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New Songs for an Old City: Israel’s Thriving Arts Scene

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Some of the first recorded artists and craftsmen in history are found in the Bible. Bezalel, for instance, created the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant for the Israelites as they followed Moses in the desert, and King David wrote songs that people across the globe still sing today.

That legacy continues in modern Israel today. The tools and mediums might look different, but the deep cultural appreciation for beauty and design remains. In fact, Jerusalem’s school for art and design is named for the Old Testament Bezalel, and it graduates students who share his desire to build something beautiful for their people.

That’s what Matan Israeli has had his heart set on since 2009. Matan runs an organization called Muslala, a community of artists shaping the story of Jerusalem through sustainability and arts initiatives. Currently, he and his team are working to revitalize the Clal building – a space originally designed to be the center of Jerusalem but which gradually fell into disuse.

“Jerusalem is the meeting point,” he says, “of all cultures, religions – everybody passes through this city. And we think art is a medium of creating this encounter, so the idea of Muslala is to think about the city as a canvas that we invite artists and we do our own work: on the parks, on every place that is open to the public.”

Watch a trailer for the new video series from Passages Israel, "Israel Explored".

Music plays a key part in the life of Jerusalem as well. Ido Shpitalnik, music director of the Jerusalem Street Orchestra, has a vision to enliven his city with the sound of music. His group plays in unusual locations, from the Clal building to light rail stations to a car repair shop, with the hope of breaking down barriers and winning new fans to classical music.

“When we do our street concerts, especially when we do them here in the center of Jerusalem, people see there is a concert, [and] they just stop,” he says. “And the variety of people standing together, having a common, shared experience…They are listening together. This is super important. We are not listening enough, generally, in our lives.”

Art and music meet in Tel Aviv-Yafo. The Florentine neighborhood is home to recording studios, galleries and workshops. Originally built to house the many Jews making aliyah, or immigrating to Israel, the neighborhood is known for its extensive street art and vibrant artistic community.

“I think there’s a kind of edge to the music here, which I really love,” says Yuvi, a music producer who lives and works in Florentine. “Because it’s so small and concentrated, people have to be the best, and they can take it to their limits and be kind of edgy and not really care, because…most likely, they’re not going to be mainstream and…tour around. They can be edgy and loyal to their art.”

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Edginess isn’t the only factor Israeli artists prioritize, however. For Muslala community gardener Ella Gill, it’s also important to nurture and sustain the Jewish community as well. She and her team have created rooftop gardens, where locals come pick apples and enjoy seasonal produce right off the stem – a simple joy that city-dwellers don’t often get to experience.

“We think about it as like creating a gap, creating space in the middle of the city,” she explains. “Because Israel is so dense and so populated and so urbanized, we have to live in cities, [but] we [also] have to have these places.”

Her wise words reflect the ethos of stewardship shared by Israel’s artist community. Knowing how hard-won their freedoms are and how fragile the peace that allows them to create, these visionaries do all they can to spread beauty and speak truth. The result is a thriving arts scene that empowers the country not just to survive, but to thrive.

Encounter Israel’s artists and innovators in more detail through “Israel Explored,” the new travel series from Passages. You can get the entire six-part series at

Watch a trailer for the new video series from Passages Israel, "Israel Explored":

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