Entertainment,History and Culture,Israeliness,Music

Aida at Masada

Photo: Yossi Zwecker

It was a magnificent night at the opera even if the people behind me were more interested in their iPhone apps than with the classic story unfolding on stage.

I had been invited to attend the Final Dress Rehearsal of Aida at Masada, along with 140 other journalists, 40 foreign diplomats, and nearly 7,000 Israelis – many of them from periphery communities.

The Israeli Opera is very open about its mission to bring spectators from all classes of society to its shows, especially those who usually wouldn’t see this art form. And though the majority of the audience sat mesmerized in their seats throughout the nearly four-hour affair, the two couples sitting behind me missed the magic of the event and chatted throughout the first two acts before leaving early (lucky for me).

Their chatter aside, there was a feeling of great excitement in the air.

The desert backdrop was perfect for the improbable love story of the Ethiopian princess and the Egyptian army officer. The sets were incredible and the lighting design was astonishing.

American soprano Kirstin Lewis, who took the lead role of Aida, served up gorgeous high notes to an audience gathered at the lowest point on earth.

It was a grand-scale production in every sense of the word. Joining the 20 multi-national opera singers on stage were a Bedouin dance troupe from Rahat, a dance troupe from Arad, and dozens of chorus singers and actors. Maestro Daniel Oren was on the podium conducting the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion. And, being set in Egypt, there were herds of camels, too.

The production of Aida marks the beginning of the 2011 Israeli Opera Festival.

Having seen a good number of operas before, there is no doubt that this was a performance to remember. And, though they cut out early and showed complete disinterest, I believe that even the folks in the row behind me will keep a memory of being at the opera.






Political puppy

Cutest puppy ever?

We got a puppy last week. He’s probably the cutest little thing ever, but then I’m biased. Monty, as we’ve named him, kind of fell into our laps (not hard when you’re talking about a Maltese, tiny even when it’s fully grown). We received an SMS from a friend on Wednesday morning telling us he was available and were we interested. By Wednesday night, he was ours.

Monty (it’s variation of Malt-y for Maltese, get it?) is his very own melting pot of Israeli society. His mother is Israeli, his father an Italian immigrant, he was born in the home of South African Jews living in Jerusalem and, before we received him, he stayed for a short time with an American family living in a settlement.

That’s not the only “political” part of our newfound puppydom. When we received Monty, his owner gave us a pile of newspapers to potty train him on. “Make sure you buy only Haaretz, he said, indicating his disapproval of Israel’s most left-wing newspaper. But he must have goofed because when we got home, the paper we’d received was Makor Rishon, one of Israel’s most right wing rags.

When Monty had gone through all the newspapers we’d taken home, we found a pile of papers next to our recycling bin with a mix of more mainstream tabloids – Yediot Achronot, Maariv and Israel HaYom. It seems that our puppy will be an equal opportunity offender after all.

Sarah Silverman at the park

Sarah Silverman at the park

The Silverman sisters (Sarah - second from left, sister Susan to her right)

Sarah Silverman is coming to town. Finally. The caustic comedienne – who, for those not yet familiar with her offbeat self-deprecating humor, was thrust onto the national scene with her tongue-in-cheek viral video urging Jews to visit their bubbies and zaidies in Florida and urge them to vote Obama in the last election – has never visited Israel. This despite a very outward Jewish sensibility in her act and TV show.

Silverman will visit Israel next month to take part in the Israeli Presidential Conference. According to Haaretz, she will host a performance of fellow comedian Todd Glass. Silverman is also performing a night of stand up comedy in Tel Aviv on June 25.

But what I want to know is: will Silverman take her nieces and nephews to the park? You see, Silverman’s big sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman, is our neighbor. She and her entrepreneur husband Yosef Abramowitz just moved in a couple of months ago and their kids will clearly want some slide and swing time with Aunt Sarah.

Will Sarah have a retinue of bodyguards as she helps the little tykes throw dirty sand at the local stray cats? Will the paparazzi scare away all the other parents and kids so that Sarah gets her own personal playground? And will Sarah’s up close encounter with Israeli dog poop lead her to develop a whole new set of jokes to taunt us with on stage?

Score me some tickets to the Tel Aviv show – and bring on the insults. Sarah, we love you.

The evolution of the Abrams Brothers

The evolution of the Abrams Brothers

Brother John with Brian at the beach at Jacob's Ladder (photo: Debbie Zimelman)

When Yehudit and Menachem Vinegrad booked the Abrams Brothers to appear as the main act at this year’s Jacob’s Ladder festival, they probably thought they were treating the audience at Israel’s (and one of the world’s) pre-eminent folk shows to the Brothers’ down home bluegrass and country stylings. Instead, they got Coldplay…with a fiddle.

This was the Abrams Brothers third time playing Jacob’s Ladder (they first appeared in 2007), and they have been consistent crowd pleasers, inspiring many of the more than 3,000 attendees to jump to their feet and boogy big time.

The Brothers (actually two brothers and their cousin, all under the age of 21) are devout Christians who say this is “their favorite folk festival” – both for the religious location at Kibbutz Nof Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee, and for the laid back vibe that brother John Abrams told me, when I met up with him on the beach collecting sea shells from the Holy Land, gives the event a “feeling of family.”

But the Abrams Brothers who took to the stage this year were barely recognizable from their debut here four years ago. Gone was the banjo player from the Grand Ole Opry. So too was their dad who provided a link to the multiple generations of bluegrass picking that runs in the family.

Instead, the Brothers have transformed themselves into a tight trio of pop rockers in the spirit of the Jonas Brothers or even –and this is hard to say in the same breath as “I really liked them” – Justin Bieber. Their new album, entitled Northern Redemption, was released for the first time at Jacob’s Ladder and was produced by Chris Brown who also produced fellow-Canadians The Barenaked Ladies.

The new Abrams Brothers tunes don’t abandon their roots entirely – brother James fiddles his way through nearly every song. But the emphasis on cousin Eli’s electric guitar and the way James leaps in the air and lands in a stadium rocker leg split are a far cry the wholesome family band that’s performed together for more than ten years, since James was only eight. Their latest video now playing on YouTube even features the trio pining for a sexy mermaid in a bikini.

I asked John what prompted the change. “We have a wide variety of music playing on our iPods,” he told me at the beach, “and we wanted to express that as well.” Indeed, the band has come into their own as they’ve gotten older, he added, and the family has been completely supportive of their new direction.

The “new” Abrams Brothers also have more of a shot of achieving teen stardom as rockers with country roots (just look at Taylor Swift). Their music has the pop sensibilities of early 1970s Eagles or Pure Prairie League (remember “Amie?”)

My own survey at the show was mixed. Many of my friends said they missed the bluegrass and were politely dismissive of the band’s transformation. I thought they were fantastic, as did the younger festival-goers who danced up a storm, but I’ve never been a particular fan of Nashville plucking.

The Abrams Brothers dropped numerous hints saying they wouldn’t mind being invited back next year. I hope Yehudit and Menachem got the message and that pop isn’t anathema to a folk music festival.

The Brothers’ love of Israel, professed repeatedly on stage, should be enough to sustain their continued participation. For their closing number, they chose a country-fied version of Coldplay’s Vida la Vida, with its religious chorus that starts “I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing, Roman Cavalry choirs are singing…” As one of my friends told me afterward, “Yes, I prefer the bluegrass, but I just can’t get that song out of my head.”

You can see it above and on YouTube and, with any luck, next year on the main stage at Jacob’s Ladder.


Do you like Like?

Ah, that’s such a cute baby picture you’ve posted on Facebook. I’ll go ahead and “like” it. So, what’s her name? “Like.” Yes, I liked her on Facebook. But what are you calling her? “Like.”

If it sounds like an Abbott and Costello routine, that would only be half the fun – or weirdness, take your pick – in an Israeli couple’s decision to name their new daughter “Like.” The couple – Lior and Vardit Adler of Hod HaSharon initially downplayed the Facebook connection in an interview with Haaretz. “Like” simply has a nice, international ring to it, the father said.

He elaborated further: “To me it is important to give my children names that are not used anywhere else, at least not in Israel.” He then added, with a grudging nod to Facebook: “If once people gave Biblical names and that was the icon, then today this [Facebook] is one of the most famous icons in the world.”

I imagine his parents would have preferred their granddaughter to have received a traditional Jewish name like “Ahuva,” which essentially means “like” in Hebrew.

But that wouldn’t be in keeping with the names of the other children in this media savvy family: Dvash (“honey” in Hebrew) and Pie – as in the old Beatles song?

I wonder if Honey Pie will like Like or if Like will like Ike, and… oh you get the idea…