Israel through Art

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Three young Canadian Jewish women have helped to launch a new web portal – – an English-language site showcasing Israeli arts.

Quite possibly the first site of its kind, it encompasses all the arts of an entire country, including film, music, literature and visual art. – “omanoot” means “art” in Hebrew – aims to paint a picture of Israel that fewer people see and give them a different sort of opportunity to connect to the country.

Everybody knows about Israeli technology and startups, but the same creative energy is pouring into the arts,” says founder Edoe Cohen, 32. “We want to bring that energy to the world. Why do people fall in love with Israel? It’s not the politics. It’s the culture and the vibrancy, and the creative energy of our society.

Cohen, who moved to Israel from the United States when he was 15 years old, arrived at the idea for when he was a student of political science and modern Jewish studies at Columbia University in New York. It was just after the second intifadah, and sentiment on campus was vehemently anti-Israeli.

I realized very quickly that the way to make people feel connected to Israel was not through ‘talking heads,’ but through cultural diplomacy,” says Cohen, who was instrumental in bringing Israeli bands and other artists to campus. “People connect to the culture, the people, the energy [of the country]. I saw first-hand the power of the arts to bring people together and connect them to Israel.

Cohen, who is enrolled in the Kellogg-Recanati International Executive MBA program at Tel Aviv University, commenced work on the site in 2007, after receiving startup funds from several philanthropic sources, among them the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators, a worldwide network of young social entrepreneurs.

ROI also helped connect Cohen to the Career Israel program, where he found the interns he needed to make the site a reality. Among the 20 members of his all-volunteer staff from North America, the United Kingdom, France and Israel are Canadians Alix Billinkoff, Romy Poletti and Orli Kessel.

Billinkoff, 23, from Winnipeg, works as Omanoot’s webmaster. She joined the project five months ago, when she arrived in Tel Aviv as part of a long-term Israel experience program. “[Working for the site] has been a great introduction to Israeli culture,” says Billinkoff, who was familiar with a few very popular Israeli music groups before she started at Omanoot, but has since been exposed to all sorts of Israeli art scenes.

The site is amazing,” says Billinkoff, a business graduate from the University of Manitoba. “It gives Canadians access to Israeli art that is otherwise almost impossible to get in Canada. The site makes it possible to experience Israel from the comfort of home and stay connected with Israel after you visit and return home.

Until, says Poletti, 27, from London, Ont., most people’s impression of Israeli art was restricted to their parents’ dusty Judaica collections from the 1970s and ’80s. Omanoot gives a thus-far non-existent window into a living, breathing, thriving, multi-faceted contemporary Israeli art scene.

There is nothing else like [Omanoot] that speaks to young people, and I think it’s really important – this is a really great way to show that there are amazing dynamic things happening in Israel,” says Poletti, who came to Israel for the first time with Birthright Israel in July.

She intended to return to Israel for one month after the trip, but has stayed on for the last four months and counting. “I absolutely love it here,” says the McGill University graduate of art history and communications.

Poletti is working on Omanoot’s marketing strategy, which in its first phase aims to connect the Diaspora to Israel and strengthen that connection and, in its second phase, intends to connect all people to Israel.

Who knows that street art in Tel Aviv is among the top scenes in the world? This is not something that’s known in a synagogue in Toronto. They aren’t talking about that in Sunday school class,” says Poletti. “But it goes beyond that. [Omanoot] is not only a way to speak to the Diaspora, but to the world, globally. That’s my dream.”

After five months in Tel Aviv, gathering content, in the form of artist biographies and art profiles for Omanoot, Kessel, 24, returned to her native Ottawa in June, where she works in human resources for Canadian Citizenship and Immigration. She still writes and edits for Omanoot.

It’s wonderful to be able to stay involved in Omanoot. It’s a very powerful way of speaking about Israel. The site gives valuable insight into the beauty and joy of Israel, and also the difficulties and uncertainties,” says Kessel, a graduate of Queen’s University with a degree in finance.

Her one-on-one work with Israeli artists provided a window into the country’s “artistic psyche,” she says. “There is so much more going on than what people living outside of Israel, who have never been to Israel, can ever imagine. There is such a vast cultural richness to the art that comes out of Israel, and the drive that artists have to create, to be seen and heard, is nothing short of incredible.

Although the site intends to show a side of Israel “beyond the conflict,” a lot of Israeli art takes this subject head-on. “Their [the artists’] work sometimes expresses things that can’t be explained in words, like what it’s like to live in instability,” says Kessel.

Omanoot doesn’t shy away from political content. “We’re committed to featuring artists of every ethnicity and religion,” says Cohen. “Nor will we shy away from art that might be critical of Israel. That’s part of being a thriving democracy.

Currently, the site’s film channel has the most content, including artist profiles, interviews, photos and clips. Visitors can also purchase films on the site. Eventually, Cohen hopes to offer full-length features, streamed directly from the site. He says the remaining channels – visual arts, music, and literature – will be filled with content by the summer. “The minute we finish the sections, we will add more content and more functions to the site.”

It will take time, but Omanoot aims to post profiles not just on mainstream artists who receive a lot of media coverage, but also on independent artists and student artists, to give a feel for the ever-changing and developing artistic innovation taking place on the ground.

The collection is very eclectic,” says Cohen. “A visitor might come to the site because he likes [the band] Hadag Nahash, but once he’s here will discover many other Israeli hip-hop musicians.

In addition to the raw content the site makes available to users, it also features lesson plans, meant for schools. delivers the beautiful Israel to Israelis and to Jews and non-Jews everywhere,” says Justin Korda, director of ROI. “We are especially proud that ROIers on both sides of the Atlantic have teamed up under Edoe’s visionary leadership to showcase Israel’s multi-faceted art scene.

by Jenny Hazan


(This article originally appeared in The Canadian Jewish News)

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