'Garden of Eden' to hell'You have to get up at some point after period of mourning'

Evacuated musician Micha Bitton sings about life near Gaza

Singer took two weeks to pick up his guitar, salvaged from his home at Netiv Ha’asara following October 7; will perform at upcoming Oud Festival

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

Musician Micha Biton will perform in Jerusalem's Oud Festival, December 27-30, 2023 (Courtesy)
Musician Micha Biton will perform in Jerusalem's Oud Festival, December 27-30, 2023 (Courtesy)

Musician Micha Biton has always been identified with the south, the town of Sderot and his brand of ethnic music. For the first two weeks following the October 7 attacks, however, he was in a state of shock and couldn’t even pick up his guitar.

“The crisis is so deep,” said Biton.”We’re trying to learn to live anew.”

His guitar was one of the only items that Biton took when he was evacuated from his home in Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, one of the Gaza border communities attacked by Hamas terrorists on October 7. Some 35 residents were among the 1,200 people killed across southern Israel during the multi-pronged assault.

Biton and his wife and the rest of the Netiv Ha’asara survivors were taken to a Tel Aviv hotel, where they’ve been ever since.

Two weeks later, Biton was invited to a radio interview and brought his guitar, reminding him that “you have to get up at some point after a period of mourning,” he said.

Since then, Biton said he realized that playing the guitar and singing his music is healing, and more than that — it’s resurrection.

He began playing at small concerts for evacuees from the north and south, saying that he was helping himself as much as helping the audiences.

Now he’s in the lineup for the 24th Oud Festival, rescheduled from November to December 27-30, under the direction of Effie Benaya at Jerusalem’s Confederation House.

This year’s opening event is a performance by Ehud Banai, and other performers include Sderot band Knesiyat Hasechel, pianist and composer Nizar Elkhater, Sofi and the Baladis, and the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra.

It’s Biton’s first time at the annual musical event, where he’ll perform on December 27 at 6 p.m.

He’ll perform with his usual roster of four musicians, taking from their playlist of ethnic rock along with two additional songs in memory of friends from Netiv Ha’asara who were killed on October 7, and a song for the hostages and soldiers.

“I’m from that region and I have to bring that in, but it will still be a happy show,” he said. “We’re really so pleased to be a part of it.”

In Bitton’s shows, he sings and talks about his childhood in Sderot with parents who emigrated from Morocco. Biton spent time as a boy with a foster family in Jerusalem, and as a teenager was educated in public boarding schools.

He eventually developed himself as a creative artist and married, settling down in Netiv Ha’asara with a studio in his backyard, a place that he calls his “factory.”

“You think you’re in a pastoral place and your life is there and then in one fell swoop, it’s all broken, destroyed,” he said. “My musician friends would look at this pastoral place and say, ‘you’re in the Garden of Eden,’ until we understood we’re in hell.”

Biton lost at least 20 friends from the moshav. Somehow his home was skipped by the terrorists.

“They started with our neighbors, just two houses away,” said Biton.

He and his wife spent 14 hours in their safe room, with 10 other members of their family who visiting for the holiday weekend.

“The pressure was so great,” said Biton. “My kids, my four grandchildren, we were just so scared, so, so tense.”

The surviving population of the moshav is now in Tel Aviv, “very far from home,” said Biton. “We’re so hurt and injured, we’re just staying in one place.”

They haven’t been able to bring themselves to move to an apartment and start all over again. Staying in a hotel is temporary but it gives the sense that any day “a miracle will happen and we’ll return home,” said Biton.

“It’s very hard to play, but it’s helped me to get over the initial part of the loss,” he said. “The audiences give me strength.”

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