Philosophy, Fear and French Fries: Lectures Are a Growing Hit at Pubs

Israeli hunger for knowledge is driving a burgeoning business for lecturers and their agents, as bars, cultural centers and individuals book a good talk.

A lecture at the Talkhouse club in Tel Aviv Port.
Moti Milrod

Over 100 people crowded into a hall at Habima Theater in Tel Aviv on a recent Friday afternoon. They paid 110 shekels ($28) for a ticket, but it wasn’t a singer, stand-up comic, or acclaimed actress they came to see, but a psychoanalyst.

For an hour Prof. Yoram Yuval explained to the audience the sources of anger and anxiety (it’s all in your head, and yes, our parents are responsible), discussing the structure of the brain, types of memory and what motivate us. He talked about trauma and post-trauma, and spiced it up with a story from his private clinic about a particularly angry patient.

The audience was enthralled. At the end of the lecture a few people came up on stage to ask questions, or seek advice for troubled relatives.

Yovell’s lecture was one of six in his lecture series on “Love and Emotions.” A glance at Yovell’s website shows that he has a very busy schedule, with seminars in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Nes Tziona on almost every topic related to the psyche.

Yovell is just one example of a cultural phenomenon that has taken root in Israel in recent years: Popular lectures by a variety of experts in a wide range of fields that includes physics, biology, philosophy, politics, food, music, literature, self-empowerment, love and intimacy.

The lecturers are scientists, athletes, cultural figures, former politicians and journalists and even Odelia Carmon, better known as O., the victim from the rape trial of former president Moshe Katsav.

The lectures are held almost anywhere — in cultural centers, local libraries, bars and at private parties. What was until not long ago an intellectual hobby in educational and cultural institutions has become a light and enjoyable entertainment — an alternative to a movie or play.

“People are sick of the digital world and the superficiality of reality [television], and they are searching for something for the soul, like during the eras of ancient Greece and Rome, when people ran to hear Socrates and Aristotle,” says Eran Katz, a memory expert and an experienced lecturer in Israel and abroad. “The public has a thirst — people read books, are exposed to information and want to feel the experience. In the same way that people are not satisfied listening to an Eyal Golan song on YouTube, but want to go to a concert; the same applies to lectures. Everyone wants to experience the real thing,” says Katz.

Is this unique to Israel?

“Lectures exist all over the world, but in Israel the phenomenon is especially widespread,” says Katz. “For example, overseas I have never encountered private events like birthday parties to which they invite lecturers. This is a very Israeli invention.”

Katz, an author who has conducted seminars on improving memory and intelligence for 20 years, says he delivers four lectures a week, in Israel and overseas. The secret of an excellent memory is his biggest hit, and is based on his books: “An entertaining lecture, a little stand-up [comedy] alongside enrichment,” he says.

Katz discovered his ability to develop memory-boosting skills when he was young — and in the nick of time. He had been a though he was a mediocre student on the verge of being thrown out of school when he discovered the works of Harry Lorayne, an American memory improvement expert. Katz adopted Lorayne’s ideas — and finished school. In 1998, he entered the Israeli version of the Guinness Book of World Records after remembering a 500-digit number read out to him only once — and then he repeated it in order, and then in reverse order, making only four mistakes.

Former TheMarker journalist Ayala Tzoref lectures on the sharing economy finds that audiences are enthusiastic to learn. “I gave a lecture one Thursday afternoon in a large company, and the human resources manager warned me not to go over 45 minutes because the employees are anxious to get home at the end of the work week. After a 45-minute lecture I opened the topic for questions, and then we stayed another hour and a half. I felt people’s thirst to learn a new topic,” she said.

Tzoref worked as the director of the digital department at Tnuva after leaving TheMarker. She decided to become self-employed as a consultant for digital media and services, and then discovered the world of the sharing economy by chance. “It happened three years ago when I was on a family vacation overseas, and we decided to trade homes with an Israeli family living in the United States instead of renting a hotel room,” she says.

“It fascinated me, and I discovered there is relatively very little information on it. So I decided to go deeper. I read a lot and conducted a lot of conversations, participated in an Internet course in order to understand how the business works, and when I felt expert enough in the field I decided to pass on the message and lecture on it.”

At first Tzoref gave volunteer lectures in order to become known and to make the subject better known. “While working I also learned and improved, and I found a way to build a lecture that answers the needs, [and explains] what the sharing economy can contribute to everyone in the audience. Slowly I built myself up and started receiving invitations to lecture, for money of course, from companies, at conferences and various organizations. Now for the first time I was invited to speak in a bar, and I am curious to see how it will work,” says Tzoref.

More than beer

Yossi Graber, the owner of the Shem Tov pub in Jerusalem, decided to bring in lecturers a few months ago because of the deteriorating security situation in the capital. “The situation hurt the [number of people coming to] the pub and all the owners of entertainment spots were forced to find creative ways to attract customers. Some offered a free drink or other things, and we decided to open the pub for lectures.”

Why lectures?

“We identified that our customers have a deep need to add a layer of content to their regular pastime of beer and food,” says Graber. “Jerusalem has a quite a few institutions of higher education, so our customers want to get something above and beyond that. This is the mid-week crowd, which is different than the weekend partiers. These are people for whom the beer is the bonus — and the content is the foundation.”

The choice of the lecturers and topics is made in cooperation with customers using Facebook. At first they offered lectures on Sunday evenings and it turned out to be a great success, says Graber. There was high and consistent demand, and now it is a tradition. “We try to bring interesting people, not experts but those whose work arouses curiosity, so it is worth bringing them,” he said.

The lectures last 45 to 90 minutes, and Graber says he tries to connect the lectures to current events. For example, three months ago when the Temple Mount was in the news, the pub invited senior Shin Bet security service officials who had been responsible for security on the Temple Mount. Sundays went from the emptiest night in the pub to one of the most popular nights.

The cost of a lecture varies. Private groups pay 2,000 to 3,000 shekels a lecture to a lesser known lecturer. The big names charge 10,000 to 15,000 shekels a lecture.

The price companies are willing to pay has not changed in recent years, despite growing interest, notes Katz. In bars, the lecture business is flourishing and there are those lecturers, such as Katz, who consider themselves an attractive draw and choose to take a share of the night’s revenues.

Another example of the blossoming lecture market is the opening three weeks ago of the Talkhouse club in the Tel Aviv Port, with an investment of 2 million shekels. The club combines food and lectures, with seating around tables facing a stage. The idea is simple: Good food and a good lecture at a price of 50 to 70 shekels a person (for now, at least). Lectures on music, philosophy, love, science, the future and a bit about Israeli food too.

The business has attracted agents, who used to work only with performers in the past, but now represent lecturers too. Dalia Hochberg, the CEO of the Israeli Speakers Center, is one of the best-known agents. She represents about 1,500 lecturers, and the money is good, she says. She takes her fee from the lecturers, rather than the companies, charging between 10% to 25% of the fee, depending on the lecturer and the conditions (such as whether she represents the person exclusively). She has been working in the business for 16 years, but the last two years have seen it take off, she says.

Can everyone really give a lecture?

“Everyone can be a lecturer, but not everyone can be a good lecturer,” says Hochberg. “A good lecture is based on excellent content, ability to influence and desire to say something and provide a message. Not many lecturers can be the best of the best, but many can improve themselves and reach a high level.”