In unusual year, Israel Festival takes arts to nursing home, public institutions

In unusual year, Israel Festival takes arts to nursing home, public institutions

Residencies sponsored by Jerusalem-based event, place artists with the elderly and public servants to form an ongoing dialogue with members of the community

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

Voice artist Faye Shapiro worked with staffers at Israel's National Insurance Institute for July and August 2020, as part of her Israel Festival residency (Courtesy Faye Shapiro)
Voice artist Faye Shapiro worked with staffers at Israel's National Insurance Institute for July and August 2020, as part of her Israel Festival residency (Courtesy Faye Shapiro)

The elderly residents sat in a semicircle, song sheets in hand, their voices raised in a creaky singing of Cabaret’s “Money makes the world go round,” a classic musical piece.

It was hard to tell exactly what the aged voices were singing. That was okay, though.

This was voice artist Raya Bruckenthal’s exploration of voices and song, part of her Institutional Routine 2.0 residency at Jerusalem’s Neve Horim assisted living facility for this year’s Israel Festival, taking place September 3-12 in Jerusalem.

This isn’t the first year of artists’ residencies at the annual festival, but this year, like everything else, the festival and its residencies look a little different. The artists are usually in residency for three or four weeks in an institution or organization of their choice, where they form an ongoing dialogue with members of the community.

The choir at assisted living facility Neve Horim in Jerusalem, which is part of an Israel Festival 2020 residency (Courtesy Jessica Steinberg)

At the end of the residency, the artists perform an artistic action that involves the community, offering a fresh perspective on the daily routine and this year, in the reality of an ongoing crisis.

Bruckenthal hopes there will be a performance of sorts held in the expansive garden of the home, although that will depend, like so many other things right now, on coronavirus figures.

Still, she’s wholly grateful for the two months she’s spent at Neve Horim, coaxing voices to be heard, and learning the pros and cons of old age.

Raya Bruckenthal, a voice artist who has been in residence at a Jerusalem old age home for an Israel Festival 2020 residency (Courtesy Raya Bruckenthal)

“This isn’t an egotistical project, it’s not about me, it opens up other possibilities for me,” said Bruckenthal. “I’m not an activist here, I’m observing something.”

She heard about the facility from her sister, Talia Kirsch, who has directed the choir for the last six years and was seated at the piano during a recent rehearsal, coaxing the residents through the famed “Cabaret” song.

“It all had to happen here and stay here,” said Bruckenthal. “This project is a kind of overview of these things, of the efforts and the emotions. These are broken voices, but they’re our voices, or what our voices will be at some point.”

It’s also been a complicated five months for the assisted living facility, which has worked its way through the coronavirus pandemic, caring for its residents, but also seeking projects that will move and motivate those who live there, said director Avituv Zalkin.

“We say yes to every project, because just [giving them] care is not enough for their souls,” he said.

And when social worker Rachel Malumed hears the residents humming bars from “Cabaret” on the way to the dining room, she knows it makes a difference for them.

“This brings life to the room,” said Malumed.

Healing souls is what Faye Shapiro thinks about as well, as a singer, composer and voice artist who aims to entertain, heal and find social change through voice and music.

When 36-year-old Shapiro was invited to take a residency with this year’s Israel Festival, it took “only a second” for her to think of Bituach Leumi, the National Insurance Institute that processes unemployment, social security, health benefits and a myriad of other social services.

Voice artist Faye Shapiro at Israel’s National Insurance Institute, where she is completing an Israel Festival 2020 residency (Courtesy Faye Shapiro)

“Eight or nine million people are paying and receiving money through this grid, a system in this national collective,” said Shapiro. “It signifies and embodies the solidarity and unity of the nation, and a lot of disappointment comes with that too, when needs don’t get met.”

Shapiro was looking, as she has been for some time, for more intimate voice encounters, ways to have direct contact with audiences, opportunities to connect without a stage.

She spent the last six weeks in the Jerusalem branch of the governmental organization, holding long conversations with the manager, meeting other members of the staff, and holding voice workshops. In the process, she shifted much of her thinking about the government behemoth.

“They do holy work,” said Shapiro, who is known to Jerusalem audiences for her work with the Great Gehenna Choir and last year’s “One Night in Atlantis” for the Mekudeshet Festival, an experience of sound and water in the YMCA swimming pool. “They’re truly connected to what they’re doing and they have a deep need to be heard and seen given how they’re depicted in the media.”

Shapiro formed a group of 15 people from different departments, holding conversations about how to bring healing, and with hopes that whatever healing action she could bring about would reverberate through the organizational grid.

Voice artist Faye Shapiro worked for two months with staffers at the National Insurance Institute as part of an Israel Festival 2020 residency (Courtesy Faye Shapiro)

On September 9, the Jerusalem branch will open its doors to the public for a performance in the entrance hall usually used for appointments about unemployment benefits and social services.

This time, however, the seating will be reversed with audience members behind the desks and staffers in the seats usually taken by the general public.

“These people think of their work as emissaries,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro will also be holding a workshop on September 7 about how art can create change, part of her series of Plexus workshops that aim to create a new vocal civilization.

For tickets and times for any of the residency events, go to the Israel Festival website.

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