The ancient kabbalists of Safed who composed “Shalom Aleichem,” the liturgical poem written to greet the Sabbath, could not have imagined its latest iteration: a song of protest against Israel’s prime minister.
The choral piece, usually sung around the Friday evening dinner table, was one of several works sung by a group of masked and distanced vocalists who gathered on a recent Friday afternoon, part of the now-weekly Kabbalat Shabbat (Hebrew for “Greeting the Sabbath”) protests in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence.
“There’s a lot of anger, hope and sadness,” said Noy Shiv, 23, a fourth-year music student studying opera at Tel Aviv University, who organized the performance. “I felt that if we could bring a choir, we could center all of that, hit the pause button and focus on something softer and calmer.”
The “Shalom Aleichem” piece, arranged by Gil Adema, is well-known among Israeli choral groups, and this group of choral singers also sang parts of “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” from the Nabucco opera.
“We succeeded in singing, and all I wanted was to get even one person to close their eyes and sing with us, with hope,” she said.
תקשיבו למקהלה הזו ששרה אתמול בתוך הקהל בקבלת השבת בבלפור, ותקשיבו במיוחד לזעקת המוזיקאים בסוף!#ביביתתפטר!!!—מתוך הלייב שהעברתי אתמול
פורסם על ידי Or-ly Barlev ב- יום שבת, 1 באוגוסט 2020
The weekly gatherings of thousands calling for the prime minister’s resignation are largely, but not only, led by young activists like Shiv. Beyond left-wing activists, the protests draw in many of those hit hard by the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis: disgruntled restaurateurs, out-of-work tour guides, fed-up event planners and artists.
They gather as often as several times a week on Balfour Street, outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem and in the adjacent Paris Square.
In keeping with the youthful spirit of the movement, the anger of the protesters has also been joined by a festive air, much like the outdoor music festivals usually held throughout the summer months.
Performers are front and center at the events, including singers, drummers, actors, fringe performance artists and dancers, all left jobless by the pandemic and anxious about what the future holds.
Shiv was one of the first to help get this nascent movement going, along with several friends. Having planned to move out of her parents’ home when the coronavirus hit, she said it was only at the beginning of June that she began questioning her future.
“I came to this very tough realization that, as a musician, no one will worry about me, no one is supporting culture,” said Shiv, whose performances and projects have all been canceled. “If I didn’t do it myself, nothing would happen.”
Shiv first wrote an angry post on a Tel Aviv University Facebook group, which drew some statements of support, as well as some reactions that told her to vent her frustration elsewhere. That only made her more determined to act.
“It was very clear to me that what would change things is if young people would push back,” she said. She felt that had to happen in Jerusalem, the country’s capital city and its seat of government.
“People said Jerusalem was too far away,” said Shiv, who lives in Tel Aviv. She and four friends went to Jerusalem, to Balfour Street, where weekly protests were still of limited size. There, they met two young Jerusalemites. When the group began chatting, they all realized they were there for the same reasons.
After several meetings, the small band of protesters decided to organize a Kabbalat Shabbat event on a late Friday afternoon on Balfour Street. They were looking to attract those who were feeling confused and conflicted about life in the wake of the pandemic.
A few hundred people showed up, she said. The event ended up being more of an opportunity to hang out than an angry protest. That was just the beginning. Anti-government protests began gathering speed, growing in numbers and in frequency.
Shiv said the protest that took place on July 14, when many thousands packed Paris Square, was the game-changer for what these ongoing demonstrations represent.
During that protest, held on France’s traditional day of independence, Bastille Day, theater student Anat Handelsman and her friends created a Last Supper display — a reference to the historic final meal that Jesus shared with his apostles — as a physical demonstration of support for the restaurateurs who have been brought to the edge of economic ruin by the coronavirus and the shutdown.
“If we don’t support them, it will be the last supper without any future,” she said.
At the protest, the group of performers staged themselves at a table set with bread and wine across from Balfour Street, raising their glasses in a ceremonial L’chaim, offering toasts to all aspects of life they still seek and are not sure when (or whether) they will next experience.
“It was gripping and powerful,” said Handelsman. “There’s something about being in public that energizes us, especially since we’re accustomed to being on stage. It offers us a voice in the chaos of all these voices, and it’s our way to express ourselves.”
Later, the group marched, sans table, to the Knesset, along with thousands of others, where they continued to shout and chant.
The protest grew in fervor and intensity, said Shiv. “It shows you how many people need it. The Israeli cultural world was just shut down and people are looking for the stage to express themselves and that’s what’s made it so creative. It expresses our frustration.”
Handelsman, a student at Jerusalem’s School of Visual Theater, had also decided to take matters into her own hands when the coronavirus and its economic realities began wreaking havoc with her life.
In July, she and two of her friends created their own tongue-in-cheek street performance protest, dressing in ’80s clothing and hitting the street for an “Aerobic Revolution,” using their performance art training to create live scenes that would catch people’s attention.
“We’re despondent,” said Handelsman. “We were telling people to wake up and see what’s happening.”
It is their commentary on the state democracy, she said, and this kind of performance allows them to convey their emotions. Creating the performances is also a democratic process, she said, with women of all stripes involved in planning and reacting to what is taking place. It is a stage of sorts, and that is an opportunity that these performers have deeply missed over the last months.
“We have all been activists in something, but now I really understand the role of art in all this,” said Handelsman. “I’ve usually been an activist just for myself, but this is much bigger. There’s not just one person organizing this, different people have their vision, and that’s part of the power. Anyone can come and together we help make it happen.”
Some other organizers who are part of the protests, usually older activists, have sought to set up a stage for speeches and turn to more traditional methods of demonstration.
“I think that’s boring,” said Shiv. “This all took on a life of its own. It’s much bigger than each of us and so much more needs to be said.”
The protests have also brought to the fore demonstrators who are novices in all things political.
“I’m not a political activist, even if I agree with the politics of a demonstration,” said Omri Blau, 31, a classical percussionist with two music degrees who is currently on furlough from the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.
The opportunity to get involve presented itself when Blau walked by one of the first major demonstrations by chance, where he bumped into another drummer friend who had to leave for Tel Aviv and gave his bass drum to Blau for safekeeping.
Blau slung on the massive drum, walked into the protest and has not missed one since.
He put together a group of 40 fellow drummers who meet before protests to try and plan cues to use during the event. Though, they note, it doesn’t pay to plan too much because of the chaotic energy at each event.
“It’s a nucleus of drummers, and there are more of us after each demonstration,” said Blau. “You have to be spontaneous. You get disappointed if you plan too much. What matters is that there’s a brotherhood.”
The gatherings have also brought Blau some meaning during this complicated period of the pandemic. Without his usual spate of performances, he has found that his creative motivation is gone. The demonstrations lift his morale, creating an opportunity to jam that exists less in classical music.
“I feel like something’s bubbling, it does something,” said Blau. “I don’t think Bibi will quit because of it, but it shakes the table.”