Smadar Sheffi, a well-known art curator, takes a 20-minute train ride from Tel Aviv to Ramle several times a week. Her destination is the Contemporary Art Center Ramle, which she co-founded several years ago. And her goal is to help Ramle — a working-class city of nearly 78,000 with a trove of oft-overlooked ancient and historic sites — market its mix of archaeological treasures and distinguished churches, artistic endeavors and market tours.
In Ramle, home to some 58,000 Jews who live alongside around 19,000 Arab residents, art is the starting point for conversations about interfaith ties, religion, politics and gender, according to Sheffi.
“I wanted a place where I could make a difference,” she said. “When contemporary art is the starting point, it allows a different kind of discussion. It lets you talk about things that otherwise would be problematic.”
CACR, not far from the city’s open-air market, is on the second floor of the Ramle museum building, housed in the former municipal headquarters of the British Mandatory authorities. It’s here where Sheffi has put her efforts into a series of exhibits, bringing artists and their talents to the city.
The latest exhibit is “Copper Wing,” from artist Meydad Eliyahu, who comes from an Indian-Israeli family. The show, closing in late October, features copper works that touch on the history of the Indian Jewish community in Israel, much of which is centered in Ramle.
The exhibit is an extension of a project Eliyahu began a decade ago, exploring communities and in particular the Indian community in Israel, its influences and unrecognized traditions, tracing forgotten or erased historical events and social phenomena.
“‘Copper Wing’ proposes a new place for these traditions,” wrote Sheffi in the program notes.
Along the way, the exhibit evolves into an intimate, striking portrait of Ramle’s Indian community, etched in copper. Among the works are a mural of ancient Ramle imposed along a striking green wall, a copper tree trunk and a curtain of cashew-shaped leaves — evoking the curved nuts often used in Indian cooking — fashioned out of copper.
Along another wall sits a giant copper book page, inspired by the notebook writings of one Ramle immigrant, with her scribbled recipe for lemonade, text in Devanagari, and Hebrew-English terminology.
The exhibit, said Sheffi, recognizes the local Indian community on its own terms, allowing Eliyahu to explore the community as an insider while presenting its traditions to a wider audience.
As part of the project, Meydad has held art workshops in public spaces, community centers and schools. A table of copper artworks created by Ramle locals is part of the exhibit.
The art center regularly tackles Ramle’s complicated history and current tensions head on. The city was founded near the existing center of Lydda — today’s Lod — in the early 8th century CE by the Umayyad prince Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, as the first new Muslim city in the Holy Land.
Back then, Ramle was valued as a key waypoint between Cairo and Damascus, situated along an important road connecting the Mediterranean port of Jaffa with Jerusalem. The road can still be seen today in Ramle’s old city.
Mayor Michael Vidal and his team of tourism professionals, augmented by Sheffi and others, point out that the city remains an important crossroads between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and a significant regional center, though it has struggled to shed decades of economic depression.
Vidal notes that Ramle avoided much of the Arab-Jewish violence during May 2021, unlike the adjacent city of Lod, which was scene of nightly fighting and deadly violence.
“There’s no question that a lot of people want to understand Ramle and ask these questions,” said Vidal in a recent phone conversation. “They’re curious to understand this city that was quiet.”
The city is inviting visitors to see its treasures during its annual Sukkot festival from October 11 to 13, which will include musical and stage performances with pop stars Eden Ben Zaken, Moshe Peretz, Ethnix and others, plus kids’ activities in the mornings, all for a symbolic NIS 20 entry fee.
For those looking to get some history in, Ramle’s old city offers a relatively compact 26-minute circuit for visitors checking out its top sites.
Vidal points to Ramle’s venerable White Mosque, which was recently restored to its former shining white glory. The mosque’s belltower commands views of Ramle’s ancient and modern cemeteries, and beyond to the towers of Tel Aviv. A visitors’ center and cafe are being built on the site.
From there, visitors can head to lunch in the market, walk over to CACR and then visit the Pool of Arches, an underground water cistern built in 789 CE that’s now home to a collection of canoes that can be paddled around the water.
Down in the dank cavern, visitors will find more from the Contemporary Art Center: an audiovisual exhibit created by artist Dor Zlekha Levy.
The work, titled “Third Spaces,” features images of musical instruments projected onto the walls of the pool, as melodic Hebrew and Arabic music is heard from eight points around the space.
The space is relatively small for a boat ride, just 20 square meters (around 215 square feet), and it only takes about 10 or 15 minutes to see it all, but it’s a calming, contemplative ride, offering a different kind of viewing and listening experience as one considers Ramle’s past, present and future.
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