Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Koolulam: Startup Nation meets Secular Prayer

One place to start this story would be the dark years of the 2nd Intifada, when Israelis tried to leave their homes as little as possible because visiting supermarkets, riding busses and walking down the street were all life-threatening activities. Jerusalem was perhaps worst-hit of all, and people from the rest of the country stopped coming. Then, as the security forces figured out how to block the suicide murderers, life slowly returned to normal. In Jerusalem a new phenomenon appeared, with thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of regular Israelis traveling there on the hot summer nights of August and September to participate in tours of old neighborhoods, synagogues, then finishing late at night at the large open square in front of the Western Wall, the Kotel. The highpoint of these pilgrimages are the final nights before Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar; in recent years the number of people cramming onto that square easily surpasses a quarter million each night, and their cumulative number exceeds 1.5 million. Once they're there, they sing slichot – medieval texts asking God's forgiveness. All together. Like this.

In early 2017 Or Teicher, a secular Israeli producer, saw that clip and wondered if he could bring together ordinary Israelis, strangers to each other, and get them to sing together with some sort of fervor. So he tried. He collected some talented people around him, they collected 400 people in Tel Aviv, and on April 15th 2017 they sung together. Here, watch them:

On September 7th 2017, as the Jewish High Holidays approached, they collected 600 people in Jerusalem. Their technique was getting better, and it was a smashing success:

On December 17th 2017 they gathered 600 mostly secular Israelis in Tel Aviv and sang about believing, in English. Another roaring success.

There's logistics in there, and organizational ability on multiple levels. There's musical creativity in spades. The cameras turn a crowd into a sea of identifiable and fascinating people with faces. And of course, there's that astonishingly charismatic young man with the dreadlocks who pulls everyone into a seamless many-layered choir in a single hour, even as most of them have never previously sung a single chord with the others. So they upped their ante. On Jan. 1st 2018, they organized 2,000 people in a gigantic tent in Tel Aviv, and proved the model worked with larger numbers, too.

On February 14th 2018 they pulled together 3,000 people in Haifa, and sang Matisyahu's One Day in three languages, Arabic English and Hebrew. If you haven't been paying attention, concentrate on the faces, their diversity, and of course, their intensity:

Later that week was International Women's Day, so they had an event by and for women only, 2,000 of them. The endlessly energetic Ben Yeffet, not being a woman, wasn't there. They all had a great time.

They have no website, if you're wondering, and no swanky marketing operation. They're propelled by the excitement they're generating, as ever broader swathes of Israeli society take notice of this new cultural phenomenon sprouting among us; they announce their next events on a Facebook page.

On April 2nd 2018 they tried something new, with 7,500 people singing simultaneously in five different cities: Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Dimona, Rishon Lezion, and Kiryat Motzkin. The genius was adding Kiryat Motzkin, a scruffy town no-one has ever even heard of unless they live there; it turns out the locals know how to sing as well as everyone else.

Then they turned deeply serious. For Yom Hashoah in April 2018 they collected dozens of Holocaust survivors and three generations of their descendants, and together they prayed Ofra Haza's song I'm Alive. If you can watch this one without being moved to tears, you're a lost case.

This week (April 16th 2018) they unveiled their largest event so far: 12,000 people, joined by Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, singing Naomi Shemer's immortal paean to the beauty and wonder of this flawed land we live in. If this isn't a new form of mass devotion, I don't know what might be.


Kai Seyffarth said...

Yaacov, you made my day. Thank you so much.
Yours, Kai


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Yaacov. I watch these videos & read your text, and I think "Israel will be just fine."

Paul M