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JERUSALEM—If the Mahane Yehuda market is the heart of Jerusalem, then the famed Balabasta shuk parties on August nights represent the centerpiece of the city’s Season of Culture lineup.
The Balabasta festival is now in its third year and literally means, “Come to the shop stall.” Koby Frig, the co-artistic director and producer of Balabasta, believes the shuk is not just the place to buy vegetables and mingle with fellow shoppers, but an ideal for what Jerusalem could be.
“I think the market is one of the only places that combines all the citizens of Jerusalem,” Frig, 34, who was born and raised near his grandfather’s and now his father’s spice shop on Ha’egoz Street, and still lives in the shuk’s Nachlaot neighborhood, tells JNS.org earlier this summer at the ROI conference in Jerusalem, where he was a participating fellow. “You can find all different kinds of people that go to the same place and feel that it belongs to them.”
Many places in the city have a name or tag of religious, municipal or private ownership attached to them, he says, but not the market. From a night shuk of music, live art, drinking and eating on Sundays in August (the last one is coming up on the 19th), Frig hopes a feeling of communal ownership and pride, joining Jews, Arabs, Christians and Muslims, will emanate to the rest of the city.
“The vision will go out from the market, from the people, and not from politics and not from the problems between Left and Right and Muslims and Jews,” he says.
Embracing the crowded, lively character of the marketplace, Frig intended for the thousands who have visited Balabasta to continually move—never stopping in front of one art attraction, musical, poetry or dance performance on rooftops and in stalls before them, but rather experiencing a sensory feast and interacting with shop owners along the way.
Balabasta artists worked closely with the local merchants to get ready for the event.
Filmmaker BZ Goldberg opened a studio inside the market, chatted with and filmed shop owners, and has been screening the video in slow motion projection to passersby.
“We hope that in the end he is also working on a film about the market,” says Frig.
Artist Yoram Amir, a former head of the shop owner’s organization, created separate photographic works showing the market 30 years ago and 15 years ago, as well as a display projecting what the shuk will look like in the future.
“He’s really inside the market and one of the lovers of Jerusalem,” Frig says.
Liberty Bell Park’s Train Theater of puppeteers has its own booth for performing its whimsical puppet shows, and Tatata, a Jerusalem-based group run by Adam Yachin that creates giant puppets, has exhibited larger-than-life works.
On one evening guests enjoyed salsa dancing, on another Israeli folk dancing, and on another tango.
Though Arab musicians will perform at Balabasta (the market loves Arab music, he says), Frig recalls the difficulties reaching out to Arab artists from east Jerusalem who do not want to work with the Jerusalem Season of Culture since the municipality supports it. A gap exists between Frig’s vision of Jerusalem and the reality, but he is still optimistic.
While Nachlaot has seen great demographic changes and housing prices rise over the years, he maintains that the narrow streets’ essence is the same—that very different kinds of people can still live and work together to improve their neighborhood. He remembers that when his daughter was nearing the age to start kindergarten and there was no school to send her to, residents on the neighborhood council joined together with the municipality to create one.
“We’re not just leaving it to happen, because it won’t happen. We create it,” he says.
Showcasing local artists who will strengthen and grow Jerusalem’s art scene is Frig’s primary goal in Balabasta. He dreams of students graduating from the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem and then staying in the capital and being able to make a living through art.
This goes hand in hand with the city’s need for affordable housing and job creation for all residents.
As one of the founders of Waking Up, a political party in the city aiming to revitalize Jerusalem socially and culturally, Frig says the social justice movement that swept Israel last summer is far from new, having begun in the capital four or five years ago.
“I think Jerusalem is a kind of microcosm of the country,” he says. “Things happen here before they happen in the rest of the country. For us as people from Jerusalem it can be hard, but it’s also good because we know how to deal with it when the others are still panicking.”
Frig describes himself as an activist for culture. He first got started in the Balabasta business after he made a name for himself planning Purim parties at night in the shuk. He recalls that during the first one five or six years ago, the police shut down the party even though he had the proper city license.
“That’s how it started with me being an activist for culture,” he says. “That’s what I do.”