An Alternative Side of the City

by Renee Ghert-Zand August 31, 2011


By Renee Ghert-Zand

People dream of visiting Jerusalem to put a note inside the cracks of the Western Wall, seeing the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount and watching the sun set over the city’s ancient, golden stones. But if these are the only things you do once you get here, then you are missing out on what the more contemporary and secular side of Jerusalem has to offer.

Rabbinic literature has for millennia referred to the Jewish people’s eternal spiritual capital as having a dual nature. There is Jerusalem on High (Yerushalayim shel malah), but also Jerusalem on Earth (Yerushalayim shel matah). And there is no better time than the summer months to discover the city’s contemporary cultural gems that fly below the radar of the usual Jewish tourist itinerary. Summer may be coming to an end this month, but it’s never too soon to start planning for next year’s vacations.

The news of recent years has been about the exodus of secular Jews from Jerusalem for Tel Aviv and its environs.

“This very important city…became irrelevant. It became irrelevant to me and my friends who left it. It became irrelevant to my parents and their friends who left it.  It became irrelevant to Israeli society, and in many ways it became irrelevant to many parts of the world, because all they heard about it was the political narrative and the religious narrative,” said Itay Mautner, artistic director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC), a new annual showcase of Jerusalem-focused arts and culture running from mid-May through the end of July. “Those narratives do, of course, exist in the city, but alongside those two big narratives throughout 3,000 years has been a cultural narrative…this cultural narrative in Jerusalem is way different than any other cultural narrative that you see anywhere else in the world. It’s different for thousands of reasons. It has a lot to do with the religion, with the historical layers, with the complexity.”

Jerusalem has always been a key producer of major Israeli artists and cultural figures, but most have left the city after completing art school or early in their careers in search of more work and a more robust mainstream artistic environment. However, since the election of secular Mayor Nir Barkat in 2008 (thanks, in large part, to support from newly active grassroots liberal political movements founded by the city’s young people), things have begun to change. Contemporary artists are now starting to live and work more in Jerusalem, and they are being increasingly backed by governmental institutions, private sponsors and nonprofit organizations.

JSOC constitutes a major attempt at capitalizing on and strengthening this wind of change. Spearheaded by the Schusterman Foundation-Israel in partnership with the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Foundation, it was designed to build on existing major cultural events like the Jerusalem International Film Festival and the Israel Festival.

“The summer in Jerusalem was a very vibrant, dynamic, interesting cultural season, and no one seemed to realize it,” said JSOC Duputy Director Karen Brunwasser. “Against the backdrop of what was already happening, we added additional content that is very Jerusalem-specific. By that, I mean content that aspires to ask the question of what happens when excellent creativity meets the spirit of Jerusalem, such that the end result is something that could only happen here.”

What could only happen in the highly multicultural Jerusalem is what Mautner calls “alternative” arts and culture. The notion of a cultural “mainstream” is antithetical to both the theoretical spirit and the everyday reality of the capital city, as he sees it.

“Throughout all the years, it’s been an alternative scene,” he said. “There has never been a mainstream in Jerusalem. You can feel it in the streets. This has always been a place under struggle, and a place under struggle is never satisfied. And when you’re hungry you cannot be mainstream, you have to be a little bit alternative. It’s a place that has been both cursed and worshipped. That brings a special energy to it.”

This past summer, JSOC included Jerusalem-inspired performances by internationally acclaimed artists like opera singer Renee Fleming, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and reggae superstar Ziggy Marley. But it was also packed with programming featuring the contemporary creativity of hundreds of local performers and artists. Much of it was cutting-edge, avant-garde and very outside-the-box. It invited and challenged audiences to see Jerusalem in a whole new light.

The contemporary art scene in Jerusalem does not stand on JSOC alone. In fact, JSOC purposely works with a variety of the city’s high-profile and lesser-known art institutions and organizations in an effort to be coordinated during the season, and to promote Jerusalem’s cultural scene year-round.

It is too early to know what JSOC will have in store for 2012, but here are some of this past summer’s highlights, which will likely be repeated next year. In addition, here are the names and descriptions of several must-see places (open year-round) for visitors to Jerusalem interested in checking out its unique contemporary art scene.



You’ll never think of Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market the same way again. Known through the media mainly as the site of suicide bombings during the Second Intifada and a favorite location for populist politicking, the bustling open-air market was turned by JSOC into the Balabasta arts festival every Monday night in July. Packed with thousands of people, the stalls and shops stayed open into the night, and hundreds of local performers and artists of all disciplines engaged and delighted audiences in every alleyway, and even on the market’s rooftops.

Balabasta’s director, Kobi Frig, grew up in his grandfather’s spice shop in the market, and he now lives with his own young family in the nearby Nachlaot neighborhood.

“It’s fine art, but it’s local; it works with the community, and that makes the event really special and unique” Frig said from the market. “And when it’s unique, people from all over will come to see it.”


Different Trains

JSOC brought the Jewish Theatre of Sweden’s cutting-edge interpretation of renowned contemporary American composer Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” to a unique setting in Jerusalem. The series of performances by Sweden’s Fleshquartet of Reich’s piece about the Holocaust (triggered by his having been shuttled across the U.S. by train between his divorced parents) took place with the musicians and the audience sitting amid large, billowing glass sculptures lit up colorfully in synchrony with the score and video projections.

Most unique was the fact that all this was presented in the Kishle, a former Ottoman police garrison turned archeological excavation site within the Old City’s Tower of David. The Kishle site, which had been closed for more than a decade, was opened to the public solely for these performances.


Contact Point

On the night of the full moon in July, the recently renewed Israel Museum was host to thousands of spectators who had come to experience some of Israel’s most exciting artists and creative thinkers interact with specially chosen art and artifacts on display. The event’s director, Nir Turk, worked painstakingly to pair the artists with the works, and he charged them with creating one-of-a-kind, cutting-edge interpretations and explorations of the items to share with Museum visitors. It was a night of music, poetry, dance, new media and more.

“I don’t want to please the crowd, but I do want for it to contemplate, for it to enrich its banks of images in a different way…We need to be open and to let ourselves be vulnerable, to take risks, to be an active spectator and be willing to take risks,” Turk said as he prepared for the event.

The Israel Museum was pleased to be the venue for Contact Point, a type of program that is unique to it among the world’s leading museums.              “The idea of Contact Point is exactly in sync with what we hope and think this place is about, which is a lot of synthetic resonance,” explained the museum’s director, James Snyder. “So the idea that you invite artists, performers, performance artists, writers, creative thinkers to come and interact with aspects of the landscape, the architecture, specific works of art, galleries, subjects or content in the frame of our site is kind of exciting.”


Museum on the Seam

Museum on the Seam is located exactly where its name indicates: on the seam between East and West Jerusalem just next to the historic Mandelbaum Gate checkpoint. Not always on the radar of visitors to the city, it is a museum of social-political contemporary art founded and directed by Raphie Etgar, one of Israel’s leading graphic designers.

“We deal universally with social-political issues, not necessarily only from a local standpoint,” Etgar emphasized. Themes of recent shows included the right to protest, the politicization of home, abuse of women, and child slavery and labor. Its current exhibition, called “Westend,” is about the clash between Islam and the West, as well as meeting points between them. Museum on the Seam’s unique vision and reputation (it does not take public funding) led several artists from Muslim and Arab countries to defy the unofficial artistic boycott against Israel and participate in this show.



Musrara, a gentrifying neighborhood on the border between East and West Jerusalem next to several ultra-Orthodox areas, has become a focal point for the local, alternative art scene. It used to be known for being a poor, formerly Arab neighborhood in which the government settled new immigrants from North Africa in the early decades of the State (and from which the Israeli Black Panther protest movement arose in the 1970s).

Musrara is a few minutes’ walk from the Museum on the Seam. The environmental art of the Muslala Collective is evident in the streets and courtyards of the neighborhood. The Musrara Photography School is also worth a visit to check out exhibitions of students’ and local photographers’ work.


Jerusalem Print Workshop

Located right at the point where Musrara meets the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah She’arim is the Jerusalem Workshop. Located in a large Ottoman-era building and in existence since 1974, it is a nonprofit center advancing printing and graphic art in Israel. You know you are in an active print shop the minute the smell of ink hits you as you come in the door.

Jerusalem Print Workshop houses a number of historical and antique printing presses, including the one that was used to publish the first modern Hebrew newspaper in the Land of Israel. Classes and exhibitions are held regularly at the workshop, and it is open for use by amateur and professional artists under the guidance and supervision of a staff of master print-makers.

The Workshop holds the largest and most valuable collection of prints in Israel, including the work of such famed arists as Moshe Kupferman, Moshe Gershuni, Lea Nikel and Tamara Rickman. It also owns the largest collection of artist’s books in Israel.


Yaffo 23

It is hard to imagine that the Yaffo 23 sleek gallery space on the top floor of Jerusalem’s famed main post office (built in 1938) was once the British Mandate’s telephone switchboard center, and later, Jerusalem’s main communications hub. All the clunky, outdated telecommunications equipment was moved out, and the space turned into a cultural center oriented toward contemporary art.

Opened a year ago and seeded by Israel’s premier art school, Bezalel, the gallery has curated and hosted dozens of shows, programs and events. It also serves as the home base for the fellows of the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s new American Academy in Jerusalem.

“Yaffo 23 is not just a gallery, it’s a space for creation, research and learning, and also for exhibition for contemporary practices in art. It’s nonprofit; we don’t sell anything. It’s not like a museum; we don’t collect anything,” explained its director, Roy Brand, a Sarah Lawrence College philosophy professor specializing in aesthetics and contemporary art. “We’re just very free to operate in this large spectrum of activities that you can do if you are not a gallery oriented toward a market, and if you are not a museum oriented toward history or some kind of narrative that you want to present. We’re just doing this experimental stuff. That’s our mandate.”


For More Information

Jerusalem Season of Culture (including Balabasta, Different Trains and Contact Point):

Museum on the Seam:

Musrara:, search “Musrara”

Jerusalem Print Workshop:

Yaffo 23:



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