A RIFF OF COLTRANE FLOATS OUT OF A JAZZ CLUB AND OVER THE MEDITERRANEAN; across town, modern dancers spin on the stage; and elsewhere a curtain rises on Russian-immigrant actors performing Chekhov in Hebrew.
It’s another night in Tel Aviv, Israel’s capital of culture. a Tel Aviv has been home to poets, actors, musicians and dancers since the city first rose up along a stretch of sand dunes almost a century ago. But in the last few years, the city’s cultural scene has been thriving—despite the country’s economic woes and the suicide bombings that have affected the flow of tourists to the cafés, nightclubs and bars.
“Since January 2000, the city has gone through a boom the likes of which no one can remember,” said Amir Ben-David, editor of Time Out Tel Aviv, a magazine that covers local events and trends. “There are constantly openings of new clubs, parties and more parties and concerts.”
Ben-David thinks the vigorous growth may have to do with Israelis’ typically defiant carpe diem approach to life and daily insecurity from the threat of terrorism. There is also investment and money flowing into the city, mostly as a byproduct of the high-technology economy, and Tel Aviv is at the nexus of its commerce.
“There is always action,” said Roy Chicky Arad, editor of the poetry magazine Maayan. “There is always music to hear and films to see. The film and literary circles especially thrive here, a place where East and West meet. It is a great advantage that we have American, European and Arab influences affecting us—that combination is very important.”
Even the more seasoned establishments are going through a renaissance of sorts. Tel Aviv is drawing audiences of all ages from across the country and, of course, from its own culturally discerning residents.
Tel Aviv itself started as a social experiment—the first “Jewish” city in modern times with then-cutting-edge Bauhaus architecture. Today, it reaches for the new and innovative, sometimes choosing experimentation over tradition. “Here we don’t have a long history of culture to lead the way, so there is an openness to new things,” said Arad. “I don’t think there is another city…that has so many alternative venues.”
There is no shortage of musical styles and sites. Electronic music, including trance and techno, is popular with the younger crowd; in fact, young Israelis are leaders in the sound, having exported it to Europe and the United States. World music, jazz, classical and reggae all have homes in Tel Aviv as well.
Quality jazz and cold beers flow at Shablul, where the music gets going every night after 10:30. Shablul, which means snail in Hebrew, is the country’s only pure jazz venue; it opened last year to satisfy Israelis’ growing interest in the genre and the multitude of native talent. Located along the trendy string of restaurants and clubs recently built in the city’s newly developed port area, Shablul draws a mixed crowd, from young music students to jazz aficionados in their sixties and seventies.
“If jazz is a language, it is spoken here,” said Benny Folsky, one of the club’s owners. “People play everything from fusion to the standards, hard bop, bebop, original pieces…. Anything to do with jazz we do here.”
The club has an intimate feel and gets packed on weekends. The stage comes to life with big bands, quartets and blues singers. On Monday nights, admission is free to a jam session that brings together musicians of all ages, from the well known to the novice.
Shablul features mostly Israeli artists, many of whom have spent several years training and playing in Europe and the United States. On Friday afternoons, you will usually find Efraim Shamir performing the blues. With his deep, raspy voice he puts his spin on early rock standards. Yair Delal is another popular performer. An oud player, he brings a Middle Eastern and world music sensibility to jazz by synthesizing harmonies to create a unique blend of sounds.
Another gem is the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center and Library. The restored lemon-colored 1930’s building has excellent acoustics. “Our auditorium is beautiful and has great sound, and we give the stage to young artists at the beginning of their careers,” said center spokesperson Victoria Sklema.
Concerts offer everything from classical and baroque to blues, jazz and gospel. The center holds workshops and master classes that are open to the public, and a yearly festival draws from a broad array of styles including Renaissance, Ladino and, recently, the music of St. Petersburg. Typically, festivals include a mix of international and Israeli artists, ranging from the English contra-tenor Michael Chance to the Ensemble L’Arpeggiata from the Netherlands. The next festival, in May 2007, will focus on Scandinavian music.
Because of its popularity, the festival is held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to accomodate the large audiences. Some smaller concerts are held in exhibition galleries where music and art mingle.
The center boasts the largest public music library in Israel—including jazz, classical, ethnic, popular, choral and opera on sheet music, and in recordings on CD, DVD, audiotape and videocassette. In all, there are some 83,000 books and 18,000 recordings along with professional music periodicals, an ethnic instrument collection and the archives of several leading Israeli composers.
Anyone looking for rock should try the dark and smoky Barby. Frequented by students and soldiers and other young people, the mood inside Barby—short for Abarbanel, a mental institution outside Tel Aviv and the name of a street near the club—can indeed feel like a madhouse, with frenzied dancing and psychedelic strobe lights flashing overhead.
Barby is where you go to hear the newest and best Israeli bands such as the popular Beit Habubot (House of the Dolls) and Avi Ivri, a guitarist who mixes rock and world music. Another frequent performer is Tomer Amimya, who meshes romantic lyrics with a quiet, acoustic sound.
To promote new talent, Barby’s recording company has recorded all three Israeli performers. (The Barby label can be bought at Israeli music stores.)
“The idea is to develop as many new singers as possible…to see what works and what does not work,” said Shaul Mizrahi, Barby’s owner.
Most of the performers at Barby are Israeli, but artists from abroad occasionally take the stage. Matisyahu, the American Jewish reggae star, performed here recently.
Tzavta, “Together” in Aramaic, has been one of the city’s hot spots since 1956. Founded by Avraham Shlonsky, a prominent Hebrew poet, it is still considered the cultural home of the Israeli left. The modest-looking space in the basement of a small shopping center belies the hum of activity within. Its three halls can host as many as 100 events a month. Posters of past productions line its walls, and an in-house café serves cappuccinos and croissants.
The combination theater, concert hall, comedy club and poetry venue often stages satires, such as the recent Let’s Not Talk About It, a compilation of sketches mocking Israeli society and politics. But its offerings are diverse: Last summer, it premiered the first play about early Israeli poet Rachel. And another play, the popular Mezrich, which has been running for the past two years, tells the true story of 10 young Jews arrested by the Nazis after hiding for 13 months in an attic in Poland during World War II. “It deals with love, passion and leadership—how to stay focused on the individual, on Judaism,” said Moshe Tene, Tzavta’s manager. It speaks to young adults, he explained.
Some of Israel’s best-known singers also perform here. It’s where many of them, such as pop stars Gidi Gov, Mati Caspi and Nurit Galron, got their start. Concerts tend to be intimate, acoustic affairs: a lone singer on a dark stage.
Tzavta puts on several festivals each year; one celebrates the oud, perhaps the Middle East’s most famous instrument, and is held in October; another, held at the end of November and beginning of December, features original one-act plays.
On a recent Friday afternoon, some 250 people gathered for the monthly Tel Aviv Kabbalat Shabbat, where tradition gets a secular twist. Shabbat songs are sung and the weekly Torah portion is discussed with artists and academics. “It is for secular people who don’t know much about the Jewish traditions,” Tene explained.
Friday evenings you can catch young stand-up comedians performing before a boisterous audience. “As the young people, many of them teenagers or in their early twenties, are leaving at about 3 A.M., just a few hours later the older generation comes for a classical concert,” said Tene. The Saturday morning concerts are a 34-year-old tradition.
Another of Tel Aviv’s cultural mainstays is Habima National Theatre, founded in Moscow in 1917 and relocated to British Mandate Palestine in 1931. One of its recent showings is the 1970’s nostalgia musical The Band, based on a popular movie about an Army performing troupe.
A later Russian import is the celebrated Gesher Theatre, based in Jaffa. It was established in 1991 by prominent director Yevgeny Arye, who immigrated to Israel together with a group of his students. The 23-member troupe, which is comprised of both Russian-born and native Israeli actors, has appeared extensively abroad, including at Lincoln Center in New York. After several weeks of performing Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol’s play The Village in England, Gesher was hailed as “one of the greatest and most important theater troupes in the world” by The Times of London.
Gesher’s lavish sets and costumes are an anomaly in Israel. In Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, currently part of its repertoire, the main character, Madame Ranevskaya, wears dresses of thickly layered lace as she surveys her property—an old estate with antique furniture, dark shadows and a hayloft.
The productions are attended by a mix of Russian-speaking immigrants and other Israelis. Russian and Hebrew translations are available for every play, and simultaneous English translations can be arranged for groups.
A few blocks from Gesher is the innovative Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa. Housed in a 500-year-old building that had been used, variously, as an olive-oil soap factory, jail and city hall, the company has two troupes (one Arabic speaking, the other Hebrew speaking). Plays are presented in both languages, sometimes as separate productions, sometimes jointly. Here, too, simultaneous English translations can be arranged for visiting groups.
The plays are often political, delving into the nature and price of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also challenging the audience with provocative content—Jews play terrorists and Arabs play Israeli soldiers. Audiences are a mix of all ages, but there is a special effort to bring in local Arab students who would not otherwise be exposed to Arabic-language theater. There is also outreach to Jaffa’s adult Arab residents.
Igal Ezraty, a 20-year theater veteran, is the company’s co-artistic director. “As soon as you say [the name] Arab-Hebrew Theatre,” he observed, “it stops being an Arab-Jewish issue and a reminder that there are two official languages in Israel…. We want it to be a meeting place for actors, directors and the audience. We see theater as a path. If we are really going to have coexistence, then we need to truly do things together.”
A recent production, Winter in Kalandia, featured interactions between Israelis and Palestinians at a West Bank checkpoint. Another popular play is the revival of Me, You, and the Next War by Israeli Hanoch Levin. He wrote it just after the 1967 Six-Day War as a rebuke of Israelis’ euphoria over their victory and the seizure of Gaza and the West Bank.
But the classics are not neglected; recently, there was a staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Following every production, conversations are held between the actors, producers and the audience. The The award-winning play Longing, for example, relates the stories of a Palestinian grandfather expelled from his village during Israel’s War of Independence and a Jewish woman who returns to Berlin where her family had lived before the Holocaust. After the program, an Arab-Israeli woman, expelled from her village in 1947, said, “I know Palestinian stories, but I don’t know Jewish ones.” An Arab man commented, “I did not know Jews also felt like outsiders.”
The place to go in Tel Aviv to view the flowering of Israel films is theCinematheque, the city’s preeminent art house theater; screenings include everything from the political to the experimental.
Located in a two-story white building with red trim on a tree-lined square near a row of restaurants, the Cinematheque has, since 1973, offered premieres, the latest mainstream Hollywood fare and retrospectives. For example, a film screened in September, Frozen Days, centers on an Israeli woman who sets up a date at a dance club with a man she met online; the two arrive at a club just as a suicide bomber strikes.
National and international film festivals are held here. Among the most popular is DocAviv, a festival of documentary films that takes place in March. There are also festivals of international animation, children’s films, science fiction and foreign films. Past festivals have focused on works from Brazil, Portugal, France and England. Recent screenings include Tappas from Spain, directed by Jose Corbacho and Juan Cruz; and Flanders, a French film directed by Bruno Dumont. There are usually English subtitles.
“There are lots of activities here at all hours,” said Alon Garbuz, Cinematheque’s director. It is open seven days a week, with screenings at mid-morning and at midnight. There is a café in the foyer where movie-goers mingle.
The Suzanne Dellal Dance Center in the artsy Neve Tzedek neighborhood is Tel Aviv’s most vital dance center. Opened in 1989, it is home to the Batsheva Dance Company, one of the country’s leading groups.
Performances and festivals can be enjoyed throughout the year in a series of renovated turn-of-the-century buildings, set among lemon trees in a sprawling courtyard. Although modern dance predominates, once a year ballet productions are also staged.
Among its most well-known festivals is Summer Dance in July and August, showcasing Israeli and international dancers. At the end of October is Dance-Europa, which focuses on joint works of Israeli and European dance companies. In November, dancers and choreographers participate in a festival called Haramat Masah (Raising of the Curtain).
Rachel Grodjinovsky, the center’s director for international contacts, mused on the creativity found in Israel: “Here there are political revolutions and social change. Israeli artists are exposed to many things that perhaps elsewhere they would not be. In the Army they deal with something that is not at all artistic and come out with the drive to return to their art and [find] ways to express it.”
The electric energy of Tel Aviv is part of its cultural makeup—a constant stage for familiar as well as new pleasures in theater, dance, music and film. Despite the politics and tension in the region, it feels like there is a director on high insisting that in Tel Aviv, the show is always on.
- Shablul: Hangar No. 13, Tel Aviv Port; 011-972-3-546-1891www.shabluljazz.com
- Felicja Blumenthal Music Center and Library: 26 Bialik Street 3-620-1185; www.fbmc.co.il
- Barby: 52 Kibbutz Galuyot Street; 3-518-8123;www.barby.co.il
- Tzavta: 30 Ibn Gvirol Street; 3-695-0156; www.tzavta.co.il (in Hebrew)
- Habima National Theatre: 6 Tarsat Boulevard; 3-620-7777www.habima.org.il
- Gesher Theatre: 8 Jerusalem Boulevard, Jaffa; 3-681-3131www.geshertheatre.co.il
- Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa: 10 Mifratz Shlomo Street, Old Jaffa 3-681-5554; www.arab-hebrew-theatre.org.il
- Cinematheque: 2 Sprinzak Street; 3-606-0800
- The Suzanne Dellal Dance Center: 6 Yechieli Street; 3-510-5656 www.suzannedellal.org.il