This week marks one year since I moved to Sderot, a small town on the edge of Israel’s Negev desert, one mile away from the Gaza strip. I came here to find out what it means to live in a never-ending war, and to document the lives and music of musicians under fire.
Sderot is known for being a poor southern development town, for being hit by qassam rockets from Gaza for eight-years with no end in sight, and for being the “Liverpool” of Israel, having bred some of Israel’s most successful rock bands.
Among Israel’s elite and Tel Aviv society, Sderot is known as a “lousy” place… and on the surface it looks run down, unkempt, and unbeautiful. I have noted the shocked expressions of most Israelis when they hear that I have moved from West Los Angeles to Sderot. But in my year here, I have forged an unbreakable connection to this place. Maybe I’m just a small town person who’s been stuck in a big city most of my life, or maybe the artist in me felt constrained dealing with the film industry in LA. All I can report, is that I have learned more in this, my 35th year, than any other in my life.
Outside of New York City, Sderot is literally one of the most diverse places I have ever been. It was a town founded my immigrants from North Africa in the late ‘50’s. When they got off the boat in Haifa harbor, they asked to be taken to Jerusalem. Instead, they were sprayed with DDT, put into trucks, driven down to an empty place with literally nothing, and dumped there. They lived in tin shacks, battling the heart in the “Ma’abara” [Transit Camp] for a couple of years until they could build real housing. This place became Sderot. Because of these beginnings, there is a certain contempt for Sderot from the outside, and a certain pride and close-knitedness from the inside.
For almost thirty years the town’s makeup was almost all Jews from Arab lands, until the Ethiopian Aliyah and Russian Aliyah doubled the population. Today, if you go to the Shuk (the outdoor vegetable market) on Sundays and Tuesdays, you see every type and flavor of Jew. Moroccans and Tunisins bargaining, old women from Kazakhstan and Dagistan wearing traditional clothing. You drive through the town and see everything from the typical Israeli soldier standing at a bus stop, to Ethiopian women in their wrapped headdresses and skirts, old men sitting on park benches, and Israeli teenagers of every color, shape, and size, squeezed into their tight fashionable jeans and hanging out by the corner pizza store.
Take that scene and add the film students from all over Israel who attend Sapir College (just two minutes down the road). Many of them live in Sderot, and along with the musicians that the town in famous for, it creates a very interesting mix. When I first arrived, I was shocked by the amount of music, culture, and sheer talent that could emerge from one small city. It’s been difficult to choose who to focus the film on. People are writing, rehearsing, and performing here daily… Here is just a taste of who I have been following:
- Tzerei Sderot, a teenage choir that performs all over Israel and all over the world. The group includes: Meshi, fifteen and adorable, whose mom was born in the Ma’abara; Sali Or, a thoughtful singer who writes his own music and has just become a cook in the army; Nastia, a punky ball of fire who was born in Moldova. She dreams of being a combat soldier; Lidor, a gregarious kid with a kippah who is sings piutim in his synagogue, Arzu, whose parents are from Azerbajan, the flirtatious Sapir, who seems like a troublemaker; and Ran, fourteen, who works at the one restaurant in town making pizza. He is struggling with a changing voice, and obsessed with trance music.
- Hagit Yaso, an 18-year-old beautiful and brilliant Ethiopian singer from Tzerei Sderot who has just joined the Army band. Destined to be a star.
- Noam Shlomo, the choir’s director who is a composer and musician in his own right. He has done incredible arrangements, spiffing up the rhythm of known Israeli and Jewish songs and making them into magnificent chorale pieces. Most of his own songs use text from the Tanach.
- Micha Biton, an ethnic rock artist in the midst of a successful solo career, having released three albums.
- Haim Uliel, one of the founders of the music scene in Sderot, he was in the first famous Moroccan wedding band that brought ethnic music into the mainstream, revolutionizing Israeli music.
- Avi Vaknin, a rock musician in the process of releasing his first album. For ten years he managed SDEROCK ( Sderot’s bomb shelter turned rock club, ) and worked with kids to create “The Hope Project,” a hip-hop album with lyrics written by Sderot’s youth about the situation.
In my year here, I have followed each of them as they have pursued their individual goals and careers despite the challenging circumstances in which they are living.
I personally have lived through some of the worst periods of qassams – one weekend we received 160. I have witnessed the anger of a community in pain, a town that feels abandoned. I was here the weekend that a young boy lost his leg, sending the entire town into a fury, and sparking demonstrations all over Israel. I have watched the town band together in these moments of trauma. I have noticed the apathy of Israelis to whom Sderot has become a boring and repetitive cause for pity. I have rejoiced in the solidarity of a nation, when over 10,000 people from all over Israel arrived in Sderot during one of the hardest times, to support the local economy and boost morale.
I have celebrated Purim with costumed and drunken people dancing in the streets, and Mimuna, the Moroccan festival after Pesach, which cannot be rivaled outside of Sderot – thousands of cakes of every kind, open houses and people going door to door, and my musician friends reveling in a musical ethnic fantasia. Let me tell you – no one can party like the Moroccans.
I have seen the face of the city change—bus stops replaced by bomb shelters called “Migunits” – and documented the city as it became a world symbol, visited by John McCain, Barak Obama, and even the mayor of Los Angeles. I have met Christian groups on pilgrimages to pay homage, and “trauma tourists” who show up with their cameras at Sderot’s police station to get a photo of themselves with the qassam museum. I have met Israelis afraid to come here, and groups of Americans who come to educate themselves and show support.
In my year, I have witnessed an incursion into Gaza, a cease-fire negotiated (even though supposedly the Israeli government isn’t speaking with Hamas), and that cease-fire broken. I have been here during corruption charges brought against the mayor of Sderot, and against the prime minister of Israel. I was here when rockets started falling on Ashkelon – a much larger city – bringing the number of people affected by rocket fire from 20,000 to 250,000.
As all of this was happening, I fell in love with one of the subjects of my film – Avi Vaknin. First with his music, then with his lyrics – poignant and full of protest – and then with him. I will never forget the reaction of a colleague I was meeting in Tel Aviv. “Wow! You think of Sderot as a place where people are suffering through a war. Its amazing to think that meanwhile, people are living their lives, people are even falling in love, “ she marveled.
We decided to have our wedding here in Sderot, in our garden. That was strange for two reasons—most Israelis have huge weddings held in event halls, and secondly, nobody has events in Sderot. In fact, for five years, weddings, bar mitzvahs, brits…. have all been held outside of the city. Nobody wants to risk their event if there is a qassam that morning. What if people are afraid to come? What if you hire a caterer and then you’ve wasted all your money?
Though my parents were certainly not thrilled with the idea of coming to Sderot, and even locals wondered what would happen if there would be a problem, we decided to make a statement. We had met here, this place had brought us together. Avi had even proposed to me in one of those Migunits—the bus stop bomb shelters.
It was a risk – our home bomb shelter holds about seven people and we were inviting one hundred. Besides, if there was a Tzeva Adom, you would never be able to hear it because of the music. But we did it anyway. And my parents, sister, uncles, cousins, and friends from all over Israel who volunteered to risk their lives to come to our wedding, had the time of their lives.
Now here we are, and one year has passed since all of this began. It’s impossible not to realize how much has happened in this one year, and how much I have learned and lived from my little window on the world in Sderot.