The folk music festival Jacob’s Ladder was founded in 1978 by British Jews Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad, who were then new immigrants to Israel. Held every spring on the verdant shores of Nof Ginosar, festival goers often start the day with a dip in the Sea of Galilee, enjoying the imposing view of the Golan Heights’ hills on the other side.
Music runs on three stages throughout the weekend. This year, there were many tributes to the recently departed blues legend B.B. King and a great deal of Anglo-American folk music, which is what Jacob’s Ladder is famous for. There may not be an instantly identifiable reason why Israelis love Irish music, but The Bloomers, a traditional Irish Band had the dancing crowd whipped into a frenzy on Friday night. Old Man River brought psychedelic folk music on Saturday with sparse instrumentation, sparser lyrics and sporting a 1960’s Bob Dylan-esque halo of curls. The Abrams Brothers are a Canadian Pop-Bluegrass band who are carrying on a four generations long family tradition of being professional musicians. They played both nights and both their sets of upbeat fiddle tunes were crowd pleasers.
In addition to enjoying every stage I stumbled upon, I was on the festival’s lineup as well. Having lived in Israel for 5 months now, I decided that I should be able to sing a song in Hebrew. I chose Mode Ani, by the late Israeli songwriter Meir Ariel. A rough translation of the first verse:
For all your truth and grace
And the good, and the bad, and the good
That you’ve done with me and with my household
And with my relatives, friends and my land
And with the whole world and its people
That you’ve created…
The Vinegrads are as invested in the festival as they were when they started. Menachem, bearded, with a pierced ear and a cowboy hat, told “dad jokes”on the main stage in between sets and picked up stray bits of trash on the lawns, when the need arose. Yehudit, who signs every email relating to the festival with “lots of love, Yehudit”, could be seen visiting performers during their sound-checks, in a festive sun-hat, to make sure they had everything they needed and to wish them well.
Though the festival is attended by thousands from Israel’s “Anglo” community, it has a distinctly Israeli feel to it as well. Shabbat candles are lit on Friday night in the lobby of the hotel. There were tomatoes, cucumbers, and hummus everywhere, and hookahs bubbling at every turn.
The main stage is nestled in the “Palmach Grove”, a small eucalyptus orchard named after one of the Jewish underground military organizations that existed in British Mandate Palestine. Jewish pioneers planted the grove in the 1920’s, and the Palmach was used to hold meetings and training exercises in its wooded confines; a battle was even fought there during the 1948 War of Independence. Head of the Palmach, Yigal Allon, was a native of Kibbutz Ginosar, and is buried a stone’s throw from the main stage in the kibbutz’s cemetery.
If Jerusalem has become tense and claustrophobic, or if Tel Aviv’s southern California beach atmosphere feels just a bit vapid, Jacob’s Ladder is an idyllic retreat not far from central Israel.
The festival has grown larger year after year – a trend that, between the music, the scenery, and the company, should show no sign of abating.
The winter incarnation of Jacob’s Ladder will be held December 4-5, 2015 and more information can be found on their website.