Israeli cultural scene explodes with dynamic music, fiction, art

If life imitates art, and vice versa, then Israel is no exception to the rule.

In its 50 years of existence, the Jewish state has changed from a fiercely nationalistic entity pulling together to survive to a fiercely nationalistic entity confident of its own identity.

At the same time, Israeli art has gone through its own phases — first focusing on nationalistic themes and then broadening in perspective to a point where individual expression supplanted patriotic messages.

"Today the culture in Israel is about universal themes," said Marie Shek, cultural attaché of the Consulate General of Israel in San Francisco. "It breaks all the expectations. The taboos are being dealt with. It's not anymore the Israel of heroes. It's a country."

Here is a capsule of the evolution of music, literature and art in Israel's first half-century.

Classical music

Israeli composers began to come into their own in the '50s. Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, who linked traditional Oriental music with Western techniques, proved to be a big influence on young composers, even though he lived in Israel for only seven years.

More recently, the influx of emigres from Eastern Europe greatly enhanced Israel's classical music scene, said Eitan Steinberg, an Israeli composer and musician who is completing his doctorate at U.C. Berkeley.

Perhaps Israel's biggest cultural contribution comes from the many Israeli musicians who have become major international names. For example, there are violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman and Gil Shaham, violinist-conductor Shlomo Mintz and pianist Yefim Bronfman.

"There are so many good musicians in such a small country," said Steinberg. "After the army they come to the States. They spend their careers going back and forth."

Steinberg said there is no one who plays like Perlman, a Tel Aviv native. "His technique is so remarkable. It's so easy for him that he can put in emotion. He's so free."

The Tel Aviv-born Zukerman's latest endeavor is giving back to the Israeli music community. He opened a summer music camp in Holon for top young violinists. "He's there teaching," said Steinberg. "It's his baby."

Steinberg reserves the most praise for Daniel Barenboim, currently the conductor for the Chicago Symphony.

"Now we're talking about a genius," he said. "I've never met anyone with the power to penetrate music the way he does and make the audience understand. He's in demand all over the world. He's at the very top."

The Buenos Aires-born Barenboim is also a fine pianist and a champion of contemporary music. "He can do whatever he wants and he's really pushing it, which is a big boost for contemporary composers."

For Israelis, who hold music in high esteem, classical music isn't simply for those who attend concerts by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and other noteworthy groups. Among children, learning to play instruments is as common as playing a sport, Steinberg said.

Classes begin as early as age 4 at community centers, and many students continue lessons until about age 14. "The challenge is to figure out how to get people to keep playing even when they don't have expectations of being a star," he said.

Steinberg singles out Mark Kopytman and Joseph Tal as important older Israeli composers. Tal, who came from Germany in the 1930s and wrote several operas in Hebrew, was "a radical composer," he said.

Among more contemporary composers, Steinberg cites Chaim Permont, Manchem Zur and Ari Ben Shatai.

Popular music

Israel has not had a single group or performer who speaks to a whole generation, like the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan.

Instead, it's an international melting pot of musical styles. Individual artists mix folk music with pop, rock with exotic ethnic influences.

While Israel's biggest superstars like Noa, Rita, Shlomo Artzi and Chava Albertson may not make the charts in this country, Israeli music is becoming more popular here of late, according to Shlomo Lehavi, the largest wholesale-retail distributor of Israeli music in the United States.

"There's an increase in demand of Israeli music. Part of it is because there's more Israelis here, but it has to do with the trend of world music. It's appealing to non-Jews because of the quality," said Lehavi, who also owns an Israeli record store in Los Angeles called Hataklit.

"I got an order from Malaysia and one from Missouri this morning," said Lehavi, who also has a Web site. "Because of the Internet, this music is becoming accessible."

A characteristic of Israel is that most musicians have served in the army, which also influences the music. Until about 15 years ago, every army division had its own band. "That definitely resulted in a lot of patriotic music," Lehavi said.

In the '50s, when Israel's identity was being established, "a lot of the songs were about Israel by design," Lehavi said. "It was a new state and people were very proud to be Jews."

A decade later, when protest songs were entering the mainstream in the West, that phenomenon did not affect Israeli music. "The nation was backing the wars," said Doron Shapira, Israeli-born cantor-educator at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

One anthem, "Jerusalem of Gold" by Naomi Shemer and sung by Shuli Natan, was written just before the Six-Day War. It became popular during that period, eventually reaching the status of a classic.

Later, themes calling for peace became more common, such as "Shir L'Shalom," written by Yaakov Rotblit and Yair Rosenblum in the early '70s. "It was seen as anti-establishment at the time," said Shapira. "It was not something the government wanted to hear. But it was the song Yitzhak Rabin sang right before he was shot in 1995.

"He didn't like to sing in public. It was at a peace rally. When he was murdered, they found the lyrics on a blood-stained piece of paper in the shirt pocket," he said.

Religious music went into a radical phase beginning in the late '50s with the influence of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Chassidic-inspired music, Shapira said.

An important artist at the time was Tzvika Pick. The Polish-born musician had long hair and led a movement of modern Chassidic artists who incorporate rock with holy text. "At first it was a no-no," said Shapira. "Now, you'll hear guitars jamming on the recordings of modern Chassidic artists like Mordechai Ben David."

There's been a gradual shift in mainstream Israeli pop in the last few years, as a direct result of the population influx from Yemen, Ethiopia and Arab nations.

"This type of exotic Mideastern music has always been around in Israel, and now the Arabic roots are becoming extremely popular," Lehavi said.

The top-selling record in Israel last year was by Eyal Golan, whose music reflects that trend.

Ofra Haza, an established pop star in Israel, began incorporating Yemenite roots in her music, which led to international stardom in the late '80s after her huge dance-club hit "Pump Up the Volume."


As in music, Israel's earliest literary works expressed statehood concerns, said Robert Alter, professor of comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley. "There were a number of novels about the young man in his army platoon or a member of a socialist youth group struggling to define himself."

That self-discovery theme appears in "Somewhere Else," the first novel by one of Israeli's best-recognized literary figures, Amos Oz.

The so-called New Wave of Israeli fiction writers, led by A.B. Yehoshua, "tended to explore characters on the edge psychologically," Alter said. "The new psychological realism was sometimes symbolic, sometimes fantastic and surreal."

The younger writers "have been addressing what's going on in Israeli society here and now," he said. "About 10 years ago there was more magic realism. Today, it's cafe society in Tel Aviv to relationships. It's universal, but it's anchored in a specific time and place."

In Israel, pop fiction, which of late has included a who-done-it craze, doesn't have the same impact as in America. There are no John Grishams or Danielle Steeles making millions of dollars.

Alter cited two reasons: "The first has to do with the Israeli tradition on serious literary culture, and the other factor is that because of economics, a writer can't really make gobs of money. Everything comes out in paperback and a bestseller is about 60,000 books."

For those who have read little or no Israeli literature, Alter recommends the following.

*"Not of This Time, Not of this Place" by Yehuda Amichai, about the Holocaust.

*"The Lover" by Yehoshua. "Accessible book raises interesting questions about the relationship of Jew to Arab," Alter said.

*"See Under: Love" by David Grossman. "A big novel about the Holocaust and in my view one of the most powerful. It's about the impossibility of writing about the Holocaust and the necessity of trying to write about it."

*"The Blue Mountain," Meir Shalev's first novel, released in 1991. "It represents the next generation," Alter said.


Before 1948, most artists came out of the Bezalel school. The images were romantic. The artists were insulated.

"The message was love of land and love of Zionism," said Linda Steinberg, former director of the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

The view began to change after Israel became a state.

At that time, artists from the West, "especially Jackson Pollock, because his work is very free, expressive and very spiritual," influenced Israel's New Horizons movement, according to Marie Shek, co-guest curator of "50/Fifty: Israeli Art from Bay Area Collections" currently at the Jewish Museum. Israeli cutting-edge artists "knew what was going on in Europe and they were drawn to it."

"They didn't even want to be known as Israeli artists," said Linda Steinberg. "They wanted to become part of the international arena."

Among the most important Israeli artists, Shek singles out Mordechai Ardon, a survivor from Germany, who lost his family in the Holocaust. "He wanted to go to Paris, but fell in love with Jerusalem," said Shek. "They didn't like him in Jerusalem; his work was too mystical. But the proof that he's an international artist is that the Marlborough Galleries [London, Paris, New York and Japan] have taken everything by him."

Contemporaries Yosef Zaritsky and Ardon didn't much like each other, according to Shek. But both were important influences on Israeli art. Zaritsky's work placed him among the artists "trying to create a new local identity," said Shek. "Tel Aviv became part of the artistic way."

Shek points to Yitshak Danziger's 1939 sculpture titled "Nimrod" as one of the most influential works of what was to come in Israeli art. "It was of a naked, uncircumcised hunter with a bird on his shoulder. It was a complete statement," she said. "It was saying, `Let's break all the rules and still be Jewish.'"

The generation of sabra artists, which includes Joshua Neustein and Pinhas Cohen Gan, emerged in the '70s with a more political-social agenda, including anti-war statements. "A lot of these artists went abroad and it opened their mind. The work was very courageous," Shek said.

Yaacov Agam is one of the leading representatives of kinetic art internationally, said Steinberg. The son of a rabbi, Agam represents his interpretation of Judaism's principles and the concept of one God in his work.

His paintings are three-dimensional. "The idea is that you can't grasp the whole in any one view. It's infinite," Steinberg said.

In the last 10 years, Israeli artists such as Larry Abramson and Moshe Kupferman seem to be struggling with universal issues, such as gender, feminism, sex and politics. Yet, Israeli artist have yet to make a dent on the international level.

"That is the dream of every Israeli artist to be part of the international scene," said Shek.