Nine weeks and four senior artists in the city of Jerusalem. That’s the essential thrust of the American Academy in Jerusalem, a project of the Foundation for Jewish Culture that aims take part in the city’s renewal as an international destination for art and culture. This past fall, theater artist David Herskovits, visual artist Lynne Avadenka, urban planner David Karnovsky and choreographer Donald Byrd were the first American Academy fellows. They resided in the city as part of a program of engaging with the artistic community locally and created new works inspired by their experiences.
Created by Elise Bernhardt, CEO of The Foundation for Jewish Culture, the fellowship was intended to be a uniquely immersive experience for the artists. “We wanted them to fall in love with the place with all the warts,” she said. “We wanted a nurtured love affair with Jerusalem.”
Each of the four senior artists was selected for their ability to bring something unique to their fellowship experience in Jerusalem. In turn, the program looked to use underutilized theater spaces, galleries and lesser known cultural centers in the capital city.
The “drive and responsibility [of the senior artists who participated] and the wisdom that they were able to bring to their projects let them touch a lot of people and a lot of institutions,” said Lisa Preiss-Fried, the program’s Jerusalem director.
As for the next group of fellows who are scheduled to arrive sometime in 2013, Elise hopes to find and secure local partners who will help establish a permanent residence so that fellows can return to work in Jerusalem’s uniquely inspiring environment.
David Herskovits, theater artist
David, who is the founder and artistic director of New York’s Target Margin Theater, had initially proposed developing a new play based on the intersection of Yiddish theater and the 20th century avant garde movement. Upon arrival he found himself fascinated by Israel’s love-hate relationship with Yiddish — as a language and culture — in the early years of the State. “Did you know,” he asked, “that performances in Yiddish were outlawed in Israel between 1948-51?”
As he developed and focused the work, David met and conducted workshops with actors from a variety of local ensembles, developing new friendships and working relationships that he hopes will bring him back to Israel in the future. “It is impossible to separate the impact of this fellowship artistically from its Israeli context,” David described, “The time in Israel was immense, moving and energizing, inspiring and challenging for me as a person and as a Jew who cares about Israel.”
Lynne Avadenka, visual artist
The cultural collision of Jerusalem — the sacred and the profane, religious and secular, Hebrew and Arabic languages — inspired and informed Lynne’s work while in Israel. Using a Hebrew calendar, local maps and Arabic newspapers, she created a collage that helped mark the nine weeks she spent in Jerusalem. At work in the Jerusalem Print Workshop, she used previously-used printing plates of other artists, altering and reworking them into new pieces that made her think of her host city as, “Jerusalem, a city of layers.”
Working with a dictionary of mathematical terms in Arabic and English that she found, Lynne incorporated “terms that were lovely and ambiguous or had double meanings” into a print series, ultimately creating four unique books, that “sort of echo different things…in an open and unfolding scroll.”
Now back at home in Michigan, Lynne continues to reflect on the fellowship experience in Jerusalem. “It’s a city that can really inspire an artist, because of what it is and what it means to so many people,” she said. “What you feel when you are there, all those things affected me deeply.”
David Karnovsky, urban planner
David was struck by the connecting threads between his work in New York City’s Department of City Planning and Jerusalem. “New York City, unlike many American cities, is experiencing growth,” explained David, noting that Jerusalem’s problem spots — affordable housing, improving mass transit, developing parks and green spaces — are similar issues to those facing Manhattan.
He educated himself about plans to improve mass transit as well as the redevelopment of the city center and the recently pedestrianized Jaffa Road. He discovered, much to his interest, that Jerusalemites are engaged in civic matters, except he was surprised by the lack of awareness of long-term plans intended to resolve congestion issues as well as entice people back to Jerusalem’s long-neglected downtown area.
Traveling on public buses, trying out the light rail and walking in his adopted neighborhood of Abu Tor and beyond inspired David, as he saw the unexpected diversity of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods. He was also moved by how the populace works together, transcending their differences to deal with problems. “It gives me hope for the future of the city,” he said.
Donald Byrd, choreographer
The artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, Donald planned on creating a dance piece that would involve both Israeli and Palestinian dancers. After organizing a four-person ensemble, one Arab and three Jews, he worked slowly with his dancers, each of whom were at different levels professionally, “deciding not to impose to much on them in terms of how I wanted them to work.”
Pleased with the environment of cooperation created, he created two separate works that were presented at the close of the residency. Donald’s experiences gave him a sense of hope about Israel and her neighbors despite everything.
“To embrace the idea that there might not be a solution gives me a lot of hope,” he said. “Something about a solution means it’s this big overarching thing that’s going to fix things, that gets in the way of coming up with measures that makes coexistence on a day-to-day basis possible.”