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Polis Institute will host a new type of culture exchange on June 6 to 8, as artists and appreciators wander through the school’s neighborhood at the Musrara Mix festival.

Two videos will loop in the front and back courtyards of Polis as part of the 17th annual festival hosted by The Naggar School of Art, a school that sits across the street from Polis.

The festival is meant to involve the neighborhood’s residents in hosting indoor and outdoor live performances, art exhibitions and in the exchange of ideas between people of different languages and cultures.

Organizers expect 70 art exhibitions and 7,000 guests, who may stroll past the two screenings at Polis between an electro-acoustic performance at the neighborhood’s Beit Canada house or a live performance art show at a resident neighbor’s front garden.

This years’ theme of “Terra Incognita: East Meets West” highlights the festival’s position in the Musrara neighborhood on the border between the eastern and western parts of Jerusalem, according to the festival’s curator, Sharon Horodi.

“We don’t mean only geographical East and West but also of course culture ... Something that is not a dichotomy … but the fusion between cultures.”

Sharon Horodi

The show’s artists are contending with their own identities on the spectrum between East and West, as well as North and South, Horodi said. The international lineup includes a half Japanese and half German artist, an Iranian artist living in the United States and a South Indian artist who connects his cultural background to pre-colonial Africa.

One of the exhibitions at Polis is a collage film by Turkish artist Hale Ekinci that features a traditional pre-marriage ceremony set in an immigrant Turkish community of Germany.

Using a combination of documentary footage, photos and drawings, the video “paints a world in which family relations, ethnicity, stereotypes, rituals and gender issues join together in a charged scene that reflects the inherent bizarreness of traditions and prejudices everywhere, regardless of culture,” according to the work’s description on the Musrara Mix website.

The second video at Polis, “Lonely Planet,” by German artist Julian Rosefeldt, features a western backpacker in India, who loops endlessly back and forth from the desert, into a labyrinth of crowds, until he reaches a Bollywood dancing scene, “in which he is in danger of becoming lost forever,” according to the festival’s website.

While Polis students may share the same sentiment on their first days of immersion in the Polis language learning method, the film, according to the site, is meant to speak “about the hopes and illusions of modern travelers going to Asia.”

Still, Polis’ mission, as a school that teaches modern, ancient, eastern and western languages, fits into this years’ theme and the mission of the festival nicely, Horodi said.

“I think what (Polis is) doing through languages…and people learning about other cultures through language, brings a strength that connects people,” Horodi said, “to not take things in a stereotypical way that we think but look at them from different points of view.”

The Inaugural Lecture at Polis Institute last week allowed Polis students and faculty to gain new insights into the life and survival of the Hebrew language in the past two millennia.

Asher Salah, a renowned specialist in Italian-Jewish literature, spoke on how the Hebrew language developed during the Jewish diaspora, in particular in Italy.

The lecture, titled “Hebrew before Ivrit: The Life of a Language in Exile,” focused on the vicissitudes of Hebrew between the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, and the revival of the modern national movement that led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

 “I think this topic is very much adapted to the reality of what we are living in Polis,” Professor Christophe Rico, Director of the Polis Institute, said before the hour-long lecture, held on Nov. 10.

Salah presented the history of the Hebrew language throughout six periods--Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Medieval Hebrew, Renaissance Hebrew, Maskilic Hebrew and finally, Modern Hebrew. 

A brief history

Biblical Hebrew, which is taught at Polis as a living language, survived throughout all six periods, Salah said. However, during the Jewish exile, it was used mainly in academic and religious settings or as a sort of lingua franca across the Diaspora. Its use ebbed and almost disappeared at various points throughout its exile, substituted by vernacular languages.

Hebrew was a still widespread language of the Jews until the 4th Century, although in many parts of the Diaspora its knowledge was quickly vanishing. For instance, late-empire tombstones of Jews in Italy featured Latin and Greek inscriptions instead of Hebrew.

Nevertheless, at the turn of the first millennium, there was across the Jewish communities in the world a strong revival of Hebrew, testified by an intense study of its grammar and accompanied by the appearance of the first Hebrew dictionaries.  At this time, the use of Hebrew spread outside the traditional fields of liturgy and religious learning.

“It is possible that the birth of written vernacular languages across Europe at the turn of the first millennium had produced a reaction among the Jews who wanted their own literary and linguistic identity anchored in their historic holy tongue,” Salah claimed.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, an important technical development led to further changes. 

“The printing of Hebrew books brought about the standardization of the Hebrew language and the development of a new literary canon,” Salah said.

The Renaissance, according to Salah, created the conditions of a stronger cooperation between Jewish and Christian scholars in joint ventures such as the printing of the Talmud in Venice. It also led to the development of Christian Hebraism.

However, after the Renaissance and until the well-known modern resurgence of the language, Hebrew remained circumscribed to a minority of learned people within Jewish communities, as testified by Leone Modena’s witness in his Historia de Riti Hebraici in the 17th century.

Salah's life and research

In the past decade, Salah has focused his research on the literary history of the Jews in Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries, dealing also with the survival of Hebrew in Italy after the emancipation of the Jews.

Despite its relatively small population of Jews compared to other European countries like Germany, Italy is an interesting laboratory to understand the interactions of the Jews with the surrounding culture and offers an alternative model of their confrontation with modernity in Europe.

Italy made a large contribution to Jewish culture. According to the data collected by Salah, from 1469 to 1868, the country printed 16 percent of the world’s Hebrew books, and in the 16th century, almost half of the world’s Hebrew books were printed in Italy.

“The wars of independence in Italy strengthened Italian identity and acculturation trends among the Jewish population, but also led to a short-lived revival of the Hebrew language in the 1850's, that has been largely overlooked by contemporary scholarship” Salah said.

As an Italian Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1991 but also has lived in Spain, Argentina, Algeria and Morocco, Salah’s research has been motivated by his own experience with “scattered and fragmented identities,” he said after the lecture.

“We hide behind this objectivity of scholarship, but many times our taste, our choices in the academic field link to our biographical life course,” adding that he believes in the importance of cultural encounters, the likes of which occur daily at the Polis Institute and in Jerusalem.

“The cultural dialogue is crucial to me,” Salah said. “I try to understand how our identity is shaped by cross-cultural encounters, refusing to accept the logic of identity enclosures.”

Salah has taught at the Hebrew University and Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem since 1998. He has published several books, and participated in the project of creating a common history text-book for Israeli and Palestinian schools that has been published in many languages, including Italian.