newsJewish & Israeli Culture

Arts festival encourages New Yorkers to meet the Israeli artist next door

The Israeli Artists Project hopes that the Stav Festival, which affords “a picture of Israeli culture outside the lens of politics and religion,” will become an annual event.

From the stage production, “Best Friends,” part of the Stav Festival in New York City from Sept. 28 through Oct. 29, 2023. Photo by Ohad Kab.
From the stage production, “Best Friends,” part of the Stav Festival in New York City from Sept. 28 through Oct. 29, 2023. Photo by Ohad Kab.

There are cities within cities, and then there is the kibbutz currently in the heart of the Big Apple.

A month-long new event in New York City, the Stav Festival, features theater, music, art exhibitions, comedy, children’s sing-alongs and workshops that range from belly dancing to drawing and painting. It began on Sept. 28 and runs until Oct. 29 at the 14th Street Y. 

The Israeli Artists Project, which is sponsoring the festival of local Israeli artists, intends it to become an annual occurrence.

Yoni Vendriger, the founder and CEO of the Israeli Artists Project, told JNS that he had a film production background and started dabbling in theater after he took acting classes. He came to conceptualize the audience he intended for the festival after an Israeli playwright approached him with an English-translated version of an original Israeli play, “Scoop,” which explores how far people will go for their loved ones in the face of tough moral dilemmas.

After meeting with Israeli actors in New York, Vendriger said that the play presented in both English and Hebrew, a key dual target audience.

“We purposely did it in Hebrew for Israelis and English for non-Israelis, but even for that first play, we knew we needed to create an organization, bringing in local art, artists and actors,” he said. “From the get-go, we wanted to make it inclusive for all types of performing visual arts and artists.”

From the stage production, “Best Friends,” part of the Stav Festival in New York City from Sept. 28 through Oct. 29, 2023. Photo by Ohad Kab.

A home stage

One of the major internal goals is to build “a home and a stage” for local Israelis and their work, Vendriger told JNS. 

The festival, whose name means “autumn,” is the project’s most ambitious production to date.

“We’ve always tried to spotlight as many artists as possible, so even when we do shows of our house band, we open up by giving local artists who do original music 15 minutes to perform their stuff,” Vendriger said.

“We created the organization with a big vision and mission,” he added. “This is the moment where we’re really materializing and fulfilling that vision.”

The longest-running Israeli comedy, “Best Friends” (“HaChaverot Hachi Tovot”), which won an Israel National Theater Award for best comedy in 1999, is slated for seven English and seven Hebrew performances throughout the festival. The project debuted the performance last spring in a small Manhattan theater after it was halted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were left in the previous production with tons of people who were asking for more,” Hamutal Posklinsky-Shehory, the play’s director, told JNS. “The word got out.”

Posklinsky-Shehory said that some members of the audience approached actors after shows to convey how the performance gave them a feeling of coming home. “It was one of the most heartwarming things,” she said.

From the stage production, “Best Friends,” part of the Stav Festival in New York City from Sept. 28 through Oct. 29, 2023. Photo by Ohad Kab.

How to define ‘artist’

A WhatsApp group associated with the project includes 160 people, and Vendriger estimates that its community numbers about 1,000.

There is diversity among the project’s ranks, he told JNS. Posklinsky-Shehory works as a drama therapist, and her clinical training informs her art.

“At what point do we define an artist? It is really hard to know because there are different levels,” Vendriger said.

Some of those involved in another headline play at the festival, “The Holylanders” were born to Israeli parents in the United States. Form follows content, as the comedy addresses the experiences of Gen Y Israelis who relocate to the United States. (“Holylanders” is scheduled to run 11 times at the festival.)

The broader community around the Israeli Artists Project includes those of Israeli heritage who didn’t intend to pursue art, as well as those who make art on the side.

“It’s easy to imagine someone who just finished acting school and is working as a server full time, but we’ll easily recognize them as an artist, who needs to make ends meet,” Vendriger said. Others “might still paint on the side or could still be in a band, even if they are realtors full-time, or bankers or whatever.”

“Our doors are open for anyone who is self-defined as an artist and Israeli,” he said.

Per the project’s website, there are many sponsors of the festival, which costs $100,000 and is volunteer-driven.

“Our hope and dream is to become a fully funded professional organization that can bring artistry year-round, providing events for audiences and opportunities for artist members,” Vendriger told JNS.

“With this festival, our goal is to scream to the community to check out the amazing work our local Israeli artists are doing,” he said. “They may know famous Israelis who happen to come and visit, but they don’t necessarily know that maybe even their neighbor is an amazing local Israeli talent.” 

He added that something else that they may not have experienced is “a picture of Israeli culture outside the lens of politics and religion.”

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