'It Was Natural for Us Israelis to Make Music With Gazans, Syrians and Lebanese'

Arrivals / Departures: For an Israeli band performing on the streets of Berlin, music transcends conflict; lifelong buddies on their way to Ukraine give advice on keeping friendships and marriages alive.

Itamar Zvulun, Lior Lin, Nevo Castiel, Matan Caspi and Tal Pelleg.
Tomer Appelbaum

From left: Itamar Zvulun, 30; Lior Lin, 26; Nevo Castiel, 30; Matan Caspi, 25 and Tal Pelleg, 25; all live in Jerusalem, arriving from Berlin

Hello, Matan. Again with a big group? [Matan also featured in Departures and Arrivals last month]

Matan: Hi, how are you? Strange that we meet again. I’m with a band that’s been going for a few months; there are another four in the group, too. We’re called Poly Zosiboll — get it?

“All is possible,” only messed up?

Matan: Nice. We’re always afraid people won’t understand. That’s our message: all is possible.

And now you’ve delivered it in Berlin?

Matan: Not exactly. We decided as a group to go to Europe and do some gigs there, but mostly we just played on the street all day. In Alexanderplatz, on the train, in public squares, wherever looked good to us.

Can you perform wherever you want without permits? After all, it is Germany.

Lior: We got an expulsion order from four streets. I was afraid of that — but not only did it not happen most of the time, when it did happen it was quite low-key.

What happened?

Matan: We played on the Admiral’s Bridge and the police arrested us. But all the hippies hang out there, and they were pleased. They gave us money because the police showed up.

Lior: And we met Jesus there.

The original?

Lior: A big bald guy with one dreadlock and a dog, and he insisted on accompanying us with Mongolian singing. He also invited us to a street festival he claimed he was organizing. We spent the evening with him. It ended with beer on the lawn and two guys showing up and trying to break a beer bottle on his head.

Very exotic compared to your standard vacation.

Itamar: And it’s fun to make people happy.

Tal [the band’s photographer]: When they played Israeli music, you saw that something opened up in people and they drew close. And there was a heartwarming moment in the subway when the whole car applauded them.

Itamar: We played three hours every day — except for one day, when we took a break. There’s nothing like it.

Nevo: And that’s the best way to do it. A group that has more gigs is always chasing its schedule and is dependent on others. But we came with amplifiers and decided if and when to stage a concert. On our first night, we went to play in Alexanderplatz and saw a group sitting and drinking there. When we took out our instruments, they asked where we were from. They said they were from Palestine, from Gaza. They caused absolute mayhem and laughed like it was going out of fashion.

Nevo: We met refugees from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, we saw people you don’t meet every day. There was an opportunity to talk.

Itamar: And Nevo grew up in [the settlement of] Beit El.

What did you play?

Matan: Because they said they were from Gaza, we started off with songs they might know — “Sidi Mansour,” “Fog el Nakhal.”

Nevo: And also “Ya Raich,” an Algerian song about a nomad.

Did they join in?

Nevo: With singing and dancing. They said there isn’t a single Arab who doesn’t know the song.

Matan: It felt like the most natural thing to sit with Gazans; to make music with a Syrian refugee qanun player, and with Akram, a Lebanese guy who played with us and afterward talked about how [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah treats them in Lebanon. On the one hand, he says it’s darker there than Tel Aviv. But on the other, in the evening he goes to the pub for a good time. Beirut sounds modern.

Itamar: He had tears in his eyes when he talked to you.

Matan: Music connects.

But it doesn’t erase.

Matan: We’re not peace activists. There were times where the issues came up, and there were times that were totally fun. What are we supposed to ask them: “What was the war like for you?”

Tal: There was a falafel vendor who tried to argue. He asked if we were from Israel or Palestine, and he said that if I’m a photographer, I should go to the Temple Mount and photograph the Israelis’ treatment of the Arabs. And there was an Israeli guy who said, “But they hate us — why are you sitting with them?” We told him that at that moment they didn’t.

Isn’t it an illusion of harmony?

Matan: Maybe it’s something that can only happen in Europe. But I don’t think it’s any less of an illusion than the opposite situation, in which they would see where we were from and get irritated. It’s actually the same illusion. It’s not that there are no more refugees from Syria and the war is over — but we made the evening pass pleasantly for someone.

From left: Shoshy Levanon, 62, lives in Kfar Vitkin; Mira Zakin, 62, lives in Kfar Vitkin; Aviva Ben Nun, 61, lives in Moshav Beit Herut; flying to Kiev, Ukraine

Shoshy Levanon, Mira Zakin and Aviva Ben Nun.
Tomer Appelbaum

Hello, can I ask where you know each other from?

Aviva: We’ve been good friends since childhood; we were in the same class. We grew up together in Kfar Vitkin. Do you know where that is?

Shoshy: What, Haaretz readers won’t know?

Aviva: Once someone called me and she didn’t know.

I really don’t know.

Shoshy: Nu, Tel Avivans don’t go past Glilot [at the city’s northern edge — Kfar Vitkin is about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Tel Aviv].

How did you stay in touch all these years?

Shoshy: Our class is rare. Everyone is in touch, because Mira sees to it that we meet on holidays and have outings and community-singing evenings.

Mira: Come on, come on, it’s not just me.

Shoshy: We’re the flock and she’s the shepherd. Mira is the leader of the flock.

Aviva: And I’m her deputy.

Shoshy: You see? She’s already appointed herself.

Aviva: And we also hang out in cafés, and lecturers come to us. We had a talk by a lobbyist; we had an incredible talk by Orna Sandler, who was a Mossad agent and whose sister was one of the kidnapped Yemenite children [in the 1950s]. Charming woman.

Mira: We meet at a lot in cafés. We could draw you a map of the cafés in Israel. If you get stuck anywhere, we can recommend a place to go.

How many girls are in the group?

Mira: It depends who you ask. I would say there are 10, 12.

Shoshy: But this time we’re only five.

That’s a large group. How do you get along? 

Shoshy: You have to flow.

Mira: Don’t make a big deal out of things.

Aviva: Compromise. If one likes galleries and the other likes markets, we go to both, or split up.

Mira: Not to be oversensitive, not to be stingy. We spend money without counting.

I envy you your long friendships.

Mira: From my point of view, it’s work. You have to call a lot, invite people a lot, talk. And above all, I don’t quarrel with anyone.

Shoshy: There’s no way to quarrel with her.

What will you do in Kiev?

Mira: We’ve prepared a route and hired a guide. One day we’ll do a cruise. And one day we might go to Uman — “Na nach Nachman” [referring to the Hasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who’s buried in Uman].

Shoshy: To see what’s happening there, anthropologically speaking. 

How will you get along without husbands?

Shoshy: Easily! I don’t miss anyone when I travel.

Mira: She doesn’t even turn on her phone.

Shoshy: I wouldn’t miss anyone even for 40 days. [Laughs] Oy, I can already see my son saying I have a big mouth.

Tomer (the photographer): Do you grumble about husbands when you meet?

Shoshy: What’s to complain about? We’re used to it already.

Aviva: Marriage is like a jigsaw puzzle, until it’s all done and everything fits — and that’s it.

Mira: I have no complaints. We talk about the children, what they do, their schooling, about movies and plays. Personal conversations and political issues.

Do you travel abroad a lot together?

Aviva: Our first trip was to Burgas [in Bulgaria], and it was horrible.

Aviva: A year ago, we went to Warsaw and Krakow on Yom Kippur.

Aviva: Yom Kippur is a hard day for us.

Why?

Aviva: We were both in the Yom Kippur War, in Golani [infantry brigade]. I was in the 13th Battalion, she was in the 12th. My guys were in the Golan, I didn’t know where to go.

Mira: I was told that one woman was enough, so I went to the battalion, to Ben Ami [a moshav in the north] and then Safed.

Shoshy: I mobilized troops on Yom Kippur.

Aviva: We weren’t told who was wounded, and afterward we went, girls of 19, to talk to bereaved families.

Mira: I knew about people who had been killed, but couldn’t say anything. Since then, if I’m not abroad I fast. Sometimes we go for a hike.

Where to?

Mira: To check out the new houses being built in Hofit [near Netanya].

Aviva: Hofit is where the Pancake House is — one of the most beautiful spots in the country.

Shoshy: Shhh! Now everyone knows. Well, when I get back from Kiev, I want the paparazzi to be patient.