I wrote this article and a post a little over a year ago, a short time after the death of Israel folk singer Arik Einstein and American folk singer Pete Seeger. In retrospect I understand how much learning about their lives and works affected me as an artist. They died a few months from each others, both leaving a remarkable influence and legacy to their cultures. I’ve dedicated the second Magic Bagel book in memory of Seeger, who lived in Beacon, NY as well and we used to see hime in festivals around town, singing with five year olds. I highly recommend “The Power of Song”, a documentary about Seeger’s life. And as for Einstein, there’s not much about him in English, and that’s part of why I wrote this post. I hope you’ll enjoy reading.
Einstein, Morocco, upstate New York
During my army service I had a certain lip balm that had a very specific taste. Even many years later, when I come across a similar semi-strawberry flavor I right away feel like I’m a soldier again, with everything that this feeling arouses in me. I have a similar, or rather an opposite reaction, to the voice of Arik Einstein. When I hear his voice I feel comforted, I feel at home.
Einstein is credited as the first one to create Rock music in Hebrew but he wasn’t a great philosopher, poet or activist. I love him not like an idol but more like a friend, a mentor. His voice often accompanies me with me with an advice, a feeling or a story that are usually very meaningful, simple and often wise.
“sitting in San Francisco on the water (…)
It’s so beautiful in San Francisco on the water
It’s too bad you’re not here with me to see,
you’d say you’ll never come back..
Suddenly I want home (…)
Give me a piece of the Tabor mountain,
A piece of the sea of Galilee
I love to fall in love with the small land of Israel
Hot and wonderful”
Lyrics : Einstein, Music : Shalom Chanoch
Homesickness. Israel, the sea of Galilee where Jesus walked on the water and mount Tabor, I still remember how in love I was when we hiked there together (she wasn’t that much into me). We had tea on the way down, met some Bedouins who hiked there as well. It was many years ago.
Like Einstein, I also love to fall in love with places. I even managed to fall in love with a small town in upstate New York. I love the mountain here and I love the river and I really love the people here. If I live elsewhere I’ll miss all of those, I might even write some songs about them.
The exiled Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said that homeland is like a suitcase. I guess for some it is a suitcase, for some it’s the melodies and for some, like me, there is no clear definition of what homeland is. For Einstein, who was born in 1939, homeland was what he called good old Israel, pre-skyscrapers Tel-Aviv, idealism, and some innocent sense that he had as a child and maybe Israel had too. Besides being an incredible performer, that might be what made him so popular among so many Israelis who yearned to similar things.
Israelis don’t talk a lot about where they came from. Zionism, the Jewish national movement that was born at the end of the 19th century and eventually established Israel in 1948, intended to bring Jews from different cultures from all over the world and unite them in Israel under the new national umbrella that was inspired by the ancient Jewish state at Biblical times. The Zionist greatest myth, the “Sabra”, is the Israeli Ashkenazi native Hebrew speaking male who was born in Israel and is actively building the country from vacuum while structuring the perfect society that will occupy it. The new Jew that would finally have a homeland of his own and would be the mirror image of the Jew from the diaspora.
During the attempt to bring this dream to life languages disappeared, people didn’t find their place and some communities are still looking for their common identity. The Sabra wasn’t supposed to look back much, like a famous saying of Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister – “From Tanakh to Palmakh” – From the Bible to the Jewish combat units. As if nothing happened in between. As much as I know how destructive this myth was for so many people, when I hear Einstein’s voice I believe it, like a child listening to a story. A good story, where we are the good guys and we go through lots of trouble until the happy end.
In the land of my ancestors
Send me hints of Elul (…)
Shofars will blow open
And Jewish faces from the diaspora
In sad grayness
Will fly in front of the chair of
The master of the world
Requests, begging, sparks
Deep in their eyes”
Lyrics : Abraham Chalfi, Music : Yoni Rekhter
Einstein was a sabra, musically he might have been the first one, or probably the last one. More of a lover than a fighter but still a sabra, maybe even an ultimate one. This song, in which he sing a poem by Avraham Chalphi, is the only one I know of from Einstein’s hundreds of songs in which he sings about Jews who don’t live in Israel. The poem describes them almost as ghosts, flying with mysteriously sparks in their eyes, not really sure what they have to say to the average Israeli.
With Einstein, it seems like the Sabra project worked. His figure and beautiful voice seem to be born out of the sand of Tel Aviv, like the city itself that claim to rise up from the sand. Einstein doesn’t seem to be interested too much in Jewish history prior the establishment of Tel Aviv and if he sings of Historical events it’s either of Zionist history or of Biblical characters.
After his death, I learned many new things about Einstein. Many Israelis shared stories about his beautiful friendships, his professionalism, his shyness and extreme humbleness. Living on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, I consumed many of these stories through the internet and felt a kind of mourning I couldn’t explain. I didn’t learn anything, however, about Einstein’s grandparents or parents. They must have immigrated to the land of Israel from somewhere, but Einstein, besides singing this song, never says a word about almost two thousands years of Jewish Diaspora.
Like the United States, Israel too is inspired by lots of idealistic dreams. The reality, however, is often a bitter awakening from those dreams.
One of the few memories I have of my grandfather is his old radio that used to constantly play music in Arabic. This was more than forty years after he immigrated to Israel from Baghdad, leaving his dreams, his career and few other things there as well. He wasn’t a Sabra.
I know very little of him, mostly from stories my mom told me. I don’t remember him speaking much, I do remember new year cards from him, written in what I still think is the most beautiful hand-writing I’ve ever seen. Later on I realized that the horizontal shape of his Hebrew letters is actually very similar to Arabic letters.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if as a child I would have sat on his lap and he would have told me stories in Iraqi dialect Arabic. Would he have felt more capable of telling me stories in his mother tongue? would he have laughed with me had I understand Arabic? Maybe he’d tell me about the market in Baghdad, maybe we’d even live or visit there and he’d take me on walks, to his synagogue, to his grandfather’s grave.
I lost his cultural inheritance. I don’t speak his language and I know very little of the culture he came from. I just have a vague image of an old sick man that seemed bitter and out of place, always accompanied by a distorted melody out of an old Radio. Like Einstein who sings so beautifully Chalfi’s words, Jewish faces of the diaspora often appear in my visions too.
If there was any battle between Einstein and my grandfather, Einstein won by a knock-out.
“Baba Gurion”, Neta Elkayam. Israeli first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion
is holding a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary and having a glass of Arak
Together with her partner Amit Hai Cohen they created a show in which they sing songs of Moroccan Jewish musicians who were culture heroes in their homeland but Zionism never really noticed them. Some of these musicians, whose songs are still listened to and being taught as essentials of modern Arab music, died in poverty after having a hard life in Israel with very little recognition of their talent.
For Jews, singing in any Arabic dialect in Israel is also a dramatic political statement. For many Israelis the sound of Arabic is threatening, even though Hebrew and Arabic are very similar and about half of them had some level of Arabic in their home, like I had with my grandparents. Neta is gifted with a voice that like Billie Holiday and Oum Kalthoum can take the listeners into another world, regardless if they understand what she’s singing about.
Recently, Neta and Amit performed at a famous music festival in Morocco where they had an incredible success. They also perform regularly in Israel and their work brings out a lot of interest. Culturally it is one of the most interesting things that are happening in Israel right now and inevitably it raises many questions about Jewish and Israeli identity. Their journey might have started with hearing Grandma as children but led them through Tom Waits, the Lower east side, Tel Aviv, Existentialism and many more stations, but eventually they got back and sang songs that grandma would have loved.
While writing these words I’m waiting for my daughter Maayan to be done with her ballet class and to take her to a show of Gina Samardge, her favorite musician who will probably sing her favorite song – “This land is my land, this land is your land”. While I’m waiting, a few other parents discuss whether it’s better to get a real tree or a fake tree for Christmas.
You can see more of my artwork and artistic services at www.alfassibooks.com.
The Magic Bagel is an interactive children’s book I co wrote with my daughter Maayan.
I helped about 20 writers to find typewriters, I’m not in touch with most of them but I know of a lot of great writing that was produced.
Here are some of the colorful handmade sketchbooks I make from old record covers, you can see more at the Alfassi Books website
Bush is no longer a president, but this song is still powerful. Young said he read an article about the war in Iraq and started to sob, soon he wrote “Living with War”, not the most mellow protest album out there. He said he looked at the younger musicians and they didn’t say much against the war, so at the age of 61 he did it himself, and later toured with CSNY around the country and made a documentary about it
As far as I know, the only Israeli mainstream musician who sang more than 3 protest songs in his career is Shalom Chanoch. His last protest song was sang in 1997 – “A person is a person don’t call me a nation”. After the first Intifadah (1987) many Israeli singers vocalized what they think of the Israeli army treatment of Palestinians, like Nurit Galron (“Don’t tell me about a girl who lost her eye”) Shlomo Arzi (“we haven’t learned anything, apparently”) Si Himan (“I didn’t ask for a green plastic hero”) and Chanoch (“your enemy is just like yourself”). But soon after, a political silence came and there are almost no anti-war songs written in Israel these days, similar thing is happening in the US. Therefore Young’s voice is so special.
As a snail mail artist (yes, there is such thing, you can see some of my art here) who send a lot of letters to Israel and to the US, I often try to make political statements using the old fashioned method. Maybe it’s a form of a protest letter, I’m not sure.
(a sketchbook made out of old record cover, see more of them here)
Lincoln: Who said “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”
Bird: Pirkey Avot?
Lincoln: What’s up with you? Are you on drugs? It was Neil Young in his masterpiece album ‘Rust Never Sleeps’
Lincoln: Abe, you forgot to mention that Young didn’t write it about anyone specific but about the spirit of the Rock’nroll, even though Kurt Cobain quoted it in his suicide letter
Hendrix: What’s up Abe?
Lincoln: I’m worried
Joplin: is it because of the Israeli Palestine art world?
Hendrix: it must be the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, he’s a lefty
Woman: He doesn’t answer. Hang him!
Reflection of the recent restrictions on the freedom of speech in Israel and Palestine
See more talking stamps at http://alfassibooks.weebly.com/blog/comics-stamps
Don’t call me a nation / Shalom Chanoch 1997
If you come by our block
You’ll see an old writing on the wall
“God, save me from faith”
There’s no chosen nation, only individuals
Not everyone is a full, not everyone admits it
These are Jews, so are these
A person is a person
Don’t call me a nation
Same diaspora here, I’m working for nothing
How many more soldiers against one suicide bomber
Not of God, I’m afraid of you
Again you’re riding on the blood
Again you think you’re smart
If you didn’t notice, I’m here too
Need nothing from you, from them
A person is a person,
Don’t call me a nation
When flowers are blooming, kids are happy
Old enemies are brothers today
Heros are resting, borders are open
The dogs bark, the caravan goes on
A person is a person, don’t call me
Don’t call me a nation
If you come by our block
You’ll see an old writing on the wall
“Even reality needs protection,
God, save me from faith”
A person is a person,
Don’t call me a nation
Let’s impeach the president / Neil Young 2006
Let’s impeach the President for lying
And misleading our country into war
Abusing all the power that we gave him
And shipping all our money out the door
Who’s the man who hired all the criminals
The White House shadows who hide behind closed doors
They bend the facts to fit with their new stories
Of why we have to send our men to war
Let’s impeach the President for spying
On citizens inside their own homes
Breaking every law in the country
By tapping our computers and telephones
What if Al Qaeda blew up the levees
Would New Orleans have been safer that way
Sheltered by our government’s protection
Or was someone just not home that day?
Flip – Flop
Flip – Flop
Flip – Flop
Flip – Flop
Let’s impeach the president for hijacking
Our religion and using it to get elected
Dividing our country into colors
And still leaving black people neglected
Thank god he’s cracking down on steroids
Since he sold his old baseball team
There’s lots of people looking at big trouble
But of course our president is clean.
“Perspective” is a short picture book memoir I wrote. Here’s the beginning, if you like it you can order a copy at Alfassi Books’ website.
Alfassi Books is a publishing house I started. It is based on the model of gift economy and offers children and adults literature and unique artistic services, like personal letters writing, alternative certificates and more.
Coming soon, I hope to finish the booklet in a week. Order your copy here
This unique report card was issued for me 6 years ago and is one of the most inspiring artworks I know of. It was in an art event I was one of its organizers, a semi-spontaneous art festival at the “Shuk Makhne Yehuda” – the West Jerusalem market. For the first time, Many artists and a large audience came to celebrate in the Shuk during hours that it is usually a pretty scary place.
At about 2am, two guys showed up with a big plastic container and invited people to their “Teachers’ office” (empty vegetable stand) and had them sit on produce boxes while they issued them a new end of the year report card. I wasn’t quite sure what I’m getting into, but being drunk and excited for the success of the event, I just did. First, they asked me if there was any school year that was somewhat hard for me. I remember thinking for a few minutes since I had many years I’d like to “fix”, many moments during my schooling years that were full of shame, sadness, lack of self-esteem and true friendships. I’ve decided to share with them my first grade experience (I wrote about this unusual semi-sexual experience here).
Soon after sharing this pretty traumatic episode with them I was issued a new report card, in which I was described as a wonderful kid, that no one should disturb him from developing and discovering the world, a lovely and creative child who is perfect just the way he is. Besides getting straight A’s in all of the classes (both semesters) I was sent into the next grade – freedom, and I wasn’t allowed to attend the class of boredom and fixedness. I was described as a child who fulfills his huge potential and that can deal with life challenges in the best way possible. I got sent early to second grade out of love (and not out of my first grade teacher’s issues around fucking) and with faith that I’d keep growing wonderfully.
I couldn’t stop thanking them. It might have been the most meaningful artwork I’ve ever participated in and I can’t overestimate how much it affected me as an artist and as a person. Yes, art can be deep and serious and sad and many other things, but it can also, using very simple tools, make people happy and explore the boundaries between “art”, “loving-kindness”, “therapy” and “humanity”. I’m not even sure if these two guys considered what they did as art. I don’t remember their names but I would never look at my first grade experience the same way. I don’t know if I still have my report card from first grade, but this report card will stay in my heart forever. I heard a theory that our memory is kind of tricky – if we tell ourselves a story many times, we remember it. If I’d tell myself this alternative story about me as a child, my mind might consider it a reality. So why not, sometimes at least, tell ourselves alternative stories?
Inspired by this work, I’m developing an experimental service – if you believe that you (or someone you know) did something special and never got acknowledged for it, or had a bad experience you’d like to revisit with an alternative version, Alfassi Books can issue a special alternative certificate/diploma/report card for you. If you’re interested in such service, please email me with an explanation of the good deed or bad experience and we can schedule a video call to discuss that and figure out what needed to be issued. I promise to be respectful, supportive and hopefully funny. As with the letters project, all certificates can be confidential or I can make an artistic use with them, like adding them to a booklet or to this website, depending on that participant’s choice. I’m very much excited by this artistic opportunity.
(English after Hebrew)
אינני שומר מצוות
אך יש במצוות הגניזה
משהו נוגע ללב, מרגש
ביחוד לחובבי ספרים, כמוני
מול התחנה המרכזית החדשה
היה מבנה נטוש, מאוד נטוש היה המבנה
היו מגיעים אליו כלמיני
בעבר היה המקום
אולי בגלל זה היו מוטלים בו
אלפי ספרי קודש
על הרצפה, משכב לחסרי בית
יורם אמיר, ידידי הצלם, הכיר לי את המקום
הייתי בא, תולש ספרי קהלת מן התנ”כים
ומבצע בהם מעשים אמנותיים
an observant Jew
but the Gniza mitzvah
in which we are commanded
to bury holy text
when we’re done using it
is very exciting to me
in an abandoned building
in front of the central bus station
in West Jerusalem
thousands of books
Bibles, Talmud, Mishna
laid on the floor
as beds to homeless people
The building used to be
a Beit-Midrash once
My friend Yoram showed it to me
and I would come
tear the book of Ecclesiastes
out of old Bible books
and make all sorts of art with them
instead of Gniza
Ecclesiastes text glued on an 18th century Jewish Musar (morals) book Mesilat Yesharim (path of the righteous) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzato –
says the Teacher.
2 Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.
3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
PLEASE VISIT ALFASSI BOOKS NEW (AND MUCH NICER) WEBSITE at alfassibooks.weebly.com
For about five years I lived in a beautiful old building at 31 Alfassi St. in West Jerusalem. The house was falling apart. Balconies got dislocated from the building, walls had scary cracks in them and leaks occurred every time it rained. The owner wasn’t interested in renovation and tried to cut the cost of basic maintenance. Our building was populated mostly by students who shared the 6 apartments and was known for its great roof parties and Shabbat potlucks.
Once an architect student pointed out to me that the cursive stairway created sort of a pier that wasn’t usable for living but only for aesthetics, and today no developer would build such a space. Soon after that conversation we brought some chairs and speakers and hung some artwork on its walls and the old stair room became one of my favorite places in the building. New stair rooms are often narrow, ugly and functional while the old ones are often beautiful and give an ease to the soul when you’re using them.
When the owner demolished 31 Alfassi St. and turned it into a condominium, I was already in Brooklyn. Like all of my friends who used to live there, I felt sadness in my heart, almost as if a friend passed away. The building had personality, the walls could tell our stories and we had so many precious moments that took place within those old brick walls. On my next visit to Jerusalem, it was already a construction site and I couldn’t get in. Jerusalem has lost many of its most beautiful buildings over the past decade, often to much higher and uglier buildings than the luxurious condominium that is now 31 Alfassi St, which is ugly in its own unique way.
Alfassi Books is a named after that building and it’s a publishing company that celebrates the opportunity of having old and new dwell together. It offers an artistic metaphor of what a renovation of 31 Alfassi St. might look like. Alfassi Books is devoted to writings and art projects that combine old and new ways of creative expressions like typewriters and Facebook, old records and ebooks. Alfassi Books offers services that seem to disappear, like snail mail writing help, but doesn’t hesitate using modern technology such as this website in order to show them.
Alfassi Books is an independent publishing house based on the gift economy model.
Alfassi Books products are offered for free via snail mail (what?? Are you serious? yes! let me explain)
Alfassi Books is based on the model of gift economy. The blood bank, Wikipedia and Freecycle are examples of gift economies, where people give their knowledge, blood or belongings not in order to receive money but for other reasons, usually to help strangers they’ve never met who might benefit from their action. There are many variations of gift economy. I chose to offer both a sliding scale if one wish to pay for a book/service and offer an option of giving some of your own time/money/talent to another cause you’d like to support. I wish to value art not as a commodity and I believe this model reflects that. Using that model I managed to raise $500 to Doctors Without Borders from the sales of the first Magic Bagel book, that I dedicated to a friend of mine who passed away a short time before he was supposed to start practicing medicine. I do have costs and spend a lot of time making this art, and I wish to at least cove my costs.
I don’t want to price the booklets and the services – each price might be too much for those who can’t afford it or too little for those who might not value something that is cheap. As for the letters writing service, some letters were rather silly or light and some were equivalent to a therapy session, some were very meaningful and helpful to the writers and some weren’t as much. I leave the pricing of such service to the receiver to decide how much it was valuable to him or her.
An average booklet cost me about $0.50 to make plus postage ($0.50-$0.70 within the US and $1.15-$2.20 abroad). Magic Bagel booklets are pretty fast to assemble while creating a sketchbook using a record cover is pretty time consuming. You can decide for yourself how to price such art based on how much you might pay for it. In book stores such booklets can go anywhere from $2 to $20. You’re welcome to either give something based on the hypothetical price you’d made or try to imagine the worth not in terms of money but in other terms that may speak to you depending on your point of view – love, energy, creativity, art, ideology, faith etc.
I’ve decided to give that model a try. If you’re interested the booklets, you’re welcome to order them and either make a paypal donation that’ll help me make more booklets or support a good cause that’s important to you by giving some of your talent/money/time for free. creating these booklets is a true joy to me and I’d like to explore the idea that art is, after all, priceless.
Sketchbooks and journals made out of old record covers
“Facebook Statuses”, a collection of my writings on Facebook. Mailed inclusively via snail mail.
“The Incredible Story of The Magic Bagel”, and “Around The World with The Magic Bagel”, interactive children’s stories that takes place in Beacon NY and feature a special kind of bagel with special powers.
A thank you letter from “Doctors Without Borders”
Part of “Letters, of all sorts” and a free service I offer occasionaly
2 letters from an on going art project, more details at “Letters, of all sorts”, a new snail mail letters collection. . Available through Skype as well. Please contact if you need help in writing a letter and for more details
From “A Jew Killed”, a short picture book memoir by Ori Alon
Work day at Alfassi Books
Coming soon – “Letters, of all sorts”, a collection of letters and artwork by Ori Alon
Alfassi Books products are available by snail mail upon request (you can fill up this form or email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Alfassi Books by Ori Alon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at themagicbagel.com.