Celebrating 40 Years of Jacob’s Ladder, the Little Israeli Folk Festival That Could

The founders of Israel’s folk music staple take a look at the long road to success and, yes, even acceptance.

Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad
Gil Eliahu

Walking off into Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad’s garden, growing in the shade of their Golan Heights home, the world seems to melt away. The dusty street, with its neighborhood bomb shelter and aging apartment buildings, dissipates at the sight of the green haven, with its newly planted flowers springing out of barrel-like flower beds, adding dashes of bright pink.

This small Israeli paradise was something the founders of the biannual Jacob’s Ladder folk festival had hoped to encounter when first moving to Israel back in 1967. Then, Menachem and Yehudit, graduates of British secular Zionist youth movements Dror and Habonim, respectively, came to Israel looking forward to realizing their childhood values of egalitarianism and social justice, fueled by the folk revival in their native England.

At first, everything seemed to go according to plan, with their new home of Kibbutz Mahanayim embodying the revolution they had imagined, complete with a simple life with little to no personal property (Menachem: “We had only one record player for every two rooms”) and a yearning desire to become “more Israeli than the Israelis.”

Attendees dance at the Jacob's Ladder Festival, held May 2-4, 2013.
Ilan Rosen

“This was what we believed in,” says Yehudit, her long grey curls swaying. “Possessions didn’t matter – what mattered was going to work for Israel, getting up in the morning and going to work and building the country.”

However, with time those revolutionary ideals were met with a much more pragmatic reality: “It took us a while to realize, or to accept the fact that we had landed in a completely conservative society. And here we were, revolutionaries, and we landed in a conservative society,” Yehudit says, adding: “Nobody in the kibbutz was ever encouraged to go and do something of your own, to take initiative and do something that wasn’t within the kibbutz framework.”

“It was really looked down upon,” Menachem adds. “We saw Zionism as a movement of liberation for the Jewish people, and Zionism, for us Diaspora Jews, was changing the world. It was leaving the old order behind, and for us a seminal figure was Bob Dylan with his ‘The Times they are a-Changin’.’ When we came here this is what we truly believed. And we did not see it in Israel.”

While ideas of Tikun Olam (“repairing the world”) and social justice were somewhat manifested in the reality of kibbutz life, they were missing the revolutionary, maybe even hippie, musical revolution, a component of their identity and culture, and a notion of Jewishness that they could not do without. That was the seed that would sprout the Jacob’s Ladder Festival.

They started organizing a small musical get-together in one of the kibbutz’s buildings, drawing English-speaking immigrants and volunteers from the small kibbutzim and moshavim in the area. “Because we wanted it, we needed it. Because it was missing, it was a culture that we missed,” Yehudit says.

The kibbutz, to say the least, was less than thrilled.

“I remember speaking to some of the older kibbutz members,” Yehudit recalls. “When we told them we were starting this folk club in the old building across the road, they looked at us as if we were mad.”

Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad
Gil Eliahu

Little did the kibbutzniks know how wrong they would be. Four decades and scores of broken guitar strings later, Menachem and Yehudit’s labor of peace and love, the Jacob’s Ladder Festival, is a runaway success within Israel’s English-speaking community and the longest-running annual music festival in Israel. The event, which celebrates its 40th birthday this week, rose from its humble beginnings aside Mahanayim’s olive grove to a gentle musical giant.

Every spring on the grounds of the Nof Ginosar hotel by the Kinneret (a smaller gathering is held every winter), the festival showcases dozens of local and international artists, drawing around 3,000 people for a weekend of folk music, egalitarianism and an almost unfathomable friendliness.

Even increased pressure from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on international artists can’t seem to spoil the fun, with Menachem stating: “BDS is overrated. There are enough artists who want to come to Israel.”

And, as opposed to the massive, big-money festivals, Jacob’s Ladder is guarded as a kind of reservation of 1960s and 1970s folk values.

One way to see just how committed the Vinegrads are to this ideal would be to take a look at the event’s extensive list of rules and regulations. With everything from a prohibition on smoking in the crowd to taking measures to shorten the shower queue, they are intent on making sure everyone has a chance to have a great time while respecting other visitors. “It’s an expression of our egalitarian values,” Yehudit says.

Tomer Shinfeld, 50, from Kibbutz Afek in northern Israel, has been a regular at the festival for 25 years, participating in the festivities every year, rain or shine, despite the added difficulty of getting around on his wheelchair (“In the early days I didn’t really have that much accessibility”). When asked what makes the event worth the effort, he states assertively: “For me it isn’t an effort at all. It’s a celebration, it’s pure joy.

“All the music, so many performances and such a great atmosphere. It’s the only place in Israel where you can see two, three, four generations sitting on the same lawn, without anyone shouting or fighting. Even in the few times I went alone, I never had the feeling I was alone once I got there. There’s always people to be with.”

While the majority of the audience remains of the English-speaking persuasion, more native-born Israelis, like Shinfeld, are catching wind of this haven of music and civility. Some, as it turns out, are so enamored by the uncannily un-Israeli nature of the event that they would like to keep it their own.

“Every year Hebrew-speaking Israelis come to any one of us and say ‘please don’t let any more Israelis know about this place,’” Menachem says.

The Vinegrads have accomplished what they set out to do all those years ago – stitch their values into the elaborate quilt of Israeli culture: “I feel that we have added to Israeli society in the same way that many other ethnic groups have added, that have brought their own thing, their customs,” Menachem says.

When asked how they managed to accomplish this, persisting in the decades-long preservation of this labor of love amid countless wars and political upheavals, the usually soft-spoken Yehudit leans forward, opens her eyes wide, and states firmly: “Because we just believe in it too much.”

The 40th Jacob’s Ladder Festival will take place at Nof Ginosar this coming weekend, May 19-21. Highlighted acts include American roots band Spuyten Duyvil, Israeli blues artist Dov Hammer and Israeli indie newcomer band Jane Bordeaux, in addition to music workshops, children’s activities and the traditional impromptu jam sessions.