Photos by Joshua Shamsi
The annual Beit Shemesh Music Festival held during the Sukkot holiday featured a mix of religious rockers with secular mainstream artists. Highlights this year included mainstream artist Ariel Zilber who performed wearing a kippah (skullcap), and the return of Yishai Lapidot from Oif Simchas.
The two-day concert, which extended from 6:30 PM until midnight on September 30th and October 1st, was attended mainly by teenagers and young adults, including religious American students at boys yeshivas and girls seminaries.
Bet Shemesh is located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It has a substantial population of immigrants from English-speaking countries, many of whom are religious.
“There are all sorts of rock and jazz festivals in Israel,” says Jonty Zwebner, of Tightrope Productions and founder of the festival. “But this one is unique. It’s a major festival featuring Jewish rock and soul,” he adds.
In recent years, Zwebner has brought to the concert secular, mainstream Israeli artists such as Shai Gabso and Shlomo Gronich. This year, Roi Levi and Gilad Shimon of the award-winning reggae/world music group Shotey HaNevua performed.
Zwebner immigrated from Zimbabwe (known as Rhodesia when he lived there) and currently lives in Beit Shemesh. He is responsible for the majority of the Jewish alternative rock productions and manages SoulFarm, Moshav and other groups.
“The genre of the concert stays the same,” says Zwebner. “It’s ‘yehudi’. But there can be secular artists too.”
Zwebner is proud of the dramatic growth of the 8-year-old festival and its ability to spread good vibes. He says this year it attracted more native Israelis in addition to the usual tourists and students. One was as likely to hear English being spoken as Hebrew.
Many people came with baby strollers and toddlers. One man said he had just moved to Beit Shemesh with his family this month from America.
On the lawn of the Beit Shemesh Amphitheater, crowds close to the stage chanted, cheered and danced while others further away picnicked and lay on the grass. A curtain up front separated the men from the women to enable separate dancing for the religious attendees.
The first band to hit the stage was Rockiah, whose members live in Beit Shemesh. Their music was a mix of religious lyrics and hard rock guitars.
Next was American-born Gershon Veroba, a parody musician known for his Jewish versions of top-40 hit songs. He has recently released an album of original music in the Hasidic pop style.
Following on stage was American-born Bei Shemesh resident Lenny Solomon, known for his long-time parody group Shlock Rock. He played selections from his hits and his new solo album Osher V’Other. He was backed by a full band featuring drums, guitars and more. Although Shlock Rock is known for its humor, Solomon’s solo material is on par with the popular Mordechai Ben David and Avraham Fried style of music.
Up next was the duo HaMadregot, backed by a drummer and bassist. The duo, Hod Dayan and Ilan Damri, are Israeli-born musicians who have just released a third album. Their smooth, relaxing and groovy rock sound was well received by the audience. Thoroughly engrossed in the music, lead singer Damri energetically danced on stage with a big, warm smile. During one song, he played a small shofar and jammed an impressive melody.
Veteran performer Chaim David received an enthusiastic welcome. Young people gravitated quickly towards the stage in anticipation of the dancing that Chaim David was to induce. Born is South Africa, David moved to Israel in the 1970s and befriended the members of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band and other godfathers of the Jewish rock genre.
Chaim David opened with Yai Mai Mai, starting the song out slowly, strumming on an acoustic guitar and then building up to a fast pace. The crowd burst out in dance, jumping up and down with their arms in the air. The only words of the wordless song are “yai mai mai.” Chaim David’s other songs were simple, repetitive, and impossibly catchy, several being covers of his mentor, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Even before Shlomo Katz hit the stage, the audience began chanting his name and singing his signature hit, Niggun Neshama, an obscure tune by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The song, which consists of only the words “ay yai yai,” ignited the audience into song and dance, and jumping on each others shoulders. When Katz ended the song, the crowd continued singing it. Katz, who released a solo album and a couple previous albums with his brother Eitan, played several of his own compositions which also received enthusiastic response.
The next performer was the classic Israeli singer Ariel Zilber. Beginning his career in the 1970’s, Zilber has been a staple of mainstream secular Israeli radio with his quirky, piano-laded hits like Tain Lee Koach. With his ever-present smile and big, curly hair, he often talks about the environment and coexistence between segments of Israeli society.
During the struggle to save Gush Katif in 2005, Zilber joined the movement, and moved to the community of Elei Sinai on the edge of the Gaza Strip. Since then he has been performing at religious events as well and writing nationalistic-protest songs.
Zilber wore a kippah and t-shirt. He entertained the audience with his hits and his piano playing. He opened with Mordechai Ben-David’s hit Anachnu Maaminim. He also performed a quirky rap song and, true to his jovial nature, oinked and made other animal sounds to punctuate his lyrics.
The last performer of the evening was Yishai Lapidot. The Sephardic, Israeli-born musician became popular in the 1990’s with the group Oif Simchas which sang traditional Jewish lyrics to fast-paced dance beats. Sporting a red New York Yankees hat and a button down white shirt, Lapidot jumped up and down like a pop star and sang at the stage's edge. The crowd sang along to his Oif Simchas hits and the material from his brand new album, Vaani Hamanginah.
Other activities at the Beit Shemesh festival included family hikes, tours of the neighborhoods, and juggling, music, and dance workshops geared towards families.
Benyamin Bresky is the host of The Beat on Israel National Radio. His music journal can be found at http://www.israelbeat.blogspot.com
Joshua Shamsi is staff photographer at Israel National News. His photo exhibit “Land, Love, Loss” was recently exhibited at the Jerusalem Theater. His work can be viewed at http://www.joshuashamsi.com.