“You are the new Israel! I have never seen anything like this,” the Tel Aviv DJ tells the crowd on the wooded Gush Etzion hilltop. Festival-goers, a fusion of biblically garbed hilltop youth, Jerusalem hipsters and post-India searchers, scream back: “Thank you! We love you too!”

The compliment was particularly appreciated as it came from Gilad Shimon, a member of the band Shotei HaNevua (The Fools of Prophecy), one of Israel’s top rock bands, wildly popular among the country’s secular youth.

DJ Gilad Shimon of Shotei HaNevuah

Roi Levi (right), of Shotei HaNevuah

“I’ve come to the Aharit HaYamim [End of Days] festival for three years now,” says Roni, a dread-locked star famous on Israel’s reggae scene. “Two years ago, the festival took place during the Disengagement period. It was smaller; subdued, but with an intense energy. Last year, it was during the Second Lebanon War, and nobody knew what was going to be with our country. This year, it seems like our situation is even worse, but strange things are happening. There is a great and mighty spirit in the air and we all feel it here tonight.” This year's festival took place on July 1, the 16th of Tammuz.

Roni, one of Israel's reggae mainstays

The crowd was larger and more animated than ever before. Tents dotted the forest and a large chai-shop and dining area replicated the relaxed atmosphere many had savored after their army service, during travels in India.

“Sitting under a fig tree, looking toward Jerusalem, when will the Shechina [Divine Presence] return, it’s been 2,000 years?…How did she [Jerusalem – ed.] sit in desolation, the splendorous city? And you, what are each of you doing? In this whole story – what are you doing so that Jerusalem is rebuilt?”

Aharit HaYamim's Rafael Bar-Katz

The words, some original, others a mix of metaphors from Psalms and Lamentations, echo across the forested hilltop, itself a destroyed community being rebuilt through the annual festival. It is organized by Yehuda Leuchter and his brothers on the site their grandparents, Yoni and Rachel Doron, lived prior to the founding of the state. “It has been 59 years since our little community was destroyed and we were taken into captivity by the Jordanians,” Rachel Doron says, taking the stage between songs. “But it has also been 40 years since we returned to Gush Etzion and we are overcome with joy at seeing this place so alive.”

Yoni and Rachel Doron, who lived in Massuot Yitzchak until it was destroyed in the 1948 War of Independence

The stage can be seen with ruins of Massuot Yitzchak in the foreground, a grape vine growing through one of the broken windows

This year’s was the eight annual Aharit HaYamim festival. Leuchter, who headlines both the festival and the redemption-reggae group by the same name, says this year marked a transformation of the festival. “We felt this year that it had finally become a permanent yearly festival – that nobody can ever break down. It is now standing and if we take it to the right places with the right minds, we can bring it to the whole world.”

Yehuda Leuchter

An ambitious goal? That is what Aharit HaYamim’s members say the band is all about. They have already effortlessly been scooped up by Israel’s biggest record label, Hed Arzi, who is distributing and promoting their music without demanding any creative control of the wildly eclectic band.

Leuchter’s dream has always been to bring together two disparate forces among young-people in Israel. On the one hand there are the post-India residents of the coastal plain, living between music festivals such as Boombamela, Shantipi and Bereshit – where local and foreign music, culture and religions are showcased and a laid back ‘shanty’ atmosphere is created beside the Mediterranean or Sea of Galilee. On the other side, there are the young people born and raised in Judea and Samaria, who have broken out of the established communities and taken to the hilltops, establishing agricultural farms, shepherding and generally setting out toward their biblical roots, bringing guitars and drums with them on pilgrimages to Israel’s various holy sites and tombs in relation to the year’s cycle.

Aharit HaYamim has been playing in Tel Aviv’s venues as well as bringing their Jerusalem street scene to major thoroughfares such as Sheinken Street. There they sing their songs, with words of a blossoming Biblical Israel and imminent, attainable unity. Until they were picked up by Hed Arzi, they were selling their CDs like hotcakes with almost no effort or distribution system. Once a year, they invite “all of Israel” to join them on their “home-court” – the middle of the Massuot Yitzchak forest, surrounded by natural springs, fruit-laden mulberry trees and acres of apricot orchards and vineyards.

Sheinken is slowly following them over the Green Line and into the forest. “Ehud and Meir Banai both said they want to come, but the date conflicted this year,” Leuchter said, dropping the name of Israel’s ‘Clapton’ and ‘Dylan,’ as they have been called. “And Gilad and Roi [Shimon and Levi, of Shotei HaNevua –ed.] said on stage and afterward that they hope to bring the whole band next year.”

Leuchter’s dream is not a gigantic festival like those held over the holidays on Israel’s beaches and national parks. “It is to have everybody feel they belong there. This year there really were both hareidi and secular Jews there. The performers are on a stage with no barrier, so anyone can approach and start a conversation or shake their hand.”

One man who was the subject of much hand-shaking was Rabbi Michi Yosefi, a resident of the hilltop community of Yishuv HaDaat, near Shilo. Yosefi established the string of open houses for Israeli and Jewish travelers in India, which he called simply “Bayit Yehudi” (Jewish House). There are now almost a dozen such houses operational, with families, mosly from Judea and Samaria, manning the houses, providing kosher food, a Sabbath meal and lessons on Jewish spirituality to travelers far from home.

Yosefi spoke between two of the acts, sitting calmly on stage as hilltop rocker Sinai Tor strummed a guitar in the background. Two of the rabbi’s kids sit beside him on the stage, used to being surrounded by attention from running the Bayit Yehudi.

Rabbi Michi Yosefi speaks as musician Sinai Tor strums in the background

Mincha, the afternoon prayer

Leuchter backs up Aharon Razel

One of the headliners, the first act to perform at the festival from overseas, was Y-Love and DJ Handler. Y-Love, a black convert, is a hareidi-religious hip-hop artist. He received a warm reception from the crowd. “That was my first time playing such a festival,” Y-Love told Israel National Radio’s Ben Bresky on his weekly show, The Beat. “It was absolute insanity. Crazy people dancing around and everything - but geared towards more of a ruchani (spiritual) type of feel.”

A son plays near his father's homemade wine, which he sells to interested parties

A man hold's a shofar made from an Ibex's horn

Y-Love and Handler recalled that during one of the rapper’s Aramaic songs, some Breslav hassidim covered themselves in their prayer shawls in front of the stage. “They started davening (praying) in front of the stage acting like it was Yom Kippur or something,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better reception from that festival.”

The two artists will be touring with Aharit HaYamim in the US in October.

Ron Wiseman, the ‘Jewish King of Reggae,’ also took the stage, singing a song called “Bring the Children Home,” which asks “Is there anyone among the nation who could lead this generation and bring the children home once again?” Shofar-carrying merry-makers echo and harmonize with the sounds of performers – many of whom made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) from a dozen countries across the globe. All were gathered just outside Jerusalem all through the night - calling the rest of the children home.

R' Ezra Amichai of the Jerusalem Soul Center

Yehuda Leuchter and Rabbi Michi Yosefi speaking at the festival

A man sells "mystical brain Arak"

A booth selling books by and based on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav

A booth selling homemade pottery

Instructions for use of the ecological toilets ("Eco-friendly also means consideration for the next person who will use them...")

"Don't Worry, Be Jewish"

The city of Beitar Illit can be seen in the distance

"It is a great mitzva to always be joyful"

(Photos: Ezra HaLevi)
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