Culture, Global, Israel

Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Williamsburg Hadash?

For a good portion of the time I spent living in Jerusalem, I felt as if my creative inspiration, much of which was dedicated to exploring my Jewish identity in New York, was running dry. I would pry my eyes open to the sound of Sheikh Jarrah’s minarets’ and roosters, stare out the window at our dormitory’s guards’ feeling the underside of backpacks and watch them ask each young man if he was carrying a weapon; with unforgettably blank faces. Every so often, in between bar crawls and a pack of harsh Levantine cigarettes, I’d be able to write a poem or something. For the most part, I felt so alienated by a Jewish city on the brink of an Arab one, a religious city in which I couldn’t shake a secular, liberal American outlook, that the exciting creative and intellectual possibilities Jewishness posed in the Bronx had been transformed into a city obsessed with its borders; needless to say, one in which I didn’t feel liberated, but silenced. I became a wanderer in the city, muted by the bus guards darting in front of me as I made my way to some other vantage point from which I’d sip a cup of coffee and watch.
Between an idealized version of Itzhaq Shami’s Hevron and the world of Mr. Mani, I couldn’t find much space for the possibilities of my own Zionism, one open and so bent on individual liberation that it could thrive on the big differences between the Grand Concourse, Warschauer Strasse and Bab Al-Huta.
My interest in Jewish culture grounded itself in its multiple root systems. I had grown up two generations from Orthodoxy, one generation from Yiddish culture and within a suburb in which black American culture had infiltrated the space left by the Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrant histories many of our family’s worked hard to surpass. The international Jewish cultures I read about became enclaves unto themselves. Before I arrived in Jerusalem, I looked out my window and saw Kasrilevke, Vilneh, Baghdad, Kingston and Connecticut. I envisioned Daniel Israel Laguna’s Daily Gleaner, Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye, Samir Naqqash’s Nubu’at Rajul Majnun fi Madina Mal‘una and Naftule Brandwein’s melodies. They were my flower-stuffed Zionist gun barrels. Now, I saw something real and foreign, the capital of all the Jews. It was under siege and those who ruled it declared war on their enemies. Nowhere in my thinking had I begun to grapple with something so obvious as the war with the Arabs. All I knew was that I didn’t feel like I was at war with them. This distanced me from Jerusalem and the Jewish community it harbored. From whichever political perspective one came, Jerusalemites shared in a common geography and a common physical fate, whatever it was and will be. My Jewish-American life had no common geography, little shared fate.
I’ll return to Israel soon. This time, I’ve decided to make Tel Aviv my home. I’m going to write there. I want to live in a place in which I can successfully wrestle the struggles and joys of Israeli life. Luckily, as we’ve seen on Jewschool, a revived philanthropical interest in fostering Jewish artists and their audiences is giving American Jews some new traction. Since American and Israeli Jews are traveling on two highways jutting out of the same seed, the ways we express ourselves will be different and allied.
Two articles about a growing artist scene in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, (big up to Mobius), came to my attention. The one about Jerusalem chronicles the struggle to make an increasingly politically conservative and fervently Orthodox city into a metropolis in which all sorts of cultural activists can thrive on the unique tensions in the city.
Scott Wilson of the Washington Post Foreign Service reports:

“The story of Jerusalem’s creative revival is also that of its broader recovery following the devastating years of the most recent Palestinian uprising. Suicide attacks on buses and cafes savaged business, tourism and the venues that supported cultural life — not to mention the city’s spirit. Young people, among them many artists, fled a place that for many already had grown musty with its own history.
Religious Jews with large families and little income filled in the space left behind. The city became more conservative, poor and parochial at a time when international artists and performers were avoiding Jerusalem for reasons of politics and personal safety. The secular exodus sped to Tel Aviv, whose more worldly residents have long looked up the hill to a city they view as stodgy, kitschy and a little weird.
“The main problem of Jerusalem is one of an image that does not reflect reality,” said Yigal Amedi, the only one of the city’s four deputy mayors who is not a rabbi. “We are determined to change that reputation.”

The article goes on to explain how an artistic revival in Jerusalem is largely the work of Israeli elites, some with experience in America, who saw the need to build spaces where artists could contribute to the life of the city. An American Hollywood producer will soon move into a new animation studio in the city. The success of elite Israeli institutions, like The Bezalel Academy of Art and Design are heeding the call as well. The academy’s new home will be in The Russian Compound. I remember specifically learning from a student from Nazareth that, at least in the 2005-2006 school year, only 7 Arabs attended the academy on Mt. Scopus. In Tel Aviv, another renaissance is growing.
Ashley Rindberg of reports:

Signs of an artistic groundswell in Tel Aviv are apparent throughout the city, ranging from chalk paintings on Rothschild Blvd to stencils on Rabin Square, to bursts of spontaneous music in Florentine.
Writers, poets, musicians, and painters gather on the street to satisfy a shared desire for expression and audience, all with the unofficial consent of the city’s authorities. I set out to find the epicenter of the groundswell one Thursday night, trying to find what it is and what fuels it…Mor Bakal, a 21 year old native of Kfar Vradim, sees the freedom as a product of Israel’s cultural soul-searching. “Other cultures direct you and your actions,” Mor says, “but here in Tel Aviv there’s nothing black and white. Everything’s mixed – secular and religious, Jews, Arabs, tourists, art, politics, culture, religion. Nothing is defined.”… Soon, another important piece in this evolving puzzle dances up. Mor Elian is a 21 year old Israeli who speaks English with an American accent and seems conversant in both Israeli and American frontier culture.

Going on to cover the growing Indie Rock scene and Tel Aviv’s shadowing street artist Know Hope, the article characterizes Tel Aviv as a city like many others with their faces towards the cosmopolitan West. Florentin, a working class neighborhood in the southern part of the city, is becoming a haven for artists, much like neighborhoods in the Former East Berlin, or Bushwick, in Brooklyn.
These articles characterize Israel’s urban odd couple as undergoing tandem renaissances, with Jerusalem fostering artists by building institutions to house them and Tel Aviv running away from that sort of thing, focusing on decentralized and covert methods of baring the souls in the city.
From afar, these creative surges seem to only confirm the stereotypes associated which each city. Jerusalem’s elites, in an effort to strengthen Hebrew culture in its spiritual, secular and territorial forms, are constructing institutions in which professional artists will inevitably fit. These institutions will surely be referenced by those seeking investment in the city, adding a marketable flair to the capital without encouraging a dialogue between the city’s religious communities and its artists. One could reasonably assume that creative artists in Jerusalem will draw much inspiration from the spiritual fabric of the city. On the flipside, the ultra-observant communities, weaved from Mea Shearim to Silwan, may not even detect those who gain so much inspiration from living among them. Artistic collaborations between Jerusalem’s Jews and Arabs remain to be seen. The article mentions nothing about Jerusalem’s youths’ own creative potential. Philanthropists could also pay heed to Jerusalem’s impoverished neighborhoods, where plenty of young talents are sure to be waiting.
Tel Aviv, a city known for its role in bringing European Jewish culture into an Israeli reality, is forever embracing the individual ethos that has long characterized the youth cultures in New York, Paris and Berlin. Indie rock and graffiti are beginning to play a role in a Hebrew culture lonely because of its smallness. By adopting aspects of American culture, the search for a distinctive voice is evolving, much like the role of heavy metal in a far more alienated city, Tehran. However, Tel Aviv, a city in which the European and non-European meet, begs for a youth culture that embraces the variety of local culture while also staying true to individual experience. The article makes little mention of new literary journals or youth-run community spaces. Rather than trying to speak in the voice of the nation, as the architects of Jerusalem’s renaissance profess, the freedom of obscurity may thrive in Tel Aviv.
In the wake of A.B. Yehoshua’s comments about the limits of the Diaspora, many began to think about the emotional legacy that Jewish artists carry in their pens, brushes and instruments, whether or not they profess themselves to make Jewish art. I guess that some Jewish artists need to be in the Diaspora to feel Jewish and others need to be in Israel. Some can strike a balance. I’ve always thought that Israeli culture will eventually begin to dissolve the cultural borderlines that, in the end, make life in the country mega-interesting. Nowadays though, I don’t want to see them go. The political borderlines though; they could chill out.

7 thoughts on “Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Williamsburg Hadash?

  1. Eli.
    1) Where in The Bronx did you live/daven? I’m in Kingsbridge, near Marble Hill.
    2) What suburb did you grow up in, because it sounds suspiciously like Mt Vernon or New Rochelle
    3) Why make aliyah (sp) now?
    4) Cultural borderlines are fluid. I would not be surprised at all if they wavered… but they wouldn’t + shouldn’t disappear. The friction between culture is where some of the greatest creativity comes from, and the alternative is monoculture.
    5) Thank you for sharing all this.

  2. yo man
    i lived for a while in Yonkers and for a while in the Wakefield section. I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in May. I don’t really daven man, I’m not traditionally observant.
    I grew up in Trumbull, CT – about 60 miles from Manhattan, near Bridgeport.
    I won’t be making aliyah. I’ll be in TLV for a year on the Dorot Fellowship.
    monk eastman, thats fly…

  3. Sounds like, even in an Israeli setting, influences of the Diaspora are not only healthy but almost required to spark independent (street-culture) artisitc personaes, movements, etc., which can then be spun in their own unique Israeli way. Cosmopolitan cities have almost always had more thriving art scenes–above and below ground–than insular ones. For someone as well-traveled and well read as yourself (way to drop Mr. Mani in there, by the way), maybe a healthy dose of Israeli cosmopolitan life will get the juices flowin. I, for one, can’t wait to see.

  4. The article makes little mention of new literary journals or youth-run community spaces. Rather than trying to speak in the voice of the nation, as the architects of Jerusalem’s renaissance profess, the freedom of obscurity may thrive in Tel Aviv.

    Eli, I’d love an article about these new communities and initiatives for PresenTense Email me if you’re interested at arielbeery at gmail dot com.

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