These Artistic Trailblazers Aim To Express Israel's Multiculturalism

Yair Dalal, on the left, and Hanna Azoulay Hasfari, on the right, are credited as artistic trailblazers who have broadened the lens of Israeli culture to better reflect Israel’s multiculturalism. (Courtesy Jewish Arts Collaborative and Israeli Stage)
Yair Dalal, on the left, and Hanna Azoulay Hasfari, on the right, are credited as artistic trailblazers who have broadened the lens of Israeli culture to better reflect Israel’s multiculturalism. (Courtesy Jewish Arts Collaborative and Israeli Stage)

Hanna Azoulay Hasfari, who is the Israeli-born daughter of Arabic-speaking Moroccan Jewish immigrants, has broken ethnic barriers on the Israeli screen and stage. Yair Dalal, whose parents fled persecution against Jews in Baghdad in the 1950s, has widened the cultural landscape with the richly textured sounds of an ancient Middle Eastern instrument.

Today, against the odds, Azoulay Hasfari and Dalal are credited as artistic trailblazers who have broadened the lens of Israeli culture to better reflect Israel's multicultural population. Azoulay Hasfari is an award-winning popular actress, playwright and director whose films and plays reveal the little-known world of Moroccan- and Arabic-Jewish heritage. Dalal is an acclaimed violinist and master oudist, a prolific composer and scholar of Iraqi, Arabic and Bedouin music.

Over the next couple weeks, Boston audiences have a rare chance to catch them both, in separate appearances and performances.

Providing A Nuanced Perspective 

The world premiere of Azoulay Hasfari's new play, “Dina,” will be presented by Israeli Stage in two staged readings on April 1 and 3. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon, the company's founder and artistic director, “Dina” boasts a stellar cast including Jeremiah Kissel, Maureen Keiller, Shanae Burch as a young filmmaker and other local performers.

Azoulay Hasfari is in Boston for two weeks as Israeli Stage's playwright-in-residence during its sixth season featuring plays by all women writers. She's the first Sephardic writer to be hosted by the theater company that presents plays by contemporary Israeli writers. Azoulay Hasfari will also speak about her artistic journey at public programs at three area colleges.

“For me, it's important for Boston to see the whole of Israel and especially from the perspective which is under-explored in the U.S.,” said Ben-Aharon, who is directing “Dina.”

Dalal will give a concert on March 31 presented by Jewish Arts Collaborative, a recently formed partnership that merged two Boston arts organizations: New Center for Arts and Culture and the Boston Jewish Music Festival.

He has been on the wish list for the Boston Jewish Music Festival for years, according to Joey Baron, one of the organization's founders who is now the artistic director of Jewish Arts Collaborative.

While Dalal draws on centuries-old melodies and rhythms, he has influenced scores of young Israeli musicians who infuse these Middle Eastern sounds for a new blend of popular Israeli music, Baron said. "Dalal is the real deal."

Azoulay Hasfari and Dalal came of age in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when Israel's art, music and literature mirrored its large Eastern European Jewish population whose artistic reference point was Western Europe. The language, culture and traditions of Jews from Arab lands were confined to the four walls of their homes and their immigrant neighborhoods.

Though they are independent programs, both offer Boston audiences a sophisticated and nuanced perspective of Israeli society as it exists in 2016, according to Yehuda Yaakov, Israel's Consul General to New England. Jews whose heritage is from Arab lands and Iran are now about half of Israel's population. Collectively, they are referred to Mizrahi Jews.

Creating Cultural Bridges

Yair Dalal playing his oud. (Courtesy Jewish Arts Collaborative)
Yair Dalal playing his oud. (Courtesy Jewish Arts Collaborative)

At an early age, the violin playing of an Iraqi neighbor caught Dalal's ear. In a phone conversation from Israel, Dalal said he began taking violin lessons at the age of six at a local conservatory, playing Western classical music and later some rock 'n’ roll. There were no role models in his immigrant neighborhood for pursuing a career in music and he put aside the instrument at 18, when he began his compulsory military service. It wasn't until decades later, at age 40, that Dalal embraced the life of a musician and performer, determined to find his voice through the music of his Iraqi heritage.

With more than a dozen recordings and in worldwide performances, the 60-year-old Dalal creates delicately layered, mesmerizing melodies, that draw on traditional Arabic music, the classical music of his early studies as well as the colors of improvised jazz.

He is devoted to music as a bridge between people and works closely with Arab as well as Bedouin musicians, an interest that developed through a friendship with a neighbor in Israel's desert region where he lives, he revealed. As a dedicated educator, Dalal founded Studio Almaya, a school focused on performing and preserving ethnic music that promotes musical collaboration between Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Dalal's Boston concert will include music from his recording, “...And You Love,” (V'ahavta, in Hebrew), he said.

Identity Through Art

Hanna Azoulay Hasfari. (Courtesy Israeli Stage)
Hanna Azoulay Hasfari. (Courtesy Israeli Stage)

Azoulay Hasfari was recognized as a talented young performer landing leading roles in school plays and was tapped for a scholarship to a performing arts school. But at the time, she didn't imagine a life in theater. If asked about her future, she would say she wanted to be a factory worker, she recalled. “I didn't have a role model.”

But at age 13, she was transfixed by the film “Gone With the Wind.”

“My whole life changed. I wanted to be Vivien Leigh; actually Scarlett O'Hara.” She wanted to impress the world with her dazzling costumes, Azoulay Hasfari recalled vividly in a conversation via Skype from Israel.

As a Sephardic Jew, she did not look the part, but she pursued her dream to perform.

Chasing the unattainable fantasy of becoming the blue-eyed belle was less an inspiration than a motive that “moved me from place to place,” she said. It has served as a kind of backdrop to Azoulay Hasfari's life journey from performing with the theatrical troupe of the Israeli Defense Forces, to forming a theater company with her husband Shmuel Hasfari to prominent roles on Israeli television.

It would take time and personal conviction for Azoulay Hasfari to connect her Moroccan Jewish heritage with her theatrical life.

With her breakthrough film, “Sh'Chur,” (1994), directed by Shmuel Hasfari, Azoulay Hasfari established an enduring influence on Israeli arts. For the first time, “a person from the Mizrahi community wrote a script about themselves,” she recalled. Until then, films about Mizrahi culture were written by Ashkenazi Jews. “The stories were flat,” she said.

By contrast, “Sh'Chur,” and her other works, including the 2014 film, “Orange People,” that had its U.S. premiere at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, come alive with the authentic stories, personalities, sounds, colors and aromas of Mizrahi culture. “It's the language, the way of moving your hands, a way of thinking” that stand out, she said.

“Dina” continues her exploration of Moroccan Jewish identity and the roles of women. The play centers on an elderly woman, traumatized at a young age, who is now facing death from cancer. She engages a young filmmaker to make a film about her life.

Even as Azoulay Hasfari draws on her family and the roots of Mizrahi culture, she pursues universal stories of motherhood, generational tensions, and the pursuit of creativity. “People are people all over the world,” she insisted. It's the theme she's pursued for 25 years, she reflected.

“When you take away someone's roots, you have nothing. Roots are important. But they are not all.”

Two performances of Hanna Azoulay Hasfari's "Dina" are set for April 1, 7 p.m., at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center, and April 3, 7 p.m., at Boston University Hillel. For tickets and information about her “Identity Through Art” lecture series, visit the Israeli Stage's website.

Yair Dalal will give a concert on March 31, at 7:30 p.m., at Temple Beth Zion, in Brookline. He'll also perform at a Shabbat dinner with music and song on Friday evening, April 1, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Israeli American Council in Newton.

Penny Schwartz is a Boston-based freelance journalist specializing in Jewish subjects and the arts. She's a contributing writer for Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and her articles are also published in Hadassah Magazine, the Boston Globe, Times of Israel, Jewish Journal of Boston and others. Follow her at @PennySchwartz.


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