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Fiction becomes reality

Children’s book by Keret and Gefen comes to life with musical rendition

Tom Cohen will conduct the Jerusalem Orchestra East West, with Etgar Keret and Shira Gefen in character at the Israel Festival

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

The Jerusalem Orchestra East West will perform 'Waiting for Nissim' with conductor Tom Cohen, and the book's authors, Shira Gefen and Etgar Keret, at the Israel Festival on June 17, 2021 (Courtesy Hayim Yafim Barblet)
The Jerusalem Orchestra East West will perform 'Waiting for Nissim' with conductor Tom Cohen, and the book's authors, Shira Gefen and Etgar Keret, at the Israel Festival on June 17, 2021 (Courtesy Hayim Yafim Barblet)

Conductor Tom Cohen, writer Etgar Keret and artist Shira Gefen (Keret’s wife) are friends who have long looked for a performance they could create together.

They’ll finally have their chance with “Waiting for Nissim,” a magical children’s book (by Gefen and Keret) brought to life for the Israel Festival on June 17 with music, dance and words.

“It was clear we would do something together,” said Cohen, who will be conducting the Jerusalem Orchestra East West for the performance. “We had to find something special.”

The performance is a cooperative project of the Israel Festival, the Jerusalem Orchestra East West and the Israeli Opera. It will also be performed at the Israeli Opera on July 8.

The three became friends when Keret and Gefen moved temporarily to Brussels, where Cohen lives with his Lebanese-born wife, and directs and conducts the MED or Mediterranean orchestra in Brussels.

Conductor Tom Cohen gets to live out his creative fantasies when he conducts ‘Waiting for Nissim’ with authors Etgar Keret and Shira Gefen on June 17, 2021 at the Israel Festival (Courtesy Daniel Kaminski)

A lover of Andalusian music, Cohen also founded and manages an Andalusian band orchestra in Montreal, and is the conductor and co-director of an orchestra that operates in France and includes Algerian musicians.

“We became friends who go around together eating ice cream and pizza,” said Cohen.

He’s blasé about it now, but it was back in high school that Cohen first discovered Keret’s writing and devoured anything he wrote. He credits Keret with “showing us a world out there” and for leading him to book reading. (He even has a signed copy of one of Keret’s books, and likes to tease Keret about what he wrote.)

The three met years later and after becoming fast friends, wanted to work on something together.

Unexpectedly, that something was Gefen and Keret’s children’s book, “Waiting for Nissim,” which Cohen’s mother bought for his son, her grandson, not knowing that her son was friends with the authors.

The children’s book tells the story of a child named Lev (which is also the name of Gefen and Keret’s son) who is waiting patiently for his friend Nissim after school, in a tale of friendship and patience.

“This book is so simple and short, so specific and minimalistic in terms of the words, but there’s so much subtext about friendship, life, patience, belief, all those things,” said Cohen. “Because so much happens behind the scenes there’s lots of room for music.”

Cohen brought in choreographer Miri Lazar to create the staging of the piece that includes his music, with Geffen and Keret bringing the two characters, Lev and Nissim to life.

“We didn’t want a play, I wanted to protect the minimalism and leave room for it, for what we imagined and allow the audience to imagine too,” he said.

The piece will include several dancers on stage, performing to Cohen’s music composed to a light classical motif in which the characters meet, said Cohen.

“It was important to protect the atmosphere of the book, of this kid who is waiting and waiting for his friend in a typical Israeli neighborhood,” said Cohen. “I wanted to write music that plays on the border of high and low, catchy, but going straight to your heart. It will resonate with you and be familiar from your very DNA.”

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