U.S. Artists Confront Israel’s Complexities


Jerusalem — When Donald Byrd, a Tony-nominated choreographer (“The Color Purple,” “Harlem Nutcracker”) worked with Jewish and Arab dancers in Israel four years ago, he learned that relations between Israelis and Palestinians are a lot more complicated than they seem from the outside.

But it wasn’t until last fall, during Byrd’s most recent sojourn here, that he learned just how charged relations within the country’s Jewish community could be.

Bryd, one of four American artists who recently completed a nine-week fellowship exploring and contributing to Jerusalem’s vibrant arts and culture scene, gained a deeper understanding of the city’s religious-secular tensions when he entered the Kolben Dance Company’s studio in downtown Jerusalem.

The day before Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, visited Kolben’s downtown studio, the company had staged a protest against religious coercion. Three years after drawing their studio’s window shades following threats from haredi extremists who deemed the rehearsals immodest, the dancers opened the windows and rehearsed in plain in sight of the public.

“When I arrived at the studio, I asked whether we could possibly close the shades,” Byrd said, smiling at the ironic timing of his request. “The dancers were in silhouette and it was hard to see them!” he explained with an infectious smile.

Instead of feeling intimidated by the intrusion of religion and politics into every facet of Israeli and Palestinian life, Byrd and the other participants in the first-ever American Academy in Jerusalem fellowship took a deep breath and embraced the situation.

An initiative of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture modeled on American Academies in Berlin and Rome, the Jerusalem Academy program brought four top-level artists and professionals — Byrd; Lynn Avadenka, a visual artist; David Herskovits, a theatrical director; and David Karnovsky, an urban planner — to Jerusalem to work alongside Israeli and Palestinian professionals.

The four immersed themselves in the local culture, developed projects, delivered workshops and provided mentoring, and say they received much more than they contributed.

Avadenka, an acclaimed Detroit-based visual artist, created a type of book inspired by the narratives of the biblical Joseph and Yusef, the version of Joseph in Islam.

“In this part of the world, the book is paramount as a transmitter of a sacred text. The book became the work of art,” she said.

The artist began with the Hebrew calendar, including the phases of the moon, and proceeded to include Arabic and Hebrew newspapers and maps of Jerusalem.

“I cut up the Hebrew and Arabic letters and made a sort of combined alphabet,” Avadenka said of her exploration of the commonalities of Jewish and Arab themes and her hope to bring Jews and Arabs a little closer together.

Byrd’s central project, a sensual, evocative three-part dance about the relationship between the biblical Sarah, Abraham and his mistress Hagar, was performed in Jerusalem by three Jewish dancers and an Israeli Arab dancer, Shaden Abu Elassel.

The piece’s first part explores the relationship between Abraham and Sarah as Sarah struggles with infertility. The second depicts the complicated Abraham/Sarah/Hagar triangle of love, jealousy and longing. In the third, Abraham must come to terms with the nation created by Ishmael, represented by Abu Elassel.

Byrd said “the real success” of his project “was the willingness on the part of these dancers from different ethnicities to work together as equals. I felt I had to listen to Shaden, whether or not I agreed with her. We had some good arguments.”

Abu Elassel, who describes herself as “a Palestinian from Nazareth,” called the project “a good experience. I felt responsible to show him my picture of the conflict. He listened and understood my narrative.”

The choreographer said the nine weeks he spent in Israel were transformational.

“I think the work I’ve done in the past didn’t necessarily resonate beyond what it was, the way this piece does. I’ve always been a very good prose ‘writer,’ but now I feel I’ve started to write poetry,” Byrd said with a lilt in his voice.

Following a performance of his work-in-progress, a quirky theatrical piece that explores “the tragic, moving and exciting” fate of the Yiddish language in Israel,” director David Herkovits said his time in Israel has been “a powerful, magical inspiration.

“I came here for a visit in 1985, so I had some limited experience of Israel,” said Herskovits, the founder and artistic director of the avant-garde Target Margin Theater in New York. This time around, “I was surprised by how moved I’ve been by the beauty and complexities of everyday life in Jerusalem. I was surprised by the intensity of feeling and the way everything is charged. It’s both good and problematic.”

Herskovits, who doesn’t yet speak Yiddish but plans to study it in the coming year, said he was inspired both by encounters with Yiddish-speaking haredi society and the many non-haredim “who value Yiddish,” including some young secular Jews.

“I gained an extraordinarily rich context and layer of the story I want to tell, and a zillion new friends and artistic partners,” Herskovits said.

For David Karnovsky, general counsel for New York City’s Department of City Planning, the fellowship was an opportunity to explore and evaluate Jerusalem’s unique planning challenges: the need to balance preservation with modernity.

“It’s an interesting time to be here,” he said.

Karnovsky met with Israeli peers to discuss reforming Israel’s bureaucratic planning laws. Municipal officials, architects, planners and social activists also pumped the New York planner for details of New York’s efforts to build more affordable housing, which is in short supply in Israel.

“I shared the idea of creating mixed income housing through the use of zoning incentives. Developers of private housing might receive subsidies and additional floor space to create buildings in which there is a mixture of income levels,” Karnovsky said.

Karnovsky also spent time on the proposed relocation of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design from its current site on Mount Scopus to the funky Russian Compound, in the city’s center.

“It will create an opportunity for Bezalel to become part of the city again, where it was once located. I think having an architecture and design arts school with all the student presence can create a type of vibrancy that will help revitalize the center of the city. It will create a type of synergy.”

Karnovsky, who worked on the transformation of the Columbia and NYU campuses in Manhattan, said Bezalel has the potential to be, like them, a “new and different urban campus.”

“Think of the old Columbia campus on Morningside Heights with its gates and walls and the type of relationship it establishes between the university and the city,” Karnovsky said. In contrast, the new Columbia campus under construction “respects the existing street grid, has no walls or gates, will have active retail uses at ground level, and will have a network of open spaces that will be open to the public as well as used by university personnel.” While Karnovsky didn’t comment on Jerusalem’s new, controversial light rail line, which has turned Jaffa Road — once the city’s main bus and car thoroughfare — into a wide, car- and bus-free boulevard, his fellowship project, “Landscaped Roofs on Jaffa Road: A New Green Line,” aims to create “a series of small, intimate, well-landscaped open spaces” at elevations above the street offering a vantage point most Jerusalemites and visitors have never enjoyed.

Elise Bernhardt, the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s president and CEO, told The Jewish Week that the artists “got amazing work done, made good friends and in a profound way impacted the cultural life of Jerusalem.” The foundation is looking to expand the number of fellows and would like to see the program happen twice a year, she said. The next cohort of six to eight artists will head to Israel in September 2013.

Tired though they were from nine intensive weeks of presentations, meetings, field trips and actual work, all of the fellows said they are already planning ways to continue their projects and the relationships they’ve forged with Israeli and Palestinian colleagues.

“I’m already searching for ways to come back,” Advadenka said.