The arts are thriving in Jerusalem -- despite everything

Tel Aviv has long been the capital city of the arts in Israel, but in the last ten years the arts in Jerusalem have developed rapidly. In the past, ethnic makeup, economic problems, and religion have all inhibited the growth of the arts in this ancient religious city. Despite these problems, much progress has been made.

In the old city of Jerusalem, people bargain for all kinds of arts and crafts: Armenian pottery, brassware, embroidered Arab dresses, olive wood carvings, and woven woolen rugs.

Scattered throughout the new city are modern abstract sculptures commemorating Jews who suffered during World War II and non-Jews who helped save Jews during the war. The Israel Museum and the famous Bezalel School of Art are also in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Theater, built ten years ago, is the home of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. The theater, which has 950 seats, attracts artists from all over Israel and from abroad. Galina and Valery Panov, the well-known Soviet dissident ballet couple, dance here. The theater also sponsors a special arts festival each spring, youth concerts, and theatrical performances.

According to the director of the Jerusalem Theater, Avital Mossinsohn, people criticized the theater, calling it a white elephant. They thought the audience would not be large enough for such a big building.

Mossinsohn has a fighter's spirit and despite these fears, when he became director of the theater 7 1/2 years ago, he made it his chief goal to creat a strong Jerusalem audience.

To accomplish this, Mossinsohn said, one must understand Jerusalem's ethnic composition, which posed the major obstacle to the growth of the arts in that city.

"Although the city is unified economically, it is not unified politically," he said. "The city consits of 400,000 inhabitants, representing three major groups of people -- Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Of the total population, 130 ,000 are Arabs, most of whom are unaccustomed to attending Western cultural events. Even those who have had an exposure do not come to such events for political reasons.

"Of the 300,000 Jews, 20 percent are strictly orthodox and over 75 percent are Oriental (Jews who originated in Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa). Most Oriental Jews are unfamiliar with such events and orthodox Jews do not come since religious men will not mix with women in public."

To overcome some of the obstacles, the staff at the Jerusalem Theater decided that each year children and youth from ages five to 18 should attend concerts, plays, and ballet performances. Before going to any performances, students are given an orientation at their schools. Actors, musicians, and dancers go to the schools to talk with the children.

By the time the children come to the theater, they are already intrigued by the background of the production. A special friendship develops between the children and the performers. Today there are ten times more subscribers to theater events than ten years ago.

In addition to ethnic background, a lack of finances, particularly because of high inflation and heavy taxes, has inhibited the growth of the arts in Jerusalem. One lady, Vered Kolleck, the niece of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolleck, recognizes this problem and is working hard to find resources and generate revenue by arranging more diverse programs to appeal to different groups of people.

A self-employed public relations specialist for the arts, with a particular interest in Jerusalem, her native city, Ms. Kolleck is a young woman with a warm freckled face and an air of confidence and security about the ideas.

One such idea which became a reality was a series of informal classical music concert where people could talk quietly while eating and drinking. Its purpose was to attract people who would not normally attend a classical concert. The program was successful, and since then a restaurant in Tel Aviv adopted the concept for after-dinner entertainment.

Ms. Kolleck has been planning an international music and art festival for children to be held in Jerusalem. She is also starting an arts magazine for the city to be modeled after The New Yorker.

To some extent, certain interpretations of religious teachings have also hindered the arts in Jerusalem. Traditionally, Jews did no engage in the arts because of strictures against creating images and worshipping them -- and many felt this included the arts. But today, one can find many Jewish artists living and working in Jerusalem.

Art galleries displaying a variety of paintings are located in both the old and the new cities. There are impressionistic works; realistic paintings of the land, people, and nature; abstract works; and symbolic works of war -- not at all surprising, considering that Israel has experienced four major wars in its brief history and that security and the threat of warfare continue to be important in daily life.

One internationally known artist living in Jerusalem, who represents the realistic movement, is Yossi Stern. A middle-aged man who remains charismatic and young at heart, he said he feels as if he just graduated from school. He works in the morning and swims every afternoon at the King David Hotel, where he also promotes his own art.

Stern found his way to Israel from an assimilated family in Hungary at the last possible moment during World War II. When he finally came to Jerusalem, it was like a homecoming. According to the mayor of Jerusalem, "Stern paints Jerusalem, not as it is, but as it should be."

Stern's techniques and subjects are equally varied. He does charcoal drawings, water colors, graphics, and oils. He even has an original technique: carving the canvas with a razor blade (he then uses the blade as a palette knife to paint the picture).

Stern developed this technique because he claimed "the brush was too soft for the city." The technique is so realistic that it is difficult to distinguish the painted stones in his pictures from the sandstone used to build the real buildings of Jerusalem.

His subjects include character studies, animals, olive tress, dancers, children, and market scenes. His goals is "to translate the city into color and shape." People have said of Stern's work that he paints Jerusalem with a Hungarian accent. They also say that he is always mixing up the lower and upper parts of Jerusalem, the everyday market scene with the heavens above.

Stern has illustrated some 50 books including a picture version of the Bible, which was translated into seven languages. A new book about Stern's life with his paintings will appear this fall at the International Book Fair.

Today the arts are alive and thriving in Jerusalem, but developing them has been a challenge for many people. Those who accepted it took advantage of what the city had to offer and have given back much in return.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.