Turning 70 no longer means that a person is old — modern medicine is amazing nowadays! — but it also is hard to pivot that into being young. Or even middle-aged.
When a country turns 70, though, that’s something else. It’s still a fledgling among the family of nations. A mere country-babe.
But when Israel turns 70 the situation is far more complicated, because Israel is not just any country. It’s the Jewish homeland, the Jewish state, a country that many Jews, even some who never have been there, think of as home. It’s a place of austere desert beauty and of old stone and of Mediterranean beaches and of frighteningly clear, punishing sunlight. It’s also a country that is a speck of democracy in a sea of autocracy, a country with its own internal problems with corruption and impinging theocracy, a country under very real and very constant physical threat, a country whose lack of popularity in the world seems to have more to do with the world’s own undying anti-Semitism than its very own very real issues.
One way for Jewish communities to fete Israel is by showcasing some of its many attributes — the culture, art, music, food, science, technology, philosophy, and general creativity that are part of its lifeblood. The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly has chosen to take most of this year — from January, at the start of the new secular year, to August, at the end of camp season, and just before the start of the new Jewish year — to celebrate Israel.
“We are doing it because we want to celebrate and mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, and we want to foster an appreciation for Israel’s people and culture and history accomplishments for people in the community who might not be aware of them,” Carol Leslie, the JCC’s program director, said.
To that end, ongoing programs will include something Israeli whenever possible during these eight months, and new programs focusing on something Israeli will pop up as well. There will be music and food showing up in the lobby occasionally, so that the surprised but pleased passerby can grab just a little taste of Israel. At the same time, “the nursery school is building the Kotel” — the Western wall in Jerusalem — “out of shoe boxes,” Ms. Leslie said. “People can put notes in between the boxes.
“In May, there will be a cooking class about Moroccan food. Eric Goldman, the film critic, will talk about Israeli films in June. And also in June, the JCC s sending the first contingent in a long time to the Celebrate Israel parade in Manhattan, and the JCC’s dance team will lead it.”
January started with a lecture about Israel by Dr. Eric Mandel, and February’s festivities centered around Tu b’Shvat. “We are already accepting submissions for the Waltuch Gallery,” Ms. Leslie said. “We’re looking for artwork and photos on the theme of ‘What Does Israel Mean to You?’”
March is arts and culture, and April, the month that includes Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, will see the results of the arts contest hanging on the JCC’s walls. Also April will bring the visit of Israel Story — a live version of the popular podcast, co-sponsored by Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.
May will be kibbutz month, Ms. Leslie said. June, “Experience Israel” month, will bring a film festival and Israeli wines and cheeses to the JCC. The Israeli Scouts will become involved in July, which also will be technology month, featuring STEM and STEAM efforts, and in August, campers will participate in the Tenafly to Tel Aviv swim challenge. “It’s about 56,500 meters between here and there,” Ms. Leslie said. But it’s okay. Swimmers will just go around and around in the pool; they’re not splashing across the Atlantic and then the Mediterranean in any way except virtually.
That’s a lot.
It all will be accompanied by trivia quizzes; screens throughout the center will flash information about Israel, and the library will feature a section of books about Israel at 70. In general, Israel will be both unavoidable and a seamless part of life at the JCC.
Tobi Kahn, the Manhattan-based artist whose long relationship with the JCC has involved classes, lectures, and tours of artists’ studios in both New York and Israel, and whose own work hangs in museums and galleries throughout the United States and far beyond, will teach both sessions of the JCC U’s last winter session, on March 8, focusing on Israeli artists.
His approach to the class echoes the approach the JCC is taking to Israel in general — that Israel includes multitudes, and that to think about it in just one way is to curtail your understanding of it severely.
“What I want to show is that just like when you think of American artists or French artists, you know that there is not just one type of art, that’s true of Israeli arts as well,” Mr. Kahn said. “Each of the artists is a very different man or woman from all of the other artists, and they’re all doing such interesting work.
“There are Israeli artists of all ages, men and women, gay and straight, old and young, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, living in Israel, not living in Israel, conceptual art, installation art, painting, sculpture, photography…
“It’s amazing, and I very much want to showcase that.
“I want to show how diverse the art is. You might think you know Israeli art — but there is no one Israeli art, and no one way of looking at it.”
Mr. Kahn plans to focus on photography in the morning, and on painting in the afternoon. He feels very strongly that it is important to look at both female and male artists — it’s not right, he says, to focus on men to the exclusion of women, or for that matter on straight artists to the exclusion of the LGBT community.
One of the artists he plans to highlight is an old friend, South-African-born Larry Abramson, “who also is an amazing teacher, and who I met when we were both 18 years old,” he said. “He is one of my best friends.” The Tel Aviv-based Mr. Abrahamson will open a show in Manhattan next week.
He also will talk about Gideon Rubin, the artist whose grandfather was another artist, Reuvin Rubin, the Romanian-born Israeli painter whose house in Tel Aviv is now a museum, called (what else?) the Rubin Museum.
He will talk about Sigalit Landau, the sculptor and installation artist whose work is inextricably based on the landscape where she grew up.
And he will talk about his own work, including the pieces on water that were included in the Jewish Art Salon’s show at the Jerusalem Biennale this fall, and are now on display at the Derfner Museum at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, N.Y. “Those pieces are about wells,” he said. “They’re about looking down at water. They’re about the idea that we don’t care enough about water, and that we don’t understand how life can’t happen without water.”
Water, as it happens, is a huge issue in Israel, which has cultivated the kind of science that is allowing the dry country to flourish. Water technology can be one of the country’s greatest intellectual exports, should the political climate allow it, Mr. Kahn said, and the controversy around it, as the writer Seth Siegel, a friend of Mr. Kahn’s and an often-quoted expert in the field, has shown, is a microcosm of the debate around Israel.
As this shows, often discussions of Israel turn political, philosophical, theological — and unbearable. But Israel is not only a political hot spot, it is also a vibrant, physical, very real place, a place where people live and love and dream.
That is the multifaceted Israel that will be on display at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly from now until August, and far beyond then as well.
For more information, go to the JCC’s website, www.jccotp.org.