January 18, 2020

Artists Represent Best of Israel

Idan Raichel. Photo from Wikipedia.

“Art writes the code that pushes humanity forward,” said Israeli singer, songwriter and musician Idan Raichel at the 80th anniversary of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation (AICF) on Nov. 17 at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. “My goal has been to score the soundtrack of Israel.”

Raichel was one of five iconic Israeli artists chosen to be the inaugural recipients of the Israeli Culture & Arts Awards. The others were Ron Leshem for film/TV (“Euphoria”; “Beaufort”); Ohad Naharin for dance (Batsheva Dance Company); Hanna Azoulay Hasfari for theater (“Orange People”); and Vania Heymann for visual arts (“Like a Rolling Stone” video).

“These are the next generation of ambassadors for Israel,” said Scott Mortman, chair of AICF Israel. “They carry with them messages of harmony, rhythm and peace.”

Since its founding in 1939, AICF has supported 18,000 artists — including famed violinist Itzhak Perlman — through scholarships and grants, and has disbursed more than $160 million to benefit Israeli culture. Many leading artists in Israel today began with support from AICF. “These artists have not only made an impact on the arts, but on the entire State of Israel as well as the global cultural landscape,” said Joshua-Marc Tanenbaum, president of AICF’s board of directors.

“The contribution of AICF to the lives of so many artists is unique,” Batsheva’s artistic director Naharin said. “In the most fragile times of our lives as young artists, we found support, understanding and caring that made a huge difference in our careers.”

For those mired in the political turbulence surrounding Israel, the panel discussion before the award ceremony was a bit surreal: The artists talked about creating art as though Israel always has been treated like any other country. But unlike some artists here, whose anger and overt politicization deadens their work, these five artists discussed their desire to reconnect humanity through compassion; their struggle to be unique — to create from the soul; and the inspiration they derived from their “beloved country.” 

“Don’t be managed by your ambition,” Naharin said. “Be inspired by your passion and love.”

Raichel, who fuses ancient Hebrew texts and experimental Ethiopian music, performed in the magnificent theater. His work is so sensually spiritual I kept thinking about Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” — God reaching out to touch Adam’s hand. “The unique DNA of empathy in folk music is lasting and will create bonds,” Raichel said.

“The unique DNA of empathy in 

folk music is lasting and will create bonds.” 

— Idan Raichel

Universal and unifying, yes, but in watching the other performances — from contemporary dance to more classical music — the inherent power of Israeli art seems to go deeper. The connection of ancient Hebrew with innovative work is so mystical, so intoxicating, that it seems to demonstrate the most profound possibilities of art.

Although much has been written about Israel’s revolutions in technology and medicine, its art typically has been considered an afterthought. But visionary Israeli artists already have crossed boundaries, transcended differences, and have the ability to reshape Israel’s image in ways that the realm of hasbara can’t. 

Raichel has been vocal in the view that Israeli artists have a duty to play an active role in helping tell the truth about Israel and the light it emits.

The AICF has created an Israeli artist network listing emerging and established Israeli artists in film, theater, music, dance and visual arts. What if every Jewish event in the United States featured an Israeli performer, exhibition or film? Much has been discussed on how to revitalize Jewish pride. What if we start with how visionary artists are modernizing the ancient words and music of an ancient people in order to transcend politics and transform the world? Imagine what this could do to not only reunite young Jews with their Judaism but to reshape how the world views Israel.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.