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The fall of the house of Herzl: Israel as a horror flick

Horror films are often centered around a house: a safe haven. But they are also a place of danger and sometimes a monster in and of themselves. To Israelis, the Jewish state can play all three roles.  

An Israeli poster for “The Grudge 2,” which conveys with mysterious accuracy Minister Naftali Bennet’s horror at the idea of two states. (Courtesy of Ghost House Pictures)

Last week my girlfriend Ruthie came up with a scary idea: “Why don’t we start watching classic horror films together?” she asked.

This would of course be a perfect remedy for a couple suffering from a decline in intimacy: a lack of clinging to one another. I assure you that we have no need for that. We simply love cinema. Ruthie asked online for suggestions, and soon we headed on our roller coaster of chills. The first film we watched was Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the second: Italian cult classic “Supriria.”

Through all the screams and slashing scenes, I found myself thinking a lot about politics. Here’s the true curse of living in this haunted land: we can’t get politics out of our heads even when the zombies break into the house and reach directly to the throat of the pretty blonde. Why would we? We are made to believe that we live in this house. Ehud Barak called Israel “a villa in the jungle,” aka, an outpost of humanity besieged by wild beasts. Horror cinema is all about stirring anxieties, and this exactly what our politicians do for a living. Israeli society is suffering en-masse from a state of PTSD, a state which our leaders preserve rather than heal, keeping us dependant on their promise of military protection. Last week I heard Netanyahu say on the radio: “The Palestinians don’t only want the West Bank, they want Jaffa, Ashdod and Haifa.” His tone was taken straight out of the radio and television broadcasts in “Night of the Living Dead.”

American horror cinema is indeed borne of political anxieties. The plot of “Night of the Living Dead” incorporates many of the fears experienced by Cold War American society: the fear of nuclear holocaust, the fear of “red” society, in which individuals lose their identity, even the uncertainty of where racial politics...

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Israel's control over movement, reflected by a local artist

May Castelnuovo presents a visual representation of 101 things, at which we would rather not look.  

Photo by Meitar Moran

As the crow flies, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design is situated less than one kilometer from the separation wall. Indeed, the crow need not even fly from Israel’s most prestigious art school to the questionable concrete barrier; it can mosey there at ease.

Within Bezalel, one finds the typical Israeli mix of art that concerns itself with local realities and that which stubbornly ignores them. This post is dedicated to one work of the first category, presented only last week by a student at Bezalel’s photography department. I am sharing it for two reasons. First, it is the work of a dear friend, who is also a recent creative partner and +972 contributor. May Castelnuovo is responsible for the photography and film footage of “Last Metro to Taksim,” a five part exploration of protest-Istanbul.

Second, while professedly a rudimentary experiment, it is an enormously educational piece of art. It is made up of permits – permits necessary for movement, permits for crossing the wall. The crow may fly right over it, but it traps men and women. Many Palestinians never get a permit to cross the separation barrier and go into Israel. For those who do, Israel issues 101 kinds of permits: only for Jerusalem, only for a specific hospital in Jerusalem, only for daylight hours, for all hours, for a few hours, etc., etc.

The permit policy can be described as a form of bureaucratic violence, or at least a tool of intimidation. Palestinians receive no information about how to qualify for a permit. One permit expires, and the next offers entirely different liberties, for no apparent reason. The printers at Kafka’s castle work overtime.

Like the wall itself, the policy is presented as a security measure. It is, however, a dubious one. On one fine day last August, Israel experimented with relaxing this policy and lavishly issued nearly 300,000 permits, drawing multitudes of Palestinians to Mediterranean beaches. No violent incidents were recorded that day. The meager value of this gross infringement on human rights was clearly displayed, and yet the experiment has not yet been repeated.

Castelnuovo sought to obtain...

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Yoram Kaniuk - the last great Zionist

“I know that a Jewish state can only be a dream,” Yoram Kaniuk once told me, “but I want to have my dream.” This literary giant and eternal dreamer passed away last night (Saturday) at the age of 83, and an important critical and humanist voice fell silent in this land.

The dream of Israel is one for which Tel Aviv-born Kaniuk nearly gave his life at the age of 17. He lied about his age in order to join the Palmach Brigades and was shot in the leg on the slopes of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion. Six decades later, having finally reached his renown as one of Hebrew literature’s most powerful voices, he told the tale of that war. His book, 1948, is not only a stray from the typical Zionist narrative, it is honest, irreverent and eye opening.

Kaniuk was a quintessential Israeli “sabra.” He was certainly a Zionist, in that he felt the Jewish nation would have no future without a home. Still, he was concerned for the wellbeing of every soul on this soil and frowned at the Israeli Right’s abduction of Zionism. His understanding of the term was miles apart from that which is common in contemporary Israel. “Our Zionism was on the coast,” he told me in another conversation. “When we dreamed of a state here, Jerusalem was not meant to be a part of it, never mind the West Bank and Gaza.”

The Kaniukian middle way may seem contrived to some, but in today’s Israel it is revolutionary. Kaniuk rejected the world view of Messianic religious Zionism, which combines Zionism as an existential solution — a life-saving project — with biblical context and extreme nationalism, a mix that permits inequality and atrocities. He was active in the struggle to secure the right of return for the refugees of Iqrit and Bir’im and cooperated with Palestinian intellectuals long before it was considered “acceptable” behavior. His disdain for mixing synagogue and state played out most powerfully in 2012, when he successfully appealed to remove “Jewish” from the “religion” clause in his Israeli ID card. To this day, he is the only Israeli to have achieved that feat.

He who molds reality with his own hands knows it can be formed into anything. Kaniuk’s reading of Jewish history — and particularly...

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Last Metro to Taksim, part 5: The siege of Constantinople

A night that is almost too calm turns violent, then calm again, and then comes the day to make conclusions. Photography by May Castelnuovo.

Click here for the full series. 

It’s 2 a.m. when we arrive back to Istanbul from Bursa. Istiklal Avenue is busier than at noon. Street musicians are everywhere, many playing “Bella Ciao,” the struggle’s adopted anthem. On our first day here, hearing it played in the square was a thrill. It took three days for it to become a chewed-up hit.

Even here, with all these people about, the spirit of the struggle seems less than invincible. Young folk have their photo taken by a graffiti potrait of Erdoğan, as though this were Disneyland and he Mickey Mouse. We are standing across from the now-repaired Pizza Hut restaurant’s windows, at the very spot where carnage caught us off guard the morning we arrived. Now it’s a different sort of damage that shakes us.

Just as cynicism takes over, there comes the burning sensation and Disneyland is forgotten. The barricades in Beşiktaş were again so badly gas-bombed that the entire Taksim district is in agony. Once more, things seem “real.” In more than one way, it is the police that keep the movement’s momentum alive.

Once the pollution recedes, we descend toward Beşiktaş, to the barricade where we were pepper-gassed the night before. Instead of a battle, we find an argument. Some of the activists favor descending down the dark street — the no-man’s land where I got burned by the gas canister — and “provoking” the police again. Others prefer to maintain a peaceful hold of the high ground. A girl interrupts excitedly, saying something about a camera and photos. It takes us a while to figure the camera in question is ours. She wants the keepers of the barricade to stand together for a group photo.

This may be the most wonderful, and at the same time most discouraging photo of the entire journey. They are here, so many of them. They control of the very heart of the city of 18 million souls. They are young and proud, and they are posing. They...

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Last Metro to Taksim, part 4: The expedition

It’s time to take a look around and see what’s happening off the square, way off the square. Photography by May Castelnuovo.

Click here for the full series. 

ISTANBUL/BURSA, Turkey — On the day we arrived, the metro station at Taksim Square was closed. The following day was a Monday. We took the train into town expecting to alight at least one station north of the square. To our surprise, the train went all the way to Taksim. The station was open and we emerged from it with our first sense of normality.

It wasn’t the normal kind of normality. For one, there was a car burning right outside the station, in broad daylight.

But the street-food stalls returned to the square following their weekend break and an overall sense of routine could be felt. Order had been established: The protest movement was in Taksim. The police were in Beşiktaş, and the rest of the city went about its normal business. Daytime is about dancing, nighttime about crying; stuffed clams are yummy, and so is köfte.

Down on Istiklal, we did witness something unique: a march of Istanbul’s lawyers protesting the use of gas.

This was indeed moving. But by now, on the dawn of our third day, the situation began to seem a bit stagnant. Meanwhile, we are told that other cities are not nearly as relaxed. Last night Ebu Zer showed us a clip filmed in Ankara. In it, a woman is heard begging the police not to gas her residential neighborhood where children are sleeping and older residents suffer from lung ailments. Her plea is not respected. Izmir is said to be the scene of much turmoil, and in Antakya one demonstrator was shot dead.

It’s time to leave Istanbul and we choose the city of Bursa as our destination. It has been the setting of several demonstrations in previous days and is located only three hours away, which would allow us to return swiftly should the police enter Taksim. In the hot afternoon, we board a ferry and head out across the mavi (blue) Marmara Sea.

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Last Metro to Taksim, part 3: Enter night

The Istanbul team heads into the clouds of gas. It starts off pretty well. Photography by May Castelnuovo

Click here for the full series. 

ISTANBUL — On Sunday night, newly reunited after the lost kidney scare, May and I went to dine with two compatriots. One was Or Heller, Channel 10′s man, whom we tried to reach earlier, and Anshel Pfeffer, who reports here for Haaretz. I bit into the delicious Adana köfte and thought of Ruthie, who loves Istanbul so much, and would have come here if not for her work. What should I bring her when I return? Adana doesn’t travel well, and anyway she’s a vegetarian except for when she travels.

Thank Goodness for Anshel, who came up with an idea that may provide a nice solid memento: a tear gas canister. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’m headed for Beşiktaş. Here everything is so sweet, there – the police are present. There are clashes.”

I did know about me. I wasn’t coming. Ebu Zer and Soner are hosting us and I promised them we would arrive before 10:30, but May’s eyes were agleam. She wanted those shots. How to argue with a creative spirit? I conceded, but warned that we would only stay for half an hour.

The street outside the restaurant was full of relaxed tourists and the buzz of restaurant hosts trying to lure them in. Nothing at all betrayed that two blocks away was a graveyard of overturned police vehicles. We emerged out of the hotel district, skirted the overturned cars and continued downhill, towards the Bosphorus shores and the Dolmabahçe Palace, a grand piece of Ottoman waterfront property, in which Erdoğan has an office.

On the hillside rising above the palace is the famous football stadium of Beşiktaş. As we approached, eyes already teary, we saw that stadium being taken apart before our eyes. Demonstrators were tearing off fences and other elements of its exterior.

A cloud of teargas loomed past them at the foot of the hill. We descended as far as we could amongst the hordes of young, masked rebels but were chased back again and again by the torturous sensation.


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Last Metro to Taksim, part 2: Day

Two Israelis out to explore Istanbul’s awakening are joined by two locals, or rather by 200,000 locals, and for a dance, no less. Yet they find themselves lost in memories of home, then simply lost. Photography by May Castelnuovo.

Click here for the full series. 

ISTANBUL — We are at “The Kebap” restaurant, near Taksim square, right where we left off and with a great view of the Bosphorus. Now noises rise from the street outside. Young people are climbing from the ferry port of Kabatas: suburban kids from the Asian side. While at noon the ravaged square played home to a thin gathering of oddballs and hardcore types, the afternoon promises to be different.

When we return to the square, it is already buzzing with festive spirit. Two good friends come to meet us here. Soner and Ebu Zer hosted my girlfriend Ruthie and me on Couchsurfing two years ago. Ebu Zer is a student of mineral processing and Soner just concluded his studies in the field of shipbuilding. They take us down a staircase inscribed with graffiti accusing the ruling party of Zionism, into the garden of Eden – Gezi Park in the afternoon. It is full of handsome young men like themselves and beautiful girls, all of them relaxed, happy, inspired by hope.

One of these girls takes Ebu Zer’s left pinky finger. Another takes my right pinky. Ebu Zer explains that this is how villagers hold hands to dance in the Black Sea region. A circle forms around a man who plays some very strange version of the bag pipe, the Turkish tulum, and another, who films everything on a cellphone. A third man, standing in the circle, sings out cautions and backhanded compliments aimed at Erdoğan. The dancers repeat them cheerfully.

Here, Erdoğan isn’t called Erdoğan. He’s called by his middle name, Tayyip, a choice that reflects lack of respect. I can’t help but thinking of our prime minister, known by his nickname, Bibi. Tayyip and Bibi, foes though they may be, do share a lot, and so do their opposers. When we first stepped back into the square, the sense of déjà vu for Tel Aviv of 2011 was so strong that...

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Last Metro to Taksim, part 1: Among the debris

When two Israelis pop over to experience a neighboring country’s revolution, they get their first glimpse of graffiti, in the full sense of the word. Photographs by May Castelnuovo (click to magnify in a new tab).

Click here for the full series. 

ISTANBUL – Nothing seems strange at first, Istanbul does seem atypically sleepy and empty on arrival, but then, it is a Sunday morning. The sense of normality persists on the way up the hill that cradles the historical district of Beyoglu. Even at the top, a few blocks away from Taksim square, it is only disturbed by a chemical stench, not unlike that of acetone.

I don’t think much of that smell at first, nor of the ruckus of service vehicles, traveling up elegant Istiklal avenue. I simply think of them as a nuisance. Go on, morning cleaners, come and part and leave the street to pedestrians and cute historical trams.

But hold on. This really is acetone, or turpentine, or some other paint diluter. Tankers full of it are driving up Istiklal to clean off graffiti.

There is plenty of graffiti here, some of it proposing police posts be used as public restrooms, others comparing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to one of various fascist leaders or to a mangy dog. I have never seen anything remotely similar on Tel Aviv’s streets, not even on the hottest days of that summer in 2011. Should we have vandalized? Would we have gone further? Will the Turks?

The rage grows more and more colorful, more and more bold, as we advance up the street. Last night the police finally withdrew from Taksim Square, leaving it to the protesters. And the protesters took it. The further we walk, the more diverse are the signs of anarchy. Trash is strewn everywhere, mixed with the sorry remains of shop windows. At one corner is a black bank. It was burned down to the ground. At another, a Pizza Hut restaurant was destroyed. Corn and cabbage cover the floor, mixed into a fresh salad along with hundreds of advertising leaflets and the tiny splinters of what once was a table. At the...

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Sailing on a wave of racism: A nautical tale

When a pleasant tour of the Sea of Galilee turns into a display of potentially deadly racism, life becomes even more complicated for an Israeli representative.

Peter Brueghel The Elder’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (Wikimedia Commons)

It was a gorgeous day to be on the water, and the water itself was gorgeous. The Sea of Galilee, stroked by springtime winds, overlooked by mountains with names as beautiful as the slopes themselves: Arbel, Golan, Jabel Ash-Sheikh, Mt. Canaan.

Our group was made up mostly of American tourists. There were two Israelis, myself being one, and one Palestinian. This tour of the Holy Land is given by Mejdi, which offers dual narrative tours of the entire country. I accompany the group in the role of the Israeli, which means I must let go of much of my critical bias and reflect diverse viewpoints, including that of both the Israeli mainstream and of the Right. It’s an acquired skill, but it’s doable (especially in this kind weather), in a landscape I identify with peaceful kibbutzim and delicate Hebrew poetry. With so many things that are beautiful about the Israeli identity.

So we stepped off the dock of Kibbutz Ginosar and on board the King David, a boat that carries tourists and pilgrims on pleasure trips over the fabled Sea of Galilee. We have had a fine morning, wandering through the ancient remains at Tel-Dan and Banias, exploring Capernaum and enjoying St. Peter’s fish at a waterfront restaurant. We spoke of Syria and Lebanon, of the wars of recent decades, of the bomb shelters in Qiryat Shmona, of Tel-Chai and the tale of early Zionism in the region. Now was time to catch the breeze and enjoy a place of great beauty and spirit.

The wind’s caress turned rougher. The lake was choppier than I have ever seen it. The King David, designed to resemble the boats of first century fishermen, was big and steady, but other vessels suffered. Soon we saw two heads bobbing over the water, about half a cable to starboard. Closer to us, the lake’s ripples cradled a vacant jet ski. Clearly the two, who appeared to be wearing life vests, fell off their jet ski, were swept away, and needed our help, but we...

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Shalom, tower. A visit to Tel Aviv's historic skyscraper

In the innocent year of 1909, a new Jewish neighborhood was established on the outskirts of Jaffa. A modest crossing of two streets, it was designed according to distinctly secular Jewish values. At its focal point, just north of the intersection stood not a synagogue but a high school. It was an elaborate, romantic structure. Its facade featured two columns representing Boaz and Yachin, the pillars of Solomon’s Temple.

Jewish culture had always centered around education, and the Zionist founders of Tel Aviv believed that so would the new Jewish society they were helping to establish. Fast forward 50 years, and the high school was torn down. The State of Israel, a decade old at the time, was priding itself on progress, and progress manifested as a skyscraper: 120 meters and 34 stories tall, the tallest tower in the Middle East, with the street was directly beneath it, forming a futuristic automotive underpass. The broader lower floors featured a wax museum, a public library and a department store. The roof over them bore an entire amusement park, while the tower’s top floor offered a popular observatory.

The Shalom Meir Tower was named after the father of its two developers, brothers Morderchai and Moshe Meir. Soon it is became commonly known simply as the Shalom Tower. I pass by it almost every day without thinking much about it. The sixties are over. Loftier towers rise over central Tel Aviv. The wax museum closed down years ago. No longer may visitors to the first Hebrew city witness its strangest exhibit: a wax reenactment of Charles Manson and the Family murdering Sharon Tate and her dinner company. “Meirland” was disassembled, ferris wheels and all.

Penn, Rovina and Shlonsky on display

Last night, for some reason, I mentioned that ferris wheel. I was passing underneath the tower with my girlfriend, Ruthie, and found myself looking up to where it once stood, all colorful and hopeful. “You got to see the Shalom Tower at its days of glory,” she said, “I was too young. Even the department store was gone when I first came to Tel Aviv from the South.”

She’s right, I thought, I was witness to history. We speak of the demolished high school as history. Its silhouette is today the...

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Stepping over the line by accident: Still possible, ever more disturbing

A stroll west of West Jerusalem can lead to a surprising discovery, confronting the casual walker with various layers of the Palestinian tragedy.

A view of Jerusalem from a village trapped between an invisible border and a real separation barrier. (photo: Yuval Ben-Ami)

I just finished an ordeal at the Knesset. The next thing on the agenda was a long phone call, one that would last for at least an hour. Instead of walking about West Jerusalem for an hour, I decided to begin heading west on foot.

The brisk winter day was gorgeous. Beneath me, past the last row of city blocks, lay the gulley separating West Jerusalem from a ridge of lofty hills to the west. The slopes were made green by the season’s blessed rains. If I climbed down, then up again, I would arrive at the suburb of Mevaseret Zion, where busses stop on their way to Tel Aviv.

I found a street that turns into a trail and headed down, soon arriving at the abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta. Unlike many other villages that were emptied in 1948 and later destroyed, this one remains nearly intact. Lately, it narrowly escaped being replaced with a posh residential complex for Jewish Israelis. Walking among the crumbling stone buildings is a sad experience, but I could at least comfort myself in that Lifta remains as a monument.

While speaking leisurely on the phone, I crossed to the other ridge and began climbing a slope that I thought would lead me to Mevaseret Zion and to the bus. It did not.

The houses atop the hill were not lined along neatly planned streets, as they would be in Mevaseret. Instead, homes were freely scattered along badly paved roads, some of them were new, others – as old as those of Lifta. This was a Palestinian village, and various signs told me that it was not Palestinian-Israeli, such as nearby Abu Ghosh. The roads really were in a very poor shape, and the roofs bore black water tanks, rather than the white ones typical in Israel.

How could this be? I have been walking west from West Jerusalem. I am supposed to be in Israel proper, in the “Jerusalem corridor” – sandwiched between the north and south...

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My people, who say yes to death

Guernica Mural in Pais Vasco, Spain. (photo: Zarateman / Wikimedia Commons)

A survey conducted in Gaza this September showed that a majority of its residents would prefer Fatah to Hamas if elections were held. Early this month President Mahmoud Abbas spoke again of a two state solution and even hinted at compromising on the right of return.

What could Israel do in light of this but start a war? Israel can’t deal with peace. It has become a war machine, and I’m not referring only to its over-militant decision makers and those who take their orders. Decades of media bias and dogmatic education managed to turn its citizens into a blinded mob that always support violence: today’s Haaretz poll shows 84 percent back the current offensive. A foreign television crew with which I work interviewed passersby today on the situation in Gaza. “We know they die by the score there,” one Tel Aviv resident told the camera, “It’s not that we don’t know. We just don’t care.”

Of course Palestinians can be extremely militant and violent. You would be too, after decades of enslavement, and if you believe you could overcome such wrath, well then, you’d be like the majority of Palestinians. As for Hamas, I am not fond of them one bit — notice this piece begins with my faith in a survey that showed it weakening. The thing is, it is (or was, until recent events) weakening.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Right is only becoming more powerful. True, it lies, diverts attention, misinforms and uses fear-mongering to gain power and support. The media effectively dehumanizes Palestinians and fosters our sense of victimhood, and the media is run by powerful people with links to Jerusalem high brass, but the simple people have heads on their shoulders and hearts in their chests. They too share responsibility. We have all been failed by the Israelis in recent days, again, all of us – the world, the Israeli Left, and especially the Palestinians.

The Israeli Left does still exist, and bravely struggles in the face of mounting de-legitimization, but it may finally be declared too small to count. Now that Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch expressed full support for Netanyahu and Barak’s actions, only the tiny Meretz party...

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LISTEN: 'Kiss My (Arse), Lieberman' - Israel's first full protest album

I’d be very surprised if any of you recall a post I published here last December. I was showing off my version of an Irish protest song from the 1980. The original refrain, penned by Irish songsmith John Maguire runs as such: “Hey Ronnie Reagan / I’m black and I’m pagan / I’m gay and I’m left and I’m free.” My girlfriend Ruthie and I applied the tune to a local politician, our staunchly anti-democratic, openly racist Foreign Minister Avigdor “Ivet” Lieberman, and were stunned to see it go viral on YouTube.

Since then, another protest tune recorded in our living room made waves. I put a particularly crass Facebook remark, addressed to “all leftists,” to music. Sung to a happy tune, its wishes of seeing us all raped by Palestinians, Sudanese refugees and elephants turned into a commentary on the common discourse in this country. The song has been viewed on YouTube 26,525 times so far.

Then the new elections were called, and Netanyahu and Lieberman merged their parties to form a right-wing bloc. Finally it seemed inevitable: an album had to be produced, and it had to be titled after its original hit tune: “Shak li, Ivet” – “Kiss My (Arse), Lieberman.”

The album was a bit of an experimental feat, since no such work has ever been produced here. Much greater talents then I have recorded Israeli protest songs, from Hava Alberstein to the Biluyim. The latter came closest to dedicating an entire album solely to the murky realities of Israeli politics and the occupation, but “Kiss My (Arse), Lieberman” demands to go a step further. Speaking on IDF Radio on Tuesday, critic Guy Tene was generous enough to credit it as being such an achievement. “It will undoubtedly prove a stepping stone in the history of Israeli music, “he said, adding that the album “is an unprecedented phenomenon in the Israeli discourse.” I was naturally thrilled.

Click here to listen or download “Shak li, Ivet”

The budget for the project was zero shekels. All musicians participated pro bono, as did Hadas Reshef who painted the iconic cover, and producer Yaron Fishman. Although the album features many translations, nearly all of the album’s tunes are sung in Hebrew. Only one, a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Songs,” is performed in English alongside...

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