Culture Fop / Israel-China Cultural Exchange Trades Snake for Rooster

A cultural exchange for the Chinese New Year, and Nathan Englander, who knows the value of a cup of coffee in Jerusalem.

The Year of the Snake…and the Rooster

February 10 marked the start of the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Snake. Those born in a snake year (which, due to the 12-year cycle, also includes most people born in 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989 and 2001) are thought to be, like their slithery avatar, smart and calculating. If you’re one of them, you may have a tendency to be a loner who uses or manipulates others to achieve your goals – though these goals may benefit society, according to Chinese conventional wisdom. You are also known for your swift movements and dangerous beauty, which repels some but attracts others.

The cultural department of the People’s Republic of China in Israel, in collaboration with the Suzanne Dellal Center, Israel’s premiere presenter of contemporary dance, is celebrating the Year of the Snake with a dance festival this week, February 18-22. The program reflects two very different faces of China – the modern and the traditional.

Thus the Beijing Modern Dance Company makes its second appearance in Israel with “The Blooming of Time,” a meditation on how the blossoming of flowers marks the passing of seasons and transitions to new chapters of our lives. The Changdou National Dance Company brings “Heaven & Earth,” an extravagant production steeped in traditional music, costume and theatricality.

In a sort of cultural exchange, the Suzanne Dellal Center sent one of its own creations – Barak Marshall’s hit dance-theater piece from 2009 – to the Taiwan International Festival of the Arts this past weekend. The name of the piece: “Rooster.”

Marshall’s work, based in part on Greek mythology, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and the Bible, follows the village-fool protagonist from Yiddish writer’s I.L. Peretz’s “Bontsha the Silent.” It’s a very Jewish dance, connected to both shtetl and Yemenite roots (Marshall’s background), which manages to feel contemporary as well, like a 2-in-1 version of the Chinese companies.

The exchange has a bit of an unintentional awkwardness to it, when you think about it: welcoming China to Israel and performing in Taiwan at the same time, given the tense relations between the two countries. After all, the People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over the island of Taiwan and rejects any efforts or calls for independence. Then again, one could argue that Israel is not best known for its sensitivity in disputed territorial issues.

But politics aside, audiences in Tel Aviv can celebrate the Year of the Snake and all it symbolizes while audiences in Taiwan can relive the Year of the “Rooster” (last celebrated in 2005) and that animal’s characteristics of flamboyant pride, feistiness and obstinance, compliments of the Israelis.

Festival of Chinese Dance at the Suzanne Dellal Center, Tel Aviv:

Beijing Modern Dance Company – “Blooming of time”
Monday 18, 21:00; Tuesday 19, 21:00; Friday 22, 22:00

Changdou National Dance Company – “Heaven & Earth”
Wednesday 20, 21:00; Thursday 21, 18:00
Tickets: 150/180 NIS

Homegrown writers and the world’s best shakshuka

The first thing you learn as an aspiring writer is how to make a cup of coffee last, it turns out.

Nathan Englander is now an A-lister in the new wave of American-Jewish writers, often talked about like the literary heir of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. But once upon a time in Jerusalem, he was stretching his one cup of coffee as far as possible.

The place: Tmol Shilshom, a nest of books and tasty vegetarian food hidden away down a stone alley right off Jerusalem’s Zion Square at the bottom of Ben Yehuda Street, a tranquil sanctuary of literature just steps away from the main shopping drag. And Englander, just two weeks after graduating from Iowa’s Writers Workshop, started showing up there every day.

“I was waiting to be thrown out,” he said at an intimate gathering last week at the restaurant/cafe/bookstore. He was in town to promote his new book “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” at the Jerusalem Book Fair and paid a visit to his old “office.” Looking back, he acknowledges, “You can’t run a business on one cup of coffee.”

But David Ehrlich, owner of Tmol Shilshom and now a close friend, says he built the place for people like Englander. He recalled how he went up to the young writer and offered him a deal: 50 percent off the whole menu so you buy something more than coffee, or start a tab. Englander chose the latter and paid off a little at a time when he sold a story.

“My plan was to go on living here until I died or David cut off my tab,” Englander said. Then one day, he sold more than just a story.

“I’ll never forget the day I walked in and saw him smiling,” Ehrlich says. “Usually he wasn’t smiling.” Englander had just sold his first book to Knopf, one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the world. “I didn’t even know what Knopf is,” says Ehrlich. “Later I realized.”

Ehrlich, himself a writer with two Hebrew books under his belt and his first English book on the way, looks on Englander’s success with a sort of paternal pride. “It was amazing,” he says of watching Englander’s fierce dedication to his craft. “I was a witness of the process for years.”

Perhaps as a nod of gratitude, Tmol Shilshom and Ehrlich get a sort of un-credited cameo in the last story of Englander’s first collection.

Of course, Ehrlich is proud of all of his children who get published.

“Look,” he told me, flipping through a thick book and pointing to a colorful page. “Our shakshuka was just named one of the Best Breakfasts in the World by Lonely Planet.”
 

Courtesy of Suzanne Dellal