‘There’s hope’: Culture buffs celebrate return of music, movies and art

Jerusalem movie theater sees sparse turnout for socially distanced screenings, but Green Pass holders and others flock to concerts and museums as events come roaring back

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

Theater-goers at the Khan theatre in Jerusalem on February 23, 2021.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Theater-goers at the Khan theatre in Jerusalem on February 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was the second night of the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s reopening post-lockdown, and Yvonne and Ram Livay were on their way to auditorium 3 for the 6 p.m. showing of “Military Wives,” a movie starring Kristin Scott Thomas.

It was the couple’s second trip to the arthouse cinema in two days, said Yvonne Livay. Friends Refaya Nov and Galia Nahmias were also in the audience, also for the second evening in a row.

Both sets of retirees said they normally visited the theater at least once a day for a showing.

“It’s our second home,” said Nov.

Yvonne Livay gestured around her at the mostly empty theater. “This isn’t back to normal yet, but it’s something. It’s been a horrible year.”

On March 15, 2020, Israel’s government ordered all cultural venues to shut down, along with nearly all other public spaces, as the country leaped into the first of three eventual lockdowns.

The ensuing 12 months would see two more lockdowns of varying severity and a series of efforts at opening various venues, from schools to restaurants. Through it all, though, movie theaters and other cultural venues with capacity for crowds have stayed mostly shut, save a few weeks over the summer, locking self-described film freaks like the Livays and others out of their favorite pastime.

In late February, the government okayed them to open back up as infection rates dropped and inoculation rates climbed, albeit under special health guidelines and only for those with a Green Pass — issued to those who had gotten two doses of the coronavirus vaccine or recovered from COVID-19.

The entrance of the Jerusalem Cinematheque on March 1, 2021, the first night the arthouse theater has been opened since June 2020 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Nov, Nahmias and the Livays had shown up 20 minutes prior to the screening, as instructed by the Cinematheque, one of the many rules it and other venues must follow.

Besides ordering tickets ahead of time (the box office is shuttered) and sticking to staggered arrival times, audience members had to present their Green Pass at the door. When some arrived without a Green Pass on their smartphones, ushers helped them download the Health Ministry’s Ramzor app and access the certificate.

Inside the theater, attendees needed to social distance, with at least an empty seat between viewers or groups of viewers, though turnout was so sparse that it was not an issue.

“It’s wonderful,” said Nahmias. “Two rows in front of me and two rows in back of me; it’s a feeling of security to be here and feel safe.”

A mostly empty, socially distanced auditorium at the newly reopened Jerusalem Cinematheque on March 2, 2021 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The beloved arthouse theater, which also hosts Jerusalem’s annual summer film festival, had opened briefly in June for 10 days and hosted several open-air screenings in August and September before the second lockdown set in. Other than that, it had been closed for nearly a year, said Roni Mahadav-Levin, who manages the theater.

Roni Mahadav-Levin, manager at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which reopened March 1, 2021, after months of a coronavirus lockdown (Courtesy Roni Mahadav-Levin)

“We’ve never experienced something like this in the 40 years that we’ve been around,” he said. “We hope we’ll be open for more than two weeks.”

The long-awaited reopening required just the right kind of film, he said, which was Vittorio de Sica’s “Miracle in Milan,” made in 1950 at the end of World War II. It screened on Monday night at 6 p.m.

“It was after a huge world disaster, perhaps the greatest joint disaster that was experienced by the entire world prior to the coronavirus, and it shows people dealing with their losses and their hopes for the future,” said Mahadav-Levin. “It’s about solidarity between people; it’s funny and it warms the heart.”

The theater is screening two to three films each day in its first week of reopening. For now, crowds have mostly stayed away, likely due to lingering jitters of sitting for two hours in a closed space with dozens of strangers.

Some, though, are returning, including regulars and those with memberships, which were frozen for the duration of COVID-19 and will be extended for the number of days that the Cinematheque was closed.

“There’s hope,” said Mahadav-Levin. “Kudos to Netflix, but our kind of theater just can offer more.”

‘We’ve been waiting for this’

Other venues are also throwing their doors back open, including performance spaces, music clubs and museums.

A spokesperson for the Zappa chain of small music venues said they have seen crowds close to the permitted capacity in their smallish clubs, which normally fit around 150 people.

The club has hosted eight, mostly sold-out “intimate” shows with rocker Aviv Geffen, to celebrate the return of culture.

“After a year…” wrote Geffen on his Instagram page, captioning a photo of himself on stage in Herzliya on February 22 in front of a mostly socially distanced and masked audience. “Hard to believe. [This is] what happened today while most of the world was paralyzed.”

While theaters, clubs and other venues with stages are only open to Green Pass holders, museums are open to all, according to rules laid out by the Health and Culture ministries.

At the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Thursday, a line formed inside the lobby at 2 p.m. as those who had reserved tickets for that hour prepared to enter.

Visitors line up for the 2 p.m. slot at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on February 25, 2021, after the museum’s long, second lockdown closure (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Talia Frenkel and her boyfriend Sarel, both 18, gazed at the polychromed marble and bronze Hulk (Rock) sculpture at the museum’s Jeff Koons exhibit in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. It was the first time in a year that Sarel had entered a museum, and the third time in the last year for Frenkel.

“I love museums,” said Frenkel. “It just feels so great to be out somewhere, to be taking culture in again.”

“We planned this day for a while. It’s not spontaneous,” she said.

Talia Frenkel and her boyfriend Sarel, left, made their way to the Jeff Koons exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art as soon as museums reopened on February 23, 2021 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Hila Cohen, her parents and her two children wandered around the newly opened Alexander Calder exhibit at the museum, enjoying the freedom of movement and space that matched the subject of the exhibit, Calder’s famed mobiles.

Cohen lost sight of her two daughters for a few minutes between galleries, for the first time in months.

“I’m not too worried,” she said. “It’s been months of being cooped up inside. We’ve been waiting for these kinds of opportunities.”

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