September 25, 2018

Talking Creativity

Israel's Netta performs after winning the Grand Final of Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena hall in Lisbon, Portugal, May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

There is Netta Barzilai, who won the Eurovision Song Contest. Ohad Naharin, celebrated as one of the world’s pre-eminent contemporary choreographers. Yotam Ottolenghi, renowned for his restaurants and cookbooks. Adi Nes’ photography. Sigalit Landau’s art. The entrepreneurs of the Startup Nation.

All of them Israeli, recognized internationally for their creativity.

“Braisheet barah.” They are the first two words of the Torah. Braisheet, loosely translated as “In the beginning.” But the second word is “barah,” undeniably translated as “created.” A word of action. There is a significant message that the second word and very first action in the Torah is to “create.”

We Jews, whether believers or not, take this message to heart. We are a creative people. Creativity has been and continues to be our lifeline.

In Jewish life today, Israel has proven to be the most creative force. Israelis push their creative output to a level of excellence in order to compete on the world stage. Their creativity is one of national viability. I witnessed this reality three years ago while in the audience of the Batsheva Dance Company’s 50th anniversary celebration at the Tel Aviv Opera House. On the stage was Naharin’s globally embraced dance performance, “Echad Mi Yodayah,” inspired by the Passover allegory, “Who Knows One,” which we sing on seder night. For each numbered stanza of the song, accompanied by the traditional melody, there was another version of modern dance. Naharin had raised Jewish culture to a level of international acceptance and celebration, infusing it with modern creative relevancy.

Can this level of creative excellence inspired by Jewish thought be the output of American Jewish organizations?

What could be the collaboration between Israel’s creative output and the rest of the Jewish world?

A different dynamic is constellated when Jewish creative output is the result of a national identity as we see in Israel, as opposed to a communal identity that we see in America. Jewish organizations are only creating for a small community within the larger America.

There are individual American Jews who are competing creatively on the world stage. Writers. Actors. Musicians. Singers. Architects. Researchers. Business people. Many Nobel Prize winners. But let’s not confuse them with the creative output funded by Jewish organizations.

Creativity needs competition and to be consumed by a wide, discerning audience in order to be pushed toward excellence. But who is the competition for the creative output of American Jewish organizations? Who is the larger audience?

The competition is all of American culture. It is the dominant culture of the society. Can Jewish culture and output be as compelling and meaningful to a new generation as general American culture and output? Can any small community’s culture be as compelling and meaningful as the dominant culture?

These are the big questions facing the community today when comparing organized American Jewish life to the life that is being lived in Israel. There, Jewish expression is not the same as it is in other countries. It is woven into the daily fabric of existence, taking on many different faces and manifestations, because it is in the DNA of the dominant culture. Sometimes, the Jewish root in the Israeli manifestation is more veiled than it is in America.

We need to begin a big conversation about Jewish creativity. What should be its process and methodologies? What should be its standards of excellence? What could be the collaboration between Israel’s creative output and the creative output of the rest of the Jewish world? We have to compare the creative output between us, with judgments and critique, just as is done in the film and art world. We need to provoke this discussion as an interchange between Israel and global Jewry.

Creativity is among the most prominent common threads that brings us together. It gives us life. It is always our beginning. The Torah tells us. Netta Barzilai proved it. American Jewish life needs it.


Gary Wexler is an adjunct professor in the master’s program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

This Girl Is On Fire

Israel's Netta poses during the news conference after winning the Grand Final of Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena hall in Lisbon, Portugal, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

The evening that Israeli singer Netta Barzilai won Eurovision 2018, my son and I began to watch the biopic “Pelé: Birth of a Legend,” the early life of the renowned African-Brazilian soccer player.

Pelé grew up poor in 1950s Brazil and faced continual racism from Europeans and lighter-skinned Brazilians. But from an early age, his parents taught him to face life with dignity: “Don’t feel doubt or shame,” his father tells him in the film. “Have the courage to embrace who you really are.”

Pelé revolutionized soccer for Brazilians — inspiring a pride in the country’s uniqueness. “We don’t all play the same,” says a coach in the film, “but that’s what makes us who we are.”

A similar message of embracing both excellence and difference can be felt in a video that my son, Alexander, and I stumbled upon a few weeks ago. Angelica Hale, 9, won the “Golden Buzzer” on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” last year for her magnificent rendition of Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire.”

I must confess: I’m not a watcher of talent shows. But I have personally found this video deeply inspiring, even more so after reading that Angelica, who is part Filipino, had to undergo a life-saving kidney transplant at age 4. Fearless and resolute, she both belted out and personified the lyrics:

“She’s got both feet on the ground;

And she’s burning it down.”

This is feminism, I told Alexander. A young girl can get up on stage and make a song even more layered and soulful than the original recording (sorry, Alicia). Moreover, achieving something great is far more empowering than playing the victim. Angelica, like Pelé, has no interest in being a victim. Both don’t want the world to feel sorry for them: They want the world to love them for their unique, outstanding gifts.

“I love my country,” she told an audience that has been taught to hate her country.

Somehow, 25-year-old Netta was able to combine all of these sentiments into a magical song, “Toy,” and performance that, despite itself, took Europe’s breath away.

“Look at me, I’m a beautiful creature;

I don’t care about your modern-day preachers.”

“Toy” is also a song about female empowerment, but perhaps even more, it’s about owning your individuality. “Thank you for choosing different, for accepting differences between us, for celebrating diversity,” Netta told the massive Eurovision audience in her acceptance speech.

But Netta clearly has no patience for the victimhood part of today’s #MeToo politics: “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy.” Nor does she have time for an identity politics that has no space for Jews. “I love my country,” she told an audience that has been taught to hate her country. “Next time, in Jerusalem.”

Whether the Europeans who voted for her got the deeper message is less important than the fact that they voted for Israel, despite every effort made by BDSers to prevent this. And Israel won by doing what Israel does best: bringing light into the world. Teaching the politically correct that individuality, creativity — inspiration — is not politically incorrect. That in fact, not becoming what others want us to be is our greatest strength.

Netta, like Pelé and Angelica, doesn’t want the world’s pity — or the world’s harassment. In fact, she included what could be construed as a word of warning for haters: “Wonder woman, don’t you ever forget; You’re divine and he’s about to regret.”

In the Pelé film, a Swedish coach calls the darker-skinned Brazilians “abnormal.” Israelis — Jews — have been called that and much worse. We don’t need to fabricate victimhood — but we also have no desire to wallow in it.

The Jewish people are not the world’s toy, to be taken out and abused when it’s having a bad day. “Have the courage to embrace who you really are,” Pelé’s father tells him in the film. It’s well past time that Jews did precisely that. Enough begging the left’s “social justice warriors” to include us.

Not surprisingly, these tolerant, compassionate folks were quick to try to shame Netta after she won, bizarrely calling her performance “cultural appropriation.” And some of Europe’s leftist pols saw Netta’s victory as a great opportunity to call for renewed boycotts against Israel. (So is “justice” their motivation — or jealousy? I get so confused with these compassionate types.)

Netta is not responding to the haters.  And why should she? She’s too busy “lighting up the night.” World, get used to it.


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic.

When the Timely Fights the Timeless

What do the riots at the Gaza border have to do with the Jewish festival of Shavuot? What does the dramatic and historic move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem have to do with the custom of baking cheesecakes for Shavuot, or the ritual of learning Torah all night?

One of the dilemmas of Jewish journalism is what to do when the timely interferes with the timeless. We decided several months ago that Shavuot would be our cover story for this week. Since the festival commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Sinai some 3,300 years ago, it coincided perfectly with the release of Dennis Prager’s new book, “The Rational Bible.”

So, that was the plan — we would honor a holiday of Torah by reviewing a new book about the Torah.

And then, of course, reality intruded. The timeless Torah got ambushed by the timely news.

In fact, rarely do I recall a time period with so much consequential news — from the U.S. backing out of the Iran nuclear deal to the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to the violent riots at the Gaza border, and, yes, even to Israel’s victory at the Eurovision Song Contest, when 200 million viewers watched Netta Barzilai take home the grand prize with an irresistible song that featured the memorable line, “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy.”

As we shoot down the rapids of this never-ending news cycle, Judaism comes to remind us that there are little coves on the side of the river that are waiting for us to pitch a tent, light a fire and appreciate the beauty and complexity around us.

Can a cover that commemorates an event from 3,300 years ago survive so much hot news? I can think of at least three timely cover stories we could have done instead of the one on Shavuot.

And yet, we decided to stick with the Shavuot cover. Why? For one thing, it reminds us that there’s more to life than news. News is sexy. It’s an adrenalin rush, a sugar high. I have a few trusted news sites that I know will give me a news hit every 15 minutes or so.

And when I don’t go to them, they come to me, either through a Twitter feed or an email blast or any other number of digital bursts.

All day long, I get hit with news items, mostly about politics, the Jewish world and Hollywood. And here’s the crazy part — I don’t complain. I’m used to it. It makes me feel like I’m always in the know. When I meet people, I feel empowered because I know “what’s going on” about the important issues in the world.

How can a 3,300-year-old story compete with all those hot news stories, especially an ancient story that offers us the same traditions and rituals year after year, without fault? Is there value to a story that is always there, a story that is rooted in eternity?

One of the best metaphors I ever heard about the challenge of parenting was, “Give your kids roots and wings.” As I interpret that statement, the “timeless” provides the roots and the “timely” provides the wings.

In a crazy world that keeps going faster and faster, the timeless is what keeps us grounded. Perhaps the best example is Shabbat, that ancient ritual that compels us to slow down and reconnect with our roots and our humanity.

Maybe that is one essential question of Shavuot — trying to understand why and how a news story can still be newsworthy after 3,300 years.

At the recent Milken Global Summit, I was immersed in a throng of high-achieving innovation junkies who offered smart and sophisticated answers to society’s ills. It was impressive. And yet, one of the most popular panels was one about life longevity — how to slow down and learn habits that will increase both the quality and length of your life.

When I spoke to one of the panelists, Arianna Huffington, after her talk, one of the first words out of her mouth was, “Shabbat.” She told me that her new movement, Thrive Global, is eager to start a “Shabbat track” because this Jewish ritual of weekly renewal is just what the world needs right now.

The news will keep coming at us, whether we like it or not. We’ll celebrate when the news is good, we’ll be sad when it’s bad, we’ll be confused when it’s good and bad, we’ll argue over whether it’s good or bad, and then we’ll all wait for the next hit.

As we shoot down the rapids of this never-ending news cycle, Judaism comes to remind us that there are little coves on the side of the river that are waiting for us to pitch a tent, light a fire and appreciate the beauty and complexity around us.

One of those little coves is the festival of Shavuot, when we recall that day when our ancestors gathered in a desert and accepted a book that we still study today. Maybe that is one essential question of Shavuot — trying to understand why and how a news story can still be newsworthy after 3,300 years.

Israel Wins 2018 Eurovision Contest

Israel's Netta attends the news conference after winning the Grand Final of Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena hall in Lisbon, Portugal, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Israel won the 2018 Eurovision singing competition in Libson, Portugal on May 12, meaning that the contest will be held in Jerusalem next year.

Israeli singer Netta Barzilai secured the victory with her performance of the song “Toy,” an uptempo techno pop song with the catchy line, “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy!” Throughout the performance, Barzilai engaged in chicken dance moves.

Barzilai finished with 529 points from the judges and viewers in the competition. As she held the trophy, the 25-year-old singer proclaimed, “I love my country. Next time in Jerusalem!”

Barzilai also told her fans in a video posted to Twitter, “Thank you for choosing me. Thank you for choosing different. Thank you for choosing daring. I love you, keep that going. Do good to others, be good to yourselves. That’s about it, let’s party!”

The streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem erupted into celebration from Barzilai’s win. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Barzilai in a phone call and paid homage to her in his Sunday cabinet meeting.

“These days Jerusalem is being blessed with many gifts,” Netanyahu said. “We received another one last night with Netta’s thrilling and suspenseful victory. The gift is that Eurovision will come to Jerusalem next year; we will be very proud to host it.”

Israel: We’re Not Your Toy, You Stupid Haters

Photo from Twitter.

Netta Barzilai’s exhilarating song, with the memorable hook, “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy,” is an empowering anthem to all those who are demeaned for not fitting the mold.

About 200 million viewers from around the world watched Barzilai perform the song and take first prize for Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night in Lisbon. Considering the abuse that Israel continues to receive in international circles— the great majority of United Nations condemnations go against the Jewish state; a BDS movement that is relentless, and so on— the victory couldn’t come at a better time.

Why? Because Barzilai’s message is also Israel’s message to the world: We’re quirky, we’re not perfect, but we’re fearless and we love life. Oh, and one more thing for all you anti-Semites: We’re not your toy that you can easily abuse. All those condemnations won’t shake our confidence or our love of life.

“My message is that you don’t have to fit the normal standard model of how a person should look, think, talk and create in order to succeed,” Barzilai said in an interview. “We’re only here for a minute — we better enjoy the ride.”

Most Israelis instinctively understand that their country is treated unfairly; that no Israeli sin can justify the over-the-top global obsession with condemning their country. They get it. That’s why they keep their mojo; that’s why the BDS movement has failed to make a dent in their self-esteem.

Most Israelis know, as well, that their country does plenty of good; that, for example, no country has done more to fight the humanitarian crisis in Syria. They know that in 2016, Israel launched Operation Good Neighbor with a field hospital at the Syrian border and a medical staff around the clock, and that in 2017 alone, 685 Syrian children received critical medical care.

Israelis know that the keys to their success are not to wallow in victimhood, not to let failures demoralize them, and not to allow a dangerous neighborhood take away their zest for living. They know they fight wars because they have to, not because they want to.

Yes, of course, Israelis would love to be loved by the world—who wouldn’t? But Israelis have learned to take the world’s hostility in stride. Since they know they deserve better, they’re not paralyzed by self-hatred or guilt.

On the contrary, instead of whining, they’re too busy living their lives, which includes doing amazing things like writing irresistible songs that remind stupid Jew-haters not to mess with them.

Could The Iran Deal And BDS Hamper Israel’s Chances At Eurovision Competition?

Screenshot from Facebook.

Each year, hundreds of millions of people tune in to one of television’s most-watched non-sporting events: the Eurovision Song Contest.

Dozens of countries participating in the event submit an original song that is then performed on live television, with an expert jury and viewers voting for their favorite artist.

Though less well-known in the United States, the competition has come to represent European unity (or division, depending on who you ask) and also a symbol of the LGBT movement.

“Eurovision is one of the most popular television shows in Europe,” said Dr. Dean Vuletic, who first saw the song contest while he was studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1999.

Dr. Vuletic is the author of “Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest” (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) and a professor of history at the University of Vienna, Austria. The book, which was published earlier this year, provides an extensive look at the origins of Eurovision and how it evolved in parallel to developments in international relations.

“[Eurovision] has been very popular since its inception in 1956, and since then it has been held every year without fail,” he explained to The Media Line. “It has also reflected social and political changes in Europe.”

This year, the massively popular music contest being held in Lisbon Portugal, is taking place during a political climate marked by heightened tensions in the Middle East following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw Washington from the Iran nuclear deal. When President Trump announced the move, he specifically cited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s presentation last week which proved that Tehran had not come clean about its atomic activities.

Concurrently, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement was ramping up efforts to influence Europeans to vote against Israel’s entry, Netta Barzilai. With her highly creative song “Toy” already a hit across Europe, the Israeli pop star has risen to the top of the contest rankings (in third place as of this writing).

However, many are concerned the tense political climate following the U.S.’ pull-out from the Iran deal, coupled with a growing push by BDS proponents, could hamper her chances at winning.

“Many people watching are not interested in the music,” said Moshe Morad, an ethnomusicologist and the director of Israel’s public service music radio station 88FM. Morad previously served as the head of the Israeli delegation to the Eurovision.

“Last year I went as a guest of the Israeli delegation to Kiev,” he recalled to The Media Line. Just after [then-Israeli contender Imri Ziv] made it through to the semi-finals, many people in Europe were bombarded by messages from the BDS…and it’s happening again this year as well.”

Whereas some fear that BDS campaigners will influence voting, others are downplaying the role of politics in what many consider to be the highlight of the European cultural calendar.

“The BDS was here, is here and it will always be here,” said Amnon Szpektor, the Head of Press for the Israeli delegation at this year’s Eurovision. “If it were not Netta, [they would be going after] someone else,” he contended to The Media Line. “Netta Barzilai has a chance to win, we’re still in second or third place in the rankings.”

When asked whether he believed politics could influence the final outcome, Szpektor was adamant it would not. “Positive politics are involved [in the Eurovision]. People do vote for the countries they feel closest to, culturally speaking. It’s not surprising that countries with a similar language, and who have existed side by side for hundreds of years, would vote for each other.

“But there is no hate,” he concluded, noting that those in Israel convinced that people would vote against the Jewish State for political reasons were “mistaken.”

“People really like her message and her song.”

Dr. Vuletic agrees, telling The Media Line that while “nationalism is still essential to the contest,” the political aspects have been exaggerated and the impact of the voting blocs “has been minimized since 2009 with the reforms and the introduction of an expert jury.

“The situation [with the Iran deal and Israel] is still not severe enough for it to have an impact,” he added, going so far to suggest that “if Israel were to be attacked, that could [even] influence a sympathy vote for Israel.”

Historically, Dr. Vuletic conveyed, Israeli entries have won “in a climate of peace,” pointing to past winners Dana International and Izhar Cohen, both of whom won the contest in times of relative quiet.

Still, in recent days Barzilai has been surpassed by a new fan favorite: namely, Cyprus’ Eleni Foureira, who stole the show during the first round of semi-finals Tuesday night.

Szpektor seemed unsurprised that the representative from Cyprus had surpassed Barzilai in the rankings, as her appearance and performance were more in line with conventional standards of beauty.

“Netta doesn’t sound like anybody else and loves herself,” the public relations manager affirmed.

“It’s 2018, we deserve someone like her.”

The finals of the Eurovision Song Contest, which will crown the competition’s winner, will take place Saturday night.

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Everything you need to know about Toy- the Israeli song that is taking over the world

The Eurovision singing contest – one of the biggest annual cultural events in Europe – is will take place in Portugal this May. And for the first time in what seems to be forever, Israel seems to have a winner. With more than 5 million views on YouTube and raging reviews, side by side with a powerful message and a unique artist, Toy seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.

Toy was created by Doron Medalie together with Stav Beger, who joined forces with Netta Barzilai, the performer. Barzilai is a young singer and an up-and-coming star, who took first place at the reality singing contest – The Next Star to the Eurovision 2018, and got to become our ambassador at the event.

Barzilai had won us all over during this season of The Next Star, thanks to her unique sound and inspiring personality.

Now, she is expressing herself, as a musician and as a person, in an empowering song, which combines a little bit of quirkiness with an important message.

In an interview to ESC Today – Doron Medalie, co-creator of the song, talked about the strong message of Toy: “That’s a bingo for me. And when Netta looks and behaves the way she does, so it turns toy into ‘I’m not your toy, don’t play with me.’ Let’s use toys to say something different about the #MeToo movement.”

The song was released less than two weeks ago, and is already ranking support from all across the globe, including from the Arab world. The Foreign Ministry shared a video of the song on its Arabic-language Facebook page, which has 1.5 million followers, and it received some unexpected support (side by side with hate words for Israel, but still…). For instance, Abu Majd from Saudi Arabia wrote: “This isn’t the type of music I like, but this song has everything it takes to become an international hit.”

Netta Barzilai will perform Toy in the first half of Semi-Final 1 on Tuesday 8 May 2018, and currently, Eurovision experts are betting on Toy to win the contest. Fingers crossed!

You can watch the music video here, and let me know what you think in the comments below: