Grooving at the Sea of Galilee

Jacob’s ladder has grown from a modest folk music festival, into a world music extravaganza that appeals to young and old, Anglo and Israeli alike.From its humble beginnings 32 years ago as a modest folk music festival geared primarily to …

Jacob’s ladder has grown from a modest folk music festival, into a world music extravaganza that appeals to young and old, Anglo and Israeli alike.From its humble beginnings 32 years ago as a modest folk music festival geared primarily to the English speaking community in Israel, Jacob’s Ladder has evolved into a three-day bluegrass, country, blues and world music extravaganza that appeals to thousands of both Anglos and Israelis, from teenagers to 60+ old timers.

The latest edition of Jacob’s Ladder was held last weekend at its permanent home of Kibbutz Nof Ginosar along the Sea of Galilee just north of Tiberias. The musical line up featured a number of international acts including last year’s headliners, The Abrams Brothers, one of the country music scene’s preeminent banjo and fiddle-playing bluegrass acts. The Canadian-born Abrams Brothers – consisting of dad, two brothers, a cousin and two world-class banjo players from the US – had the younger set swooning.

Other star performers who came from overseas to perform at this year’s festival included Pete Morton, a British ex-punk rocker who turned to raucous guitar driven folk after hearing a Buffy Sainte-Marie record some 30 years ago; North Carolina-based “quirky folk singer and poet” Utah Greene; singer songwriter Sonia Rutstein, who goes by the stage name of SONiA (yes, correct spelling) and blends world music, folk, pop and Middle Eastern rhythms in English, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew; and TRiAD, a rather weak three piece who performed oddly arranged interpretations of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Locally grown talent at Jacob’s Ladder included Avital Raz, who studied Indian classical music in Varanasi for five years and performs an eclectic mix of folk pop with Indian undertones; Sandy Cash, whose humorous ditties always make us smile (the song about a truck that accidentally dumps a load of Viagra in the local water supply is an all-time classic); Tal Koreneberg’s Bodhran band, perhaps Israel’s only double bagpipe jammers playing Irish, Celtic and Scottish folk tunes; and my personal favorite, Iyam who got the crowd dancing to a mix of Hebrew and English reggae and rap.

Jacob’s Ladder is more than just music, however. There are tai chi sessions, a clown workshop for the kids, a chai zulafor the cool set to chill out; and lots of country, line and square dancing. My wife Jody has been going to a monthly “contra” dancing in Jerusalem to which I’ve steadfastly refused to attend, on the grounds that I “don’t like anything with steps.” Jody dragged me into the first session at Jacob’s Ladder and before long I was hooked. What fun!

Despite a crowd in the thousands, Jacob’s Ladder never feels oppressive. There are three main stages and, other than Friday night when everyone spreads a sheet on the grass and grooves to the main acts, activities are pretty loose. Some people take a dip in the pool, others browse the arts and crafts area. The lobby of the hotel is always happening with impromptu jam sessions into the wee hours of the night.

Politeness and honesty are an unspoken rule of thumb. You can leave your stuff anywhere and no one will take it. If someone sits in your chair, there are no arguments when you return. Smoking is the exception rather than the rule. There is a laid back, free flowing feeling to the whole event that serves as an antidote, however brief, to the stresses of day to day living in Israel. In short, we love it.

Over the years, Jacob’s Ladder has become less Anglo and more Israeli. That’s in part due to the Israeli-born children of the original attendees who have grown up at Jacob’s Ladder and seem to know all the Israeli and Irish dances by heart (the mosh pit to the side of the main stage was grooving big time Friday night – even I plunged into the midst of the “scene”). There is also a fair representation of Israeli adults who enjoy the music and casual scene.

The overwhelming secular nature of Jacob’s Ladder has also changed in recent years. An increasing number of Orthodox families now attend the festival. The kippa-wearing crowd has its own minyan by the lake Friday night and seems to find no contradiction between Shabbat observance and listening to great music.

Attendees can buy “scrip” in advance so that food purchases can be made without spending real shekels over the weekend. We ate a “proper” Shabbat dinner in the Nof Ginosar dining hall which has one of the better buffets I’ve eaten at a kibbutz hotel.

Our friends call us a bit spoiled. While nearly everyone camps – the grounds of the kibbutz guest house are covered by a sea of tents – we booked a simple but functional room in the pundak, a country style inn with nice pinewood furniture, where we could sleep on a real bed and take a real shower. Despite several derisive comments on our refusal to rough it, that didn’t stop our friends from using our bathroom and fridge.

At the end of the weekend, as the music died down and the afternoon sun began to wane, we wandered down to the Kinneret, pulled a couple of plastic chairs down to the rocky beach and dangled our feet in the cool water. It was a perfect end to a fabulous weekend.

Will we be back? Undoubtedly. We’ve already booked our room for 2009…

About Brian Blum

Brian has been a journalist and high-tech entrepreneur for over 20 years. He combines this expertise for ISRAEL21c and Israelity as he writes about hot new local startups, pharmaceutical advances, scientific discoveries, culture, the arts and daily life in Israel. He loves hiking the country with his family (and blogging about it). Originally from California, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.