Southern comfort

Artists from south pine for home in Jerusalem performance

Three singers, including ‘Rock in the Red Zone’s’ Avi Vaknin, perform in community pub show, sponsored by Jerusalem Foundation

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Musicians Avi Vaknin (left), Lir Hovoteli, Ori Ronen and Mati Ooliel at Jerusalem's Hamifletzet Pub on June 27, 2024 (Courtesy)
Musicians Avi Vaknin (left), Lir Hovoteli, Ori Ronen and Mati Ooliel at Jerusalem's Hamifletzet Pub on June 27, 2024 (Courtesy)

Three musicians from Israel’s war-ravaged south sang songs about their love and longing for home in a small, intimate performance Wednesday night at Jerusalem’s Pub Hamifletzet in Kiryat Hayovel.

The community-run pub, named for the nearby park with the famed giant monster sculpture-slide at its center, hosted the triple feature sponsored by the Jerusalem Foundation.

The most well-known musician of the three is probably Avi Vaknin, a singer, composer and music producer who grew up in the southern city of Sderot, and who has collaborated with other Israeli musicians such as Shlomo Artzi and another southerner, singer Micha Sheetrit, along with producing his own music.

For years, Vaknin worked to showcase talents he discovered in Sderot, creating a studio for budding musicians, while also raising awareness about the endless rocket barrage from Gaza at the city.

Vaknin’s story was told in the 2014 documentary “Rock in the Red Zone,” directed by Laura Bialis. The two married, had two children, and for years spent part of their time in Los Angeles, where Bialis is from, and then in Tel Aviv.

In September 2023, Vaknin had just moved back to Sderot, he told the pub audience, and was slowly settling back into life in the southern city.

On October 7, he was at home with his two children, without much food in the house as they were planning to eat hamin, the long-cooked Shabbat stew, with the rest of the family.

When the Hamas terrorist attack began, they ran to the safe room, and ended up spending the next 37 hours there.

Vaknin, known for his rough yet angelic voice, heard in his honest, clear lyrics, doesn’t appear to regret his decision to return to Sderot, despite the difficulties of life there.

“When I was in California, I missed my language and my home,” he said.

He sang a few songs, including Micha Sheetrit’s “Because of the Wind,” written by Sheetrit and sung by Shlomi Shabat, and one of his own songs, in honor of the remaining hostages, with the words, “Don’t give up on me, I’m in a hiding place.”

“There are some places that you have to survive,” said Vaknin of his hometown, which was badly hit by Hamas terrorists on October 7, with more than 50 residents killed and its police station destroyed.

In total some 1,200 people were killed in the assault on southern Israel and 251 taken hostage.

Vaknin, like most of Sderot’s residents, was evacuated for months, and has only lately returned home again.

Similar sentiments were echoed by the other two musicians performing at the pub show. One of them was Ashkelon’s Lir Hotoveli, whose new album, “Here I Am,” was released in May.

Hotoveli spoke briefly about the love for her city, about being evacuated and seeking another place that felt like home for her young family.

She spoke about her two young daughters and her husband, and how it is her music, even now, that has sustained her and pushed her forward during these last months.

Hotoveli’s singing voice is gentle but strong, with a pop-Middle Eastern sound that emerged in her acoustic guitar-playing and touched the audience.

Ori Ronen, number two on the evening’s playlist, migrated south after attending Sapir College in Sderot. “I spent the most amazing ten years there,” said Ronen.

His sound is folk-blues, harking to Bob Dylan, with a very American oeuvre and lyrics about Ronen’s travels accompanied by his backpack, guitar and harmonica.

It was slightly disconcerting to hear the twang of American folk overlaid with an Israeli accent, but Ronen and his accompanist, guitarist Mati Ooliel, are earnest and real, looking to share their music, their thoughts, and right now, their longing for home.

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