Jerusalem Finding 'Oxygen' In Revival of Creative Arts

Amit Drori, 26, sits in the seats at The Lab, an experimental theater where his production,
Amit Drori, 26, sits in the seats at The Lab, an experimental theater where his production, "Terminal," recently premiered. Drori is part of a cultural revival in the city following years of political violence and stifling religious rules that pushed out many of its artists. "It's a kind of oxygen," he said of the theater. (By Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 19, 2006

JERUSALEM -- The space under the seats of the professional soccer stadium here houses an artist colony, and experimental theater is staged in a rail yard warehouse.

The nation's leading arts academy is returning to the city center after a long exile, and an iconic cinema complex is doubling in size. An animation studio, run by a veteran Hollywood producer, is planned to open in another warehouse in the months ahead.

A halting creative renaissance is taking place in unusual spaces around this ancient city, beset for years by political violence and stifling religious rules that pushed out many of its artists. Now, some of them are returning, while more young graduates of the nation's top art campuses located in these highlands are choosing not to leave for the galleries, theaters and freedoms of Israel's coastal plain.

"Two things are happening here: one, a very, very deep creativity, and also something very avant-garde," said Ofira Henig, the creative director of a three-year-old theater, who moved here a decade ago. "You don't have to be in Tel Aviv for this."

The story of Jerusalem's creative revival is also that of its broader recovery following the devastating years of the most recent Palestinian uprising. Suicide attacks on buses and cafes savaged business, tourism and the venues that supported cultural life -- not to mention the city's spirit. Young people, among them many artists, fled a place that for many already had grown musty with its own history.

Religious Jews with large families and little income filled in the space left behind. The city became more conservative, poor and parochial at a time when international artists and performers were avoiding Jerusalem for reasons of politics and personal safety. The secular exodus sped to Tel Aviv, whose more worldly residents have long looked up the hill to a city they view as stodgy, kitschy and a little weird.

"The main problem of Jerusalem is one of an image that does not reflect reality," said Yigal Amedi, the only one of the city's four deputy mayors who is not a rabbi. "We are determined to change that reputation."

Worried that Jerusalem had begun to feel like a museum, Amedi and others in the municipal government pushed several small programs to keep young people here, including student rent subsidies and a smoother licensing process to make it easier for entrepreneurs to open bars and nightclubs. And the city's ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski, has allowed them to stay open Friday nights, the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

While support from the city has come mainly in the form of a more open mind, it is also making available unused space in the city center and in down-at-the-heels neighborhoods for theaters, galleries, studios and art school campuses, creating its own physical rejuvenation.

The city's art scene now also has an ardent advocate in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, husband of an artist, who invested heavily in cultural projects during his decade as Jerusalem's mayor. Some city officials, disappointed with an overall decline in arts spending here since the end of Olmert's tenure in 2003, plan to hold him to the pledge he made during his recent campaign to "make Israel a country that's fun to live in."

Jerusalem's image as a lovely, if frightening, relic dominated by religious leaders belies the fact that many of Israel's leading cultural institutions are here. The Israel Museum cascades over a central city hilltop, and the Musrara School of Photography is one of the finest in the region.

The Jerusalem Cinematheque, a popular movie house with a vast film archive and classrooms, will close soon for a renovation that will double the size of its complex, which sits across a narrow valley from the walls of the Old City. Graduates from the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School routinely win awards at international film festivals.

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