Public singalongs – food for the soul

Italians do it operatically. The French do it romantically. And Israelis do it in public.

Singing, that is.

Israeli entertainment without what is known as shira be tzibur – public sing-alongs – is like Israeli food without falafel. Just as you can put anything into a pita, smother it with tehina, and then enjoy eating it even though everyone can see the sauce dripping down your chin, a sing-along evening comprises a strange but healthy combination of the schmaltzy, the piquant and a measure of public embarrassment – food for the soul.

Legend has it that the Greeks dance no matter what. This side of the Mediterranean, we sing. We sing to remember, we sing to forget; we sing when we’re happy and we sing so much when we’re sad that a whole genre has developed called shirei piguim – terror attack songs.

Waiting for the Messiah

One of the best things about living in Israel is how in-tune it is with the times. You can forget about a “White Christmas,” but at Succot, “Shlomit Bona Succa” (Shlomit Builds a Succa of Peace) and Gali Atari’s “Stav Yisraeli” (An Israeli Autumn) are high on the Israel Radio playlist.

For the New Year, Yediot Aharonot’s entertainment supplement drew up a list it tagged as “The Country’s Hit Parade: the top 500 songs of Israeli music.” The list held some surprises – the No. 1 of which was the choice for the top spot. Whereas I had expected that the genius of Arik Einstein would beat all others – Einstein, celebrating his 70th birthday, is the ultimate timeless Israeli entertainer – it was sometime-rocker Shalom Hanoch who led the list with his mega-hit of the 1980s, “Mehakim Lamashiah” (Waiting for the Messiah). As the paper summed up, “Sometimes it all comes together – the words, the music, the composition, a few minutes of inspiration and the perfect song.”

The paper attributed the song’s success to its continued (or, perhaps, renewed) relevance: Not only are we still waiting for the messiah – “Mashiah lo ba, mashiah gam lo metalfen” (The messiah doesn’t come, neither does he phone), as Hanoch put it – but even a generation born after the double whammy of the First Lebanon War and the Israeli market crash of the early ’80s can still identify with the lyrics.

The Yediot list makes fascinating reading, partly because of its very unpredictability. In an unscientific but fun survey of sabra friends, I found that without exception they all expected Einstein to lead the chart and Shlomo Artzi to follow, with something either written by Ehud Manor or sung by Kaveret (a group too good to last) in the third spot.

A song to end the heatwave

Instead, Hanoch’s raw rock was followed by former Kaveret member Gidi Gov’s “Shlal Sharav,” verbally painting the picture of the end of the great heat wave, “as the sun sets in the blue sea and a silent wind calms face, neck, nostrils and blood.” If you’ve never suffered an Israeli hamsin, or more specifically the swelter of Tel Aviv, you might not appreciate how much there is to sing about when it finally breaks. The combination of Gov’s rasping tones, Meir Ariel’s lyrics and Yehuda Poliker’s music definitely created a hit, although one wonders if the voting wasn’t influenced by meteorological conditions and location as much by musical tastes.

Third place went to Yehudit Ravitz’s “Viduy,” a poem by Alexander Penn set to music by Sasha Argov. Not my favorite Ravitz number, it nonetheless has the immortal line: “Haya ra letiferet” – it was wonderfully bad.

It is, also, wonderfully Israeli to take classic poems and give them a musical life. This summer, for example, singer Etti Ankri is making a comeback and giving Yehuda Halevy’s words significant public exposure after almost 1,000 years. It’s hard to imagine Israeli music without the touch of poets Rachel (like Shakespeare, she needs but one name), Yona Wallach, Natan Yonatan, Natan Alterman, Bialik and so many others that Yediot could probably have drawn up a top-500 list of just those works.

Incidentally, Einstein only finally appeared in the Yediot chart (with Hanoch again) in the No. 4 slot, with a message we might all ponder now and again: “Lama li lakahat lalev?” – Why should I take it to heart?

Liat Collins is the editor of the International Edition of the Jerusalem Post.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

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Why Leonard Cohen moved Israel

It’s not what Leonard Cohen was trying to say here that matters, but what his audience was voting for with its feet.

If there is one place along the notoriously hedonistic Coastal Plain that is even less spiritual than the rest of that restless urban sprawl, it is Ramat Gan. The city to Tel Aviv’s east prides itself on assorted claims to fame, from the country’s first mall, tallest building and largest stadium to the world’s leading diamond exchange.

Inspiration and introspection, however, let alone repentance, were hardly on the minds of this town’s builders – a set of liberals who were even more secular than Israel’s socialist founders.

That alone, therefore, made last week’s encounter in Ramat Gan Stadium between 50,000 mostly secular Israelis and the lone, frail, contemplative and unfashionably capped Leonard Cohen – seem like the unarmed Jonah’s improbable conquest of sinful Nineveh.

Cohen the singer, poet and novelist needs no introduction to most Israelis; and those who hadn’t known of this graduate of Montreal’s Herzliya High School who became Canada’s leading poet could have learned all about him through the extensive coverage that preceded and followed his concert, a moving event that put to shame recent musical attempts by Madonna and Depeche Mode to sweep the country off its feet.

The question, therefore, is not what Leonard Cohen was trying to say here – unique though his inspiring lyrics and caressing tunes are, they have been with us for decades – but what his audience was voting for with its feet, artistically, politically and religiously.

Defying noise and shallowness

Artistically, Cohen defies two traits that frequently plague the popular genres to which his music partly belongs: noise and shallowness.

The thousands of Americans and Europeans who crowd this septuagenarian’s concerts don’t just tolerate the minimalism of his tunes, the near-silence of his tone and the quest for meaning that runs through his lines, they crave them.

We Jews are passively reminded every fall that for centuries most people ordinarily heard hardly any artificial noise, even that of a shofar, let alone a musical orchestra, not to mention factories, highways, locomotives or jets. Now we have come full circle; modern man’s ears are so infused and invaded by cacophony, blabber and clamor that he has come to thirst for the velvet touch of a whisper, the very kind that is Cohen’s hallmark. That is why his music has won an estimated 2,000 different renditions over the years.

In yearning for this departure from contemporary musical routine, Cohen’s Israeli following is no different than others. Moreover, some in the audience that packed Ramat Gan Stadium were there because everyone else was there, or because they wanted to be seen, or just for the heck of it. And yet, the critical mass was there for very Israeli reasons.

For Israelis, the sight of a successful man tenderly searching his soul and at the same time worshipping God in quest of repentance is rare.

I didn’t come to fool you

When hearing words like “they sentenced me to 20 years,” Israelis don’t think of larger-than-life revolutionaries accused of “trying to change the system” but of smalltime politicians charged with wheeling, dealing, embezzling, skimming and double billing, too. When, they ask, will one, just one, of this snaking line of disgraced notables emerge from his jail term and confess, “I did my best, it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch,” and how many of these can credibly say, “I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you,” or at the very least concede, as Cohen has to the crowd’s delight, “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah?”

Now this is not to say that the large audience in Ramat Gan was really captured by, or even aware of the irony, from our Israeli viewpoint, in Cohen’s follow-up on David’s surrender to temptation. This context was there, at best, subconsciously. What was not subconscious was Cohen’s kind of religiosity.

Having lost his father as a child, Cohen was deeply influenced by his grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Klinitski, who taught him Bible, Talmud and mysticism, and inspired Cohen’s The Spice-Box of the Earth, the book that made him famous back in 1961. There, in “Lines from My Grandfather’s Journal,” Cohen brought together King David and 16th-century sage Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, for a kind of dialogue that can only be imagined by someone who is intimately familiar with Judaism’s sources and attached to its traditions.

Though a growing number of Israeli performers, from Shlomo Gronich to Meir Banai, are seeking their Jewish roots, there are very few in the country’s cultural scene today, from novelists and painters to academics and rabbis, not to mention singers, who are capable of this sort of creativity.

That is why Cohen is an inspiration here. His is a kind of Judaism that has yet to emerge here in full force. That is why 50,000 Israelis joined Cohen in singing “Who by Fire,” his version of the 12th-century prayer about the judgment on Yom Kippur of all people, some to life and some to death, and of all states, some to the sword and some to peace – a song he wrote after journeying to the charred battlefields of the Yom Kippur War.

Lifted hands and a blessing

Last week, so close to and yet so far from the Diamond Exchange, the Ayalon Mall and the Aviv Tower, and so deep within yet so well above the stadium that ordinarily hears the curses of Israeli soccer fans, a multitude of Middle Israelis swayed as this Diaspora Jew named Cohen, in what may have been his last appearance here, lifted his hands and blessed all at hand in the traditional blessing of the priests.

Yet this Cohen is a priest only by name.

In practice, he is the antithesis of the caste that cultivated ritual, frosted faith and suppressed spiritual spontaneity, let alone dissent. A man like Leonard Cohen – who in a 1964 conference of Canadian Jewish leaders said money had replaced for them the values of the prophets, and that the very term “Jewish establishment” was an oxymoron – is in his substance more prophet than priest.

And that’s what is so unique in him to secular Israelis.

Here and now, Judaism is also often held hostage by an establishment that cares more for faith’s legislation and imposition than for the souls of the people it is meant to inspire. That at least is what 50,000 Israelis voted last week by their feet as they flocked to Ramat Gan Stadium where they joined a distant cousin’s prayer, some waving candlesticks, some moving lips and some wiping tears.

Reprinted by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

Mourning Ramon and a national dream

For many in Israel, the death of Asaf Ramon is not just the loss of a promising young pilot, but also the end of a national dream rekindled.

The day after space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry under a blue Texas sky in 2003, editorial cartoonist Mike Keefe from The Denver Post drew six stars and one Star of David on a black canvas, representing the seven astronauts lost in the disaster.

Today we add an eighth star, another Star of David, to that cartoon, in honor of Asaf Ramon.

In our national narrative, Asaf was always going to be our second astronaut. And so we don’t just mourn the death of a young, promising pilot cadet, we mourn the sudden death of a national dream rekindled, of a promise unfulfilled.

Asaf was the eldest son of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. Ilan, and Asaf after him, represented our finest, our “best of the best.”

As the youngest member of the squadron that carried out the daring bombing raid on Saddam’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Ilan Ramon was more than just an ace pilot. He was what many young men, then and now, aspire to be.

To many, inside and outside the country, he was the manifestation of the new Jewish warrior, determined never to let evil men attain weapons that could annihilate us.

When Ramon, son of a Holocaust survivor, took an artifact from the Theresienstadt ghetto with him into space, Jewish hearts all over the world filled with pride.

“I was born in Israel and I’m kind of the proof for them, and for the whole Israeli people, that whatever we fought for and we’ve been going through in the last century (or maybe in the last 2,000 years), is becoming true,” he said.

Ilan Ramon was “our astronaut,” our national pride. When he was chosen by NASA, we walked a little taller. We had our very own astronaut – very few countries in the world could boast of that.

For a precious few days, when we saw video footage of him floating through his space ship, we floated a little above the ground, too. When we heard Hebrew songs being played in space, we sang them here on Earth. When he looked down at us through his ship’s window and said that little Israel looked so beautiful from space, we felt a little more beautiful, a little bit more special.

Every day he was up there was a gift for Israel. He made us feel better about ourselves, and we loved him for that.

He shared his experience with us fully, through video, phone calls, pictures, radio interviews, and, letters to his wife and children. He showed us a place where time and space weren’t dotted with the debris of war, twisted metal and tears. He showed us how high Israelis could one day reach.

When we gathered around the TVs to watch his imminent landing, our hearts pounded with excitement. When contact with Columbia was lost, we bit our nails, in denial, tortured in disbelief. Our anxiety slowly turned into angst, our hopes dashed, our hero fallen.

In real time, we all watched our dream shatter into tiny pieces across the Texan sky, over a town called Palestine. When Columbia’s hull scattered, our hearts broke into tiny pieces, and we didn’t walk so tall for a while.

And then came Asaf. Smart, strong, confident, just like his father. As a teenager in a Texas high school, it was clear Asaf was Ilan’s son through and through. His grades in mathematics, geography and physics were near perfect.

In 2006, we saw Asaf enter the IAF pilot’s course. He was following in his father’s footsteps, and we dared to dream again. A little glimmer of that light that went out with Ilan sparked within our hearts.

When we heard news that Asaf had skillfully maneuvered his training jet out of a dangerous, spiraling descent, barely saving his skin but managing to control the massive machine, the glimmer of light grew brighter and warmer. He was destined for greatness; he was a hero in the making. He was a Top Gun.

And on that sunny day just three months ago, when Asaf graduated as the most outstanding cadet in his pilot’s class, we collectively burst again with pride.

See, we said to each other, the dream is still alive. The son is taking his father’s place. He could take us all the way to the top again, and who knows, maybe he’ll go into space, and the whole world will hear our music again. Asaf fit so naturally into the narrative we had written for him.

So when rumors started spreading that the pilot killed in a training crash on Sunday morning was Asaf Ramon, our first reaction was one of adamant disbelief. Surely not. Not Asaf Ramon. Not again.

We desperately wanted the rumors to be false. And when confirmation finally came, the old wound reopened.

We were mourning Ilan Ramon all over again.

Courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

A new kind of philanthropy

When members of the board are tuned in to the needs of their organization, a new kind of giving becomes possible.

When one thinks about philanthropy, one most likely thinks of bettering humankind through the donation of money for a specific cause. But money is not the only “gift” philanthropy brings.

What most of us think of as philanthropy has no doubt undergone some revision this past year. Particularly in an environment where there is more competition over fewer funds, it is important to do things differently, with increased cooperation and awareness. And it is important to get everyone on board – including an organization’s board.

I feel privileged to have recently seen one such example of effective cooperation when, through board members’ awareness and speedy intervention, the Jerusalem College of Engineering (JCE) received valuable advanced equipment from a high-tech company that closed its operations in Israel.

JCE welcomed the substantial addition of a one-of-a-kind electron microscope, a gift from Tessera Israel Ltd., generously given as it closed down its operations in Israel.

A beneficial partnership between academia and industry

This unusual gift, a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), images a sample surface by scanning it with a high-energy beam of electrons. But, technical jargon aside, this advanced piece of equipment, priced at over half a million dollars, can magnify an object to up to 300,000 times its size.

As Tessera was closing its doors, JCE Board Member Shlomo Oren, who was at the time also the CEO of Tessera Israel, aware of the value of educating engineering students with the use of advanced equipment, secured the donation of the microscope to JCE.

The same students who will benefit from studying with this equipment today are being prepared for employment in high-tech companies like Tessera after they graduate.

The college had to respond just as quickly as Oren did. The microscope had to be moved right away – but it was no simple task. The SEM contains very fragile systems that are easily damaged in transit. Its relocation was therefore carefully planned, and the SEM successfully reached JCE’s Materials Lab without as much as a scratch.

Generosity leads to more giving

To operate the microscope, JCE needed to add a chiller to keep the diffusion pumps and microscope lenses at a cool temperature. Mr. Yonathan Wand, Numonyx Israel Ltd.’s General Manager and also a member of JCE’s board, searched for a compatible chiller. Within a few weeks, Intel’s Manager in Jerusalem, Mr. Ariel Wasserstrum, graciously announced the donation of a chiller to JCE on behalf of Intel.

Having recently joined JCE for the purpose of resource development, I could only hope to see such a feat. It is precisely this kind of collaboration, awareness and intervention for a common goal that enables such innovative donating to occur.

At the Jerusalem College of Engineering, it is the collaboration between academia and industry that has inspired several of its board members to be highly involved.

As further evidence of the successful partnership between academia and industry, JCE has created educational programs that not only meet high academic standards, but also meet the standards and needs of the high-tech industry. Having advanced machinery in the laboratories enhances the smooth integration of JCE graduates, as engineers, into the industry.

Creating win-win situations

And so this is a win-win situation for both industry and academia, working in partnership in Jerusalem. And it is exactly these types of partnerships, when utilized effectively, which can bring about win-win situations.

When a board of governors is fully on-board – not just showing up for the annual meeting, but effectively seeking out and recognizing opportunities for the benefit of the non-profit that it represents – its members can seize an opportunity when it arises.

This case further proves that it is not only in prosperous times that philanthropy can thrive. Even when shutting down a company, there are ways to help others – gifting, or perhaps “re-gifting,” included. Cooperation, while focusing on a common goal, recognizing an opportunity and seizing it are what it takes – at all times.

In this case, those who will benefit from this generous donation are the 165 students of JCE’s Advanced Materials Engineering program, Jerusalem’s next generation of engineers.

Naomi Shmueli David works in resource development at the Jerusalem College of Engineering (JCE)

In pride, without fear

Last weekend’s attack on a gay community center in Tel Aviv may have shocked Israel, but the country’s gay community takes strength from the response.

Justin Rudzki is an Australian freelance writer living in Tel Aviv.

Ask any local lad in the know and he’ll tell you that Saturday night here is all about Cheech Beach. An open-air bar on the shores of the Mediterranean where the boys gather from about 23.00 onwards to see out the close of the weekend together. Situated smack in the middle of the city’s main waterside promenade, its location characterizes a country where everything must coexist: there is little choice in a nation that is almost half the size of New Jersey. In some areas this creates a tension that is palpable; in others, less so. On most days the average Tel Avivian will tell you that their metropolis is the place that does it best: one of those harmonious multicultural melting pots that seemingly works.

Last Saturday night it was a very different tale.

The facts are already well known: as is par for the course in the modern age, within hours a local tragedy became front-page news around the globe. At around 23.00 on Saturday evening – the end of the weekend in a country that works Sunday through Thursday – a lone gunman entered one of the two community centers that service the gay community in Israel’s largest city and opened fire on gays and lesbians attending a weekly support group for teenagers.

Two died – Nir Katz, 24 and Liz Trobishi, 17. A further 15 were injured. For many, the incident was a forced coming out to family members who were contacted by police and hospital officials.

Some four days on and the impact still looms large: the victims are struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what has happened to them; the perpetrator is yet to be found; and the city is in shock – even in this part of the world, where violence and terror are regular guests on the evening news, an event like this can shake people to their core.

Spreading the news and gathering support

Within hours, citizens who have uncomfortably familiar networks for spreading bad news, swung into action. Modern technology as the bearer of bad news: text messages, internet, social networking sites. By midnight a group of local gays spearheaded an initiative to have Facebook profile pictures changed in support of the victims: vanity gave way as countless scrapped snaps of their best pose in favour of  pride flag images adorned with black ribbons and memorial candles.  By 8am the following morning, less than 12 hours after the city was ripped from its lazy summer slumber, the work turned to gathering support for a speedily convened rally in the city’s heart.

At 16.30 people began assembling on Rothschild: a leafy tree lined boulevard dominated in the middle by a pedestrian thoroughfare, a kind of year round gathering place where locals sit on benches in deep conversation, ride bicycles, drink coffee and play Bocce. The Aguda building, scene of the prior evening’s sinister events, is tucked into a side street less than 50 meters away.

Shortly before the anointed start time the crowd had the appearance of a low level sit in. A core of passionate activists gathered chanting choruses of “In pride, without fear” and other emotionally charged catchphrases. By the time the official program of speakers got underway the gathering had shifted dramatically in form, its scale well and truly symbolizing a community and city mobilized. Traffic was forcibly stopped as the crowd spilled out covering the boulevard from pavement to pavement.

A list of high profile MP’s came to speak, including a former Education Minister as well as Israel’s only openly gay Member of Parliament. And then there was Tzipi (Livni). The charismatic National Opposition Leader addressed the crowd with a passionate conviction. In one of the most poignant commentaries of the afternoon she urged the community to see “this crime as a turning point” and expressed the hope that it “give the strength to everyone in the gay community to live their lives… give strength to a child to go to his parents and say: ‘I am gay’ or ‘I am lesbian’.” In other parts of the country, strong statements given by both the Prime Minister and the President completed a triad of condemnation from the nation’s top political powerbrokers.

A tolerance that runs deep

They spoke about the many things to be learnt from a tragedy like this. Strong voices that talked of how this event will mobilize the community; how we need to fight for more rights, more acceptance and a tolerance that runs deeper and ultimately permeates well beyond a few square inner city miles. Although borne of the desire to see something good ultimately come out of something so heinous, there is no denying the necessity of these calls to action. In this sense, Tel Aviv is not so unlike many other bastions of tolerance around the globe.

In addition to the demands for a better tomorrow, there is much talk on the street here about the things to remember and contemplate: like the young man and woman who lost their lives as the result of a brutal crime; the random and inexplicable nature of evil that sometimes rears its head in even the most civilized of societies; and some of the deeper prejudices those actions may or may not represent.

But when the shock wears off, one of the most important things will be for this city to not self-flagellate, – to ensure it remembers the value of what it has managed to construct. That in the moments before and after the tranquility of a summer evening were shattered by a violent crime, there were many symbols of a place that, on most days, provides a secure, accepting and free environment for gays and non-gays alike to live: an open celebration of life in a beachside bar; a forum of support for the newest members of the community; the sort of people that would mobilize in an instant in support of their own; and a National Opposition leader who is willing to come out at a moment’s notice in support of a group whose mere existence often polarizes the electorate.

That in the middle of one of the most troublesome regions in the world there exists a place like this is a reason for Tel Aviv to retain a sense of pride amidst all the work still to be done.