Hear in the Holy Land | Tel Aviv
As mentioned in my previous post, I totally slacked off on my self-imposed blogging responsibilities and didn’t post a single thing while in Tel Aviv. I spent four days there, and it was truly memorable. Where do I even start?
A + C
These two letters combine to magical results. Not only do they stand for Arts & Culture, which are really what I’m looking to get a glimpse of while I’m in the area; but they also stand for something else, which was thankfully provided in my room: Air Conditioning. Given I’m in the Middle East in late July/early August, I won’t even bother elaborating.
But seriously, I was incredibly fortunate to bear witness to a variety of genuinely local art and culture.
Adi & Ori | AirBnB Hosts & the Local Nightlife
I stayed at an AirBnB right in Yafo.* The hosts, Adi and Ori, were spectacular—they were really the main reason I felt connected to the local culture. On top of a lot of general conversation with them in their home, they also invited me to a couple social outings, both of which I gratefully accepted.
Israeli Conversations at an Old Yafo Bar | Adi bartends at Container, a cool little bar in ‘The Docks’—an old marina that has been transformed by a bunch of bars and nightclubs and shops, giving it a sort of hipster vibe (yes, they have those here too). Anyway, he was working his shift on Saturday night (July 23) when Ori invited me to join him and a few friends at the bar. I was already in bed, eager to nurse my jet-lage with an early night, but when you hear Hebrew-accented voices calling you downstairs and into the night for a pint or two under the stars, it’s hard to refuse! So I hopped back into my clothes and jumped out the door. Most of the group’s conversation was in Hebrew, of course (meaning I got to just sit back and enjoy listening to the beautiful sounds of the language as it unfurled before me), but they all spoke English decently well too. They were all very gracious and kind, eager to make me feel welcome, happy to both talk about their culture and hear about mine. It was an excellent little look into the lives of local Tel-Aviv folk my age.
Tal Cohen-Shalev | And again, the next night. Teeth brushed, contacts out, face washed, sweat and sand showered off, ready to lay low once more…and my name is called out from the floor below. This time Ori’s asking if I want to go to a concert with him — a Tel Aviv singer-songwriter at a pub. Say what? Local music at a small local venue? Yeah, okay!
Now it turns out most of Tal Cohen-Shalev’s lyrics were English, and apparently he has plans to move westward to try ‘make it’ (oh how I hate this part of the music industry**), but it was a fantastic experience all the same: I was probably the only non-Jewish person in the venue, which was a small, underground, Irish-styled pub. Many of those in the crowd sang along to a good half of the tunes — apparently Shalev has quite a following in Tel Aviv. As for the music itself, Shalev is a good songwriter with a pretty decent voice and the necessary guitar chops to back it up. His band was (mostly) decent too. But the nitty-gritties of quality really didn’t matter much — the shared experience that I witnessed being partaken all around me was palpable, and that’s what I was most grateful for. Quite honestly, this is exactly the sort of local art I’m looking for here!
If you want to listen to Shalev’s music, check out his Bandcamp page. His live sound reminded me a lot of Dawes.
David Loden | Messianic Jewish Musician & Composer
David Loden has been living just north of Tel Aviv (in Netanya) since the 70’s, and he’s been making music for the Messianic Fellowship*** here for pretty much as long. In addition to translating a lot of masterpieces into the Hebrew language (Handel’s Messiah, for example), he also writes original works of his own—I listened to his choral/orchestral rendition of Psalm 87, which includes every word of the psalm in its original Hebrew, and it was truly beautiful. His work is moving, and his perspective on art and worship amongst the body of Christ in Israel is of weighty importance. We even shared some gripes about the predominant ‘Hillsong sound’ of corporate worship today, which is apparently problematic here like it is back home in the West. (If this comment confuses you, track me down and start a conversation. Or if you like, I’ll send you a paper or two I’ve written that touches on the topic. I’m unashamedly opinionated on this one…)
On Friday (July 22) I was able to skip out to Netanya via train in the morning (before transit shut down for Shabbat that evening) to speak with him. I recorded a full conversation with David—along with his wife Lisa, who has done some seriously extensive work on Palestinian-Jewish engagement (including writing two books). I’ll probably need to mine that audio recording and write a entire post all on its own. So, more to come…
David Tartakover & More | the Tel Aviv Museum of Art
On Saturday (July 23), Shabbat was in full effect, so after a fantastic breakfast of Shakshukah and Arabic salad (I raved about it on Instagram), I hopped on a “Tel-O-Fun Bicycle” and rode halfway across the city—at great expense to my personal hygiene (I griped about it on Instagram). But it was worth it, because I got to go to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and see the David Tartakover Exhibition!
I hadn’t heard of David Tartakover before, but apparently he’s a pretty big deal. Tartakover is (to sheepishly quote Wikipedia) “an Israeli graphic designer, political activist, artist and design educator.” He’s pretty left-wing, and his work has been outspokenly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.
A lot of his work is subtle, like this one, which is probably my favourite:
Here you can see the Hebrew word BYT, or bayit; it means ‘tent’ or ‘house’ or, more generally, ‘home’. The great bit about this, though, is that the colours of the Hebrew letters are the colours of the Palestinian Flag. Hebrew Letters. Palestinian Colours. Ridiculously simple concept, but it speaks loud and clear…
He had a whole lot of other work on display there, and much of it is as subtle, brilliant, and communicative as this one.
Of course, as delightful as it was, the museum contained much more than Tartakover’s exhibition. Many other Israeli artists had their work on display…
Eli Gur Arie: “Growth Engines”
This was something else entirely; a peculiar sort of apocalyptic fantasy, Arie’s surrealistic portrayal of organic-technological hybrids is a criticism of the capitalist sysem.
(Somehow or other. I just read the description provided at the exhibit. I kind of get it. I think. I’m admittedly quite a horrible modern art interpreter and critic! Regardless, it was a neat and gnarly exhibit to walk through.)
Zamir Shatz: “Habibti — A State of all its Citizens”
One of my favourites at the museum: a simple collage of faces—though they’re a mish-mash of different ethnicities, side by side. To me, it was the most hopeful work at the museum.
Michael Halak: “I Will Dress You a Gown of Concrete and Cement”
(Hey look, there’s a crack in the wall…)
Marc Chagall (1887–1985): “Solitude” (1933)
Now I know this piece doesn’t really qualify as the type of art I’m looking for on this trip of mine (i.e., it’s neither local nor current). But I’m in Israel, and the museum had a wall of Marc Chagall—arguably the greatest, if not the most iconic, Jewish painter in history. (I also just really like his work.) How could I not at least tip my hat?
The Art of the People
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art was thoroughly enjoyable. But I’ll be honest: I prefer folk art over institutional (or ‘high’) art; and both Yafo and Florentin, its next-door-neighbourhood, had this in spades. There were myriads of funky pieces splayed all across the walls of the buildings—there weren’t, in fact, a lot of walls that escaped at least some sort of artistic tagging. Here are only a couple sites that caught my eye:
Under 1000 Gallery | Then there’s this place—a great little art gallery of local-only artists, all its pieces are priced under USD $1,000. Every little alcove in this gallery is absolutely packed with pieces; it would easily take a full day to peruse through the whole selection of colourful, upbeat artwork.
(A + C) ÷ IPC
So there you have it. In a few days I encountered many different stripes of Tel Aviv’s Art and Culture scene. Not nearly all of it, of course—but a good amount given the amount of time I had to spend.
But how do all these encounters relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Well, it’s really important to note at this point that I’m a fledgling student of theology & art—that is, I’m not a social anthropologist, political scientist, Modern Middle Eastern historian, or any other such expert in a field that would give me professional insight enough to answer my own question. Above all, I’m not a local—and I am pretty convinced that nobody, no matter how qualified, can see the necessary big picture without having lived and breathed the local air for most of their lives. But, nonetheless, here are some churning thoughts…
Based off what I’ve seen, and based off the few brief conversations I’ve had with its residents, Tel Aviv is quite simply as removed as it can get from the conflict. It is, after all, the most secular and the most Western (geographically and culturally) of Israel’s major cities. And so the art that is created here—barring the esoteric institutional art of curated museums—is largely un-influenced by the political tensions of the region.****
It’s not that Tel-Avivans are consciously trying to ignore these tensions—whenever I (carefully) brought up the topic in conversation, folks were ready to acknowledge it and say a few words. But they also expressed that they feel exhausted, that they feel far-removed and somewhat helpless.
Perhaps the art and culture in Tel Aviv is not influenced by the conflict so much as it influenced away from the conflict. Maybe the artists here are helping their fellow city-dwellers attain a semblance of normalcy—the curator of the Under 1000 Gallery avoids overly political themes, but focuses on good vibes and self-expression (he told me this himself); and Shalev certainly wasn’t singing protest folk-songs to inspire his countrymen toward a call for justice (though he did perform a very interesting piece that put MLK’s entire “I Have a Dream” speech to music, which was either intentionally political, or sadly obvious—I’m really not sure which).
Of course, it’s hard to blame them. We all need art to bring zest and vigour into our everyday lives, and one cannot always focus on the glaring issues of the day. But at the same time, I can’t tell whether or not there’s cause for concern: is the art and culture of Tel Aviv a means for deserting the conflict altogether—a way to sluff it off to other more immediately affected regions? Is it trying to normalize a currently lop-sided relationship between Israelis and Palestinians? These are questions I can’t possibly answer—and regardless, they’re probably far too nuanced to fit within this little strip of virtual space. Regardless, I’ll probably keep pondering them for a while…
* Yafo/Japho/Jaffa/Joppa is the oldest part of Tel Aviv. An ancient port town on the coast of the Mediterranean, you may recall it as the the place Jonah boarded a ship for Tarshish in his failed efforts to get out of Dodge (Jonah 1:3). More significantly, Simon the Tanner lived there in the 1st Century; Peter was chilling on his rooftop when God gave him the vision of unclean animals being lowered down from heaven on a canvas—all foods were declared clean, and just in the nick of time too…(see Acts 10).
** If you want to know why I dislike the way the music industry funnels artists toward moving out in order to make it, then strike up a conversation with me — or just ask to read my paper on Art and Theology of Place.
*** Messianic Jews avoid identifying as Christians—not only because Christianity is a loaded term amongst the Jewish Community (a very quick & partial survey of Christian history here tells the tale: the Crusades, Pope Innocent III’s 4th Lateran Council of 1215, pogroms, the Holocaust… more than enough said, I think), but also because they wish to retain their ethnic identity as Jews. So instead of Christians, they are Messianic Jews, and instead of going to churches, they go to Messianic Fellowships.
**** Loden is an exception here — I feel he is making art that is both highly social and thoughtfully aware; certainly, his Psalm 87 relates deeply to the Jews’ identification of other races (just read the psalm itself and you’ll see how).