature, include S. Yizhar, Haim Gouri, Hanoch Bar Tov, Benjamin Tammuz, Aharon Megged, Yoram Kaniuk, Igal Mossinsohn, Moshe Shamir and the poets Yehuda Amichai, Natan Alterman and Uri Zvi Greenberg. The work of these writers, several of whom are still writing today, was often cast in the heroic mold called for by the times. They set the tone for artistic creation in other fields as well, and can be seen as the starting point of contemporary Hebrew cultural activity.

These literary icons were succeeded by the so-called "Generation of the State" writers. These writers were profoundly influenced by the preceding generation, and the creation of the state and its existentialist struggle during their own childhood were still their main concerns. Several of these writers have gained substantial international recognition, and their works are widely translated. They include Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Yehoshua Kenaz and Aharon Appelfeld (the latter's main influence is that of the Holocaust, although his work, set in rather amorphous and intangible European settings, only contains allusions to the cataclysmic events of that time).

But the "Generation of the State" writers have now also passed on the literary baton. Some younger writers, now in their forties and fifties, such as David Grossman, Yeshayahu Koren, Meir Shalev and Haim Be'er, continue to have a major influence on the local literary scene, and they too are widely published abroad. An important phenomenon in recent local writing is the predominance of women, whose voice was relatively unheard during the early years of the state. These include Shulamith Hareven, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Shulamit Lapid, Yehudit Hendel, Savyon Leibrecht, Nava Semel, Nurit Zarchi, Batya Gur, and the poets Dahlia Ravikovich and the late Yona Wallach.

The "Post-Zionists"

We are now witness to yet another generation of writers, this time of a very different nature. To a large extent, gone are the old concerns of nation building, absorption of new immigrants, the heroic cast of the pioneers of the kibbutzim, the melting pot, existentialist concerns for the future of the country. In their place is a new brand of less spiritual concerns - the good life, the pursuit of happiness, the debunking of hitherto sacred causes - often in a surrealistic, anarchic, iconoclastic, and at times even nihilistic, literary style. The things that matter to these writers are no longer the causes over which their parents agonized, but many of the same things that concern their fellow writers in Paris, London or New York. Such writers include Yehudit Katzir, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret, Irit Linor, Gadi Taub, Alex Epstein, Esty Hayim and several others, all of whom might be loosely termed the "Post-Zionist Generation."

Despite the inroads of television and computers, children's books are still popular in Israel, especially those by such award-winning writers as Uri Orlev, Meir Shalev, Yehuda Atlas, Ephraim Sidon, Nira Harel, David Grossman, Tamar Bergman, Gila Almagor, Daniella Carmi, Nava Semel, Dorit Orgad and Michal Snunit. As in literature for adults, many of the themes are no longer just about kibbutz life and pioneering, but on universal topics that concern children everywhere. For example, Yehuda Atlas's "And That Kid is Me" and its sequel "And That Kid is Also Me" touched a chord with Israeli children and their parents and their rather cheeky, iconoclastic rhymes have kept them bestsellers for more than a decade. Increasingly, Israeli children's books are also finding publishers overseas, especially in the USA and Europe.

Ethnic Consciousness

Another important strand in Israel's cultural life is the burgeoning of a strong ethnic consciousness on the part of writers of Sephardi background (Jews originating in Arab countries, rather than the Ashkenazi or "European" element). In literature, this trend is evident in the works of Shimon Ballas, Sami Michael and Eli Amir, all born in Iraq, Amnon Shamosh, born in Syria, Albert Suissa, born in Morocco and Yitzhak Gormezano-Goren, born in Egypt, to name just a few.

A similar trend can be noted even more strongly in music where so-called "Eastern" - more properly, "Mediterranean" music - is more and more popular, especially among younger people. Popular singers in this style include Zehava Ben, Sarit Hadad, Chaim Moshe, Yitzhak Kala and Avihu Medina and perhaps paramount among them, Ofra Haza, who gained international fame, but died prematurely in 2000 at the age of 41. A successful orchestra in the last few years, playing exclusively Mediterranean music, is the Andalusian Orchestra of Ashdod (a large number of its musicians are actually of Russian origin). Two other very successful groups are the long-established Habreira Hativ'it ("Natural Alternative") group and Bustan Avraham ("Abraham's Orchard"). The latter is a fusion group incorporating elements of Greek, Turkish, Persian and Indian themes in the generally Mediterranean ambience.

A Flood of Immigrants

As we have seen, Israel's cultural founding fathers and mothers perceived a national imperative in creating one society where ethnic individuality and varied cultural backgrounds would be subsumed within a homogenous "Israeli" society. Today, that perception is very much a thing of the past. Israel is a multi-cultural society, and it is now accepted that the country stands only to benefit from retaining cultural individuality while striving to achieve a parallel Israeli culture which will absorb and be enriched by the manifold strands that make up the whole. Israel is still a country of immigrants - since 1989, over one million immigrants arrived from the countries of the former Soviet Union. In "Operation Moses" of 1984-1986 and "Operation Solomon" of 1991, over 30,000 Jews arrived from Ethiopia. All of these, in addition to thousands of other immigrants from all over the world, increased the population of the country by over 12 percent in six years - comparable to the United States taking in over 30 million people in the equivalent amount of time!

The arrival of so many people from the former Soviet Union has had a critical impact on Israel's cultural life in all its facets, but none more than in the field of music. (The standard joke at the height of the wave of immigration was that if a Russian immigrant coming off the plane did not have a violin case tucked under his arm, he was surely a pianist.) The country has seen a proliferation of new orchestras, chamber music groups, choirs and soloists, and no less important, music education in the country has been immeasurably enriched. There is barely a school or community center in the country that does not have its own group of musicians playing or singing under the watchful eye and ear of a Russian-speaking teacher. It seems probable that the next few years will see young musicians, whether born in Israel or abroad, who have been tutored by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, joining the select band of Israeli soloists such as Yitzhak Perlman, Pinhas Zuckerman, Daniel Barenboim and Shlomo Mintz, who have made such a mark on the stages of concert halls and in recording studios all over the world.

Opera always had its adherents in Israel, even in the early days of the state. The Tel Aviv Opera mounted operas in a variety of tongues and even gave a start to a promising young Spanish tenor called Placido Domingo. In recent years, opera, too, has received a tremendous fillip from the massive Russian immigration. With the opening in 1995 of the magnificent Opera House in Tel Aviv's new Golda Center for the Performing Arts, opera in Israel has entered a new era.

Modern Theater, Dance and Film

Gesher Theater Theater too, has moved away from the heroic, rather melodramatic and studied image of Habimah, the national theater company. Newer theaters, such as the Cameri, which celebrated its 50th birthday in 1996, the Haifa and Beersheba theaters and the Khan in Jerusalem, have joined Habimah in presenting plays and standards of acting which are very much of this time and place, and reflect modern day reality and concerns. The newest major theater company in the country is Gesher ("Bridge"), which was founded by immigrants from the former Soviet Union - at the beginning to provide work for immigrant actors who had not yet mastered Hebrew, and at the same time to meet the cultural demands of a Russian-speaking and culturally hungry audience. Within a very few years, Gesher started mounting plays in Hebrew with both immigrant and locally-born actors, and today it is one of the most innovative and interesting theater companies in the country, as can be attested to by its several successful foreign tours under its director Yevgeny Arieh.The Beit Lessin Theater in the heart of Tel Aviv is a leading repertory company with an emphasis on original and foreign plays with a strong political and sociological character and message - Theatre engagé. Beit Lessin gives dramatic expression to the many controversies prevalent in the country today. Orna Porat, who won the Israel Prize in 1999 for her services both as a distinguished actress in her own right and as a theatrical entrepreneur, created the eponymous Orna Porat National Theater for Children and Youth in 1970, together with then Minister of Education, the late Yigal Allon. It is a traveling theater company, bringing plays and the theatrical experience to children's audiences in over 250 locations throughout the country.

Many of the local theater productions are by Israeli playwrights, and audiences will flock to see the latest play by writers such as Hanoch Levin, Yehoshua Sobol, Shmuel Hasfari or Hillel Mittelpunkt. Levin, in his 34 plays, has been far and away Israel's most prolific and prominent playwright. His mordant wit and biting satire came to an end with his untimely death in 1999.

Dance is yet another field that has seen vast changes. Prior to 1948, dance in the country was mainly the field of enthusiastic practitioners of folk dance, such as the Russian-born Rina Nikova, or the Tel Aviv-born Baruch Agadati, who were busy creating a local dance idiom from a skein of Russian, Balkan, and local Arab influences, and meeting at regular folk dance festivals, beginning in 1944 at Kibbutz Dalia. Since then, several professional groups and dance schools have come into being, notably the Batsheva and Bat Dor groups, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and the Israel Ballet. Of special interest is the Kol Demama Company, a modern dance group comprising both deaf and hearing dancers, and ethnic dance groups such as Inbal (Yemenite) and Eskesta (Ethiopian). Prior to 1948, the only museum in the country of any consequence was the small archeological collection at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. Painters and sculptors had very little in the way of permanent venues to display their work, and would often spend time abroad, especially in Paris, to gain exposure.

In 1965, a major spur to the plastic arts in Israel was the opening of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This, the country's largest and most important museum, has many divisions, notably those of archeology and Judaica, which include the collections from Bezalel as well as the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Ruth Youth Wing; departments for photography and design, classic art and above all, extensive collections of modern Israeli art on permanent display and in temporary exhibitions, as well as the country's major repository of modern sculpture in the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden. The Israel Museum was sometimes accused of neglecting Israeli art in favor of contemporary international art, but in recent years, major strides have been taken to broaden the museum's activities in this sphere. Other important venues where one can view modern Israeli art are the Tel Aviv Museum, the Ramat Gan Art Museum, Mishkan Omanut in Kibbutz Ein Harod and smaller museums throughout the country, as well as private galleries, most of which are concentrated in the Tel Aviv area.

Only relatively recently has Israel begun to develop a cinema industry. Prior to the creation of the state, film-making in the country was almost entirely restricted to the production of informational films for national institutions, such as the Jewish National Fund. While a few full length features were made in the early days of the state - memorably, a film entitled "Hill 24 Does Not Answer," which is cast in the heroic mood of those times - quality commercial film-making really only got underway on any scale in the last decade or so. The more successful films still tend to draw on the Israeli experience, the Arab-Israel conflict, Holocaust-related topics and so on, rather than on themes of a broader, more universal nature. The industry is severely handicapped by lack of funding and investment, although some help is provided by the Council for Quality Films, a publicly-funded institution.

Despite the influence of television (which started in Israel only in 1967), Israelis are still great consumers of live popular entertainment. A unique Israeli institution called Omanut l'am ("Arts for the People"), in the 1950s and 1960s, brought theater and entertainment to outlying parts of the country, often exposing people to theatrical performances for the first time in their lives. Today, performances by such singing stars as Arik Einstein, Shalom Hanoch, Yehudit Ravitz, Shlomo Artzi, Ehud Bannai, Ahinoam Nini or Aviv Gefen; troupes such as Tippex, Ethnix and Hfive, (the latter was recently disbanded), and comedy groups such as the Cameri Quintet, and the Hagashash hahiver ("Pale Tracker Troupe" - who won the country's most prestigious prize, the Israel Prize, for 2000), perform before standing-room crowds. Popular rock festivals like the Arad Festival and the Red Sea Festival in Eilat attract tens of thousands of young people.

* * *

Israel in 1948 was a small sliver of land with a minuscule population, overwhelmingly concerned with the problems of daily survival, and struggling to create the framework for an independent and viable state. Fifty-two years on, and as we pass from one millennium to another, Israel is home to a thriving and vibrant cultural life embodying manifold forms of human expression. It has developed from an inward-looking, introverted and culturally self-absorbed people, into a universalist, extrovert and dynamic, multi-cultured world-embracing force. Its artists, writers, dancers, actors and musicians have made an impact far beyond their number, while an increasing variety of international festivals and events, such as the Israel Festival, the Jerusalem International Book Fair, the International Poetry Festival, the Karmiel Dance Festival and many others, have become notable events in the world's cultural calendar.

In Israel itself, the constant search for cultural identity is expressed by dynamic creativity in a broad range of art forms, appreciated and enjoyed by a great many people - not as an activity for the privileged few, but as an essential part of daily life.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side.
A group of tourists was standing around
their guide and I became their target marker.
"You see that man with the baskets?
Just right of his head there's an arch from
the Roman period. Just right of his head."
"But he's moving, he's moving!"

I said to myself: redemption will come only if
their guide tells them, "You see that arch from
the Roman period? It's not important, but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man
who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."


Yehuda Amichai

Translated by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt

Asher Weill is the editor of Ariel - the Israel Review of Arts and Letters.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry