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Classical music fest in Nazareth brings Arabs, Jews together for Christmas

Polyphony Liturgical Festival launches its annual event, drawing local patrons as well as Jewish Israelis seeking holiday spirit and a change of tempo in historic town

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Rehearsing for a performance at the Nazareth Liturgical Festival, opening December 16, 2021 (Courtesy Yoel Levy)
Rehearsing for a performance at the Nazareth Liturgical Festival, opening December 16, 2021 (Courtesy Yoel Levy)

When Nazareth’s Liturgical Festival kicked off Thursday night with an opening concert celebrating 250 years of Beethoven, every seat at the performance, held in the city’s Salesian Church, was filled. The concert was completely sold out.

“It’s the first time that the whole festival is sold out,” said Nabil Abboud Ashkar,  violinist and director of the Polyphony Conservatory in Nazareth, which runs the annual event. “That’s very rare and rewarding right now.”

About 35 percent of the audience is local, including Christian and Muslim Nazarenes who support the conservatory. The rest of the attendees at the weekend festival will mostly be Jewish tourists from out of town. Some may be long-time fans of the conservatory, but many are simply people who want a weekend away in a nearby destination that feels somewhat, well, foreign.

“Nazareth feels like you’re getting away,” said Abboud Ashkar. “We have the ability to offer both tourism, a special Christmas atmosphere and high culture. That’s the whole idea behind the festival; culture and tourism to motivate integration.”

The festival, held annually during the Christmas season, allows the conservatory to open its doors and reach out to the wider community, helping break down perceptions and bring together the Jewish and Arab communities to hear classical works performed in the city known as Jesus’s childhood hometown.

Polyphony was founded 16 years ago to introduce Nazareth’s youth to classical music and performance.  The conservatory created youth ensembles of Arab and Jewish teens who play chamber music together and participate in dialogue sessions through music.

Some of the Christmas elements on display at the Nazareth Liturgical Festival, opening December 16, 2021 (Courtesy Liturgical Festival)

This year — after last year’s Liturgical Festival was held online — the local municipality and churches have “really stepped up their game,” Abboud Ashkar said, with Christmas lighting and decorations, several Christmas markets, and local hotels that have partnered with the festival to offer weekend packages with tickets to the concerts.

“It’s not about religion, it’s about the mission and what people really believe in,” he said. “I look at this and the heartbreaking violence that is spreading in the Arab community and people don’t feel safe anymore in their cities and hometowns. I see that within all of these challenges and difficulties — a result of all the accumulation of the last sixty-something years — to be able to have a festival like this, it gives us hope.”

It was tougher planning this year’s program, he said, given the unknowns of the pandemic and the assumption that hosting international soloists, choirs or orchestras would not be possible.

“We realized we just have to go with it,” said Abboud Ashkar. “We also can’t squeeze so many people into the church.”

He said the entire experience has been a kind of salve after the tensions and worries that followed the riots and violence in May between Arabs and Jews.

Nabil Abboud Ashkar, a violinist and founder of classical music conservatory Polyphony Nazareth which will launch its 2021 Liturgical Festival on December 16, 2021 (Courtesy Polyphony Nazareth)

“The more rational people realized how fragile the societal texture is, the relationship between Arabs and Jews in Israel,” said Abboud Ashkar. “People realized that we cannot ignore that everyone has a responsibility to maintain and develop and take care of our relationship. The people spreading hatred are very active, very loud and aggressive by nature. Those calling for tolerance and trying to better understand how we can live together and build trust are usually more moderate and more quiet.”

In the months since May’s violence, additional Jewish Israeli organizations have reached out to Polyphony, he said, looking to collaborate with the conservatory.

Polyphony partnered this summer with The Israeli Opera, holding a major concert in June and working on other kinds of cooperative efforts throughout the year. The Abu Gosh Music Festival, organized by the Arab Israeli village located outside Jerusalem, dedicated one full day to Polyphony, including a performance by the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, the conservatory’s professional ensemble made up of Arab and Jewish musicians.

“After our appearances at the Opera, Abu Gosh and Tzippori, we’ve expanded our audience significantly,” said Abboud Ashkar.

The peak of the Galilee Orchestra’s performances will be their upcoming New York City performance and debut at Carnegie Hall on March 18, 2022, with violinist Joshua Bell.

The Polyphony educational program, with 130 students, includes a music and society seminar for 20 young Arab and Jewish musicians who meet once a month for a weekend to rehearse chamber music and attend lectures and discussions in order to learn one another’s narratives.

“Eventually, and it’s a long process, they touch on the more challenging issues,” said Abboud Ashkar.

Students are so keen on the conservatory and seminar that the program wasn’t halted during the more intensive months of the pandemic, or during the internecine violence of May.

“We’ve experienced during COVID how committed people are to Polyphony,” he said, noting that they’re now taking their model and finding partners in dance and theater, using performing arts to bring Arabs and Jews together.

One of the reasons Polyphony has succeeded is because of its investment in the local Arab community.

“We didn’t start by bringing Arabs and Jews together and chanting peace and kumbaya,” said Abboud Ashkar.

There’s still more work to be done, he said, particularly with other members of the broader Arab community who are familiar with Polyphony’s work, but haven’t taken advantage of it yet.

“We realized there’s a big need in the Arab community for closing gaps and advancing excellence. That was our starting point,” he said. “This progression is the reason Polyphony has the support of the Arab community. They didn’t feel we’re here to sell them a story.”

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