Israeli Musician Adam Ben Ezra’s Magic Sound

Sometimes subjects for feature articles come from the strangest and most unexpected places.

Late this past summer I heard an Israeli musician perform who blew my mind. I was at a work event with my husband, out on our first “date” since our son had been born more than 9 months earlier, and ended up hanging out alone. It was the opening of the Jerusalem Music Conference, and the first performer was a double bass player named Adam Ben Ezra.

I was in the ladies room checking my hair, a bit bored and trying to find a way to pass the time, when I heard this awesome sound coming from the stage down the hall.

“At last they started playing music!” I thought. The stage had been empty for a good hour while the VIPs and staffers of the music conference and other guests busied themselves with having a few drinks from the open bar. It was your basic awkward social/work function where nobody is really there to have fun, and almost everyone is “on” in their work persona. I think I was one of five people in the crowd of about 200 that really had nothing in particular to do.

But when I heard the music coming from the other room, I came out as fast as possible, expecting to see a band on stage. Instead, I just saw one guy with a contra bass and a fedora, jamming out to a highly distracted audience. Since everyone was huddled around or near the bar, I took up a spot in the audience pit in front of the stage and enjoyed hearing the jazz/funk/rhythm tune, even more so because I had the performer practically to myself.

After less than 3 minutes, I could tell this musician was something special, and turned to the only other person in the room watching him perform.

“Isn’t this guy amazing?!” I asked him.

“Yeah, I think so,” the rather slight, wiry man with dark hair and a huge smile answered back without skipping a beat. “I’m his manager!”

The manager, who turned out to be Guy Dayan of  Goola, stuck his hand out to shake mine.

What followed was one of those serendipitous moments that happens sometimes in the life of a reporter. I got to have a long chat with Ben Ezra and Dayan outside the venue while they took a cigarette break. They are charming, down-to-earth guys who love what they do. Ben Ezra is a true musician, largely self-taught and motivated to keep working, creating and improving on his craft. Dayan is the consummate business man and manger–always on the lookout for his client’s welfare in a business and personal sense (it helps that the two have been friends since childhood).

A few weeks later I was in Tel Aviv and spent two hours talking with Ben Ezra and Dayan about music, inspiration, and the artistic mind. Even though they were smoking almost the entire time (I hate cigarette smoke), it didn’t bother me in the least. I was so interested in what they had to say, who they were, and where they were going that I didn’t want the interview to end.

That intersection of interesting, talented and charming is what makes for good copy–every time.

Here’s the article as it appeared in print in English.

5 ways journalists can use social media for on-the-ground reporting in the Middle East

By Genevieve Belmaker for Poynter.org

Social media is a particularly powerful tool in the Middle East, where in some countries it gives people a way to express themselves. That expression takes many forms, from social protest, to political criticism, to sharing news and information.

Most recently, groups such as the Israeli Defense Force have been using social media to seek support and participation as the Gaza Strip conflict escalates.

Sometimes major news happens in people’s backyards and they send out extremely valuable tidbits of information in real-time. For journalists who can’t be everywhere or be there to see it firsthand, the hyper-active social media stratosphere in the Middle East is an invaluable tool. The explosion of regional use of platforms like Twitter and Facebook started with Arab Spring, and has only grown since then.

READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE AT POYNTER.ORG

Getting Too Close for Comfort

Getting physically close to a story is not as easy as it seems. First of all, most people are not conditioned to think in terms of potential sources of information, getting close enough to take a good photo, or whipping out a video recorder to document something interesting and unique. It takes repetition and practice to get used to always keeping an eye out for the story.

To go from passive observer to engaged observer (by recording what is happening) also takes overcoming blocks that keep us in the passive category. Sometimes it is fear. Sometimes laziness. Sometimes timidity.

Fear covers all of the above. But why is it so powerful? I think the answer is that it’s not.

When I was in Ein Kerem, Israel on the last day of Sukkot (a major Jewish holiday) recently, I came across some orthodox Jewish men dancing and singing in the streets. I knew it was a good opportunity to take some photos and video–just for practice. I am very fearful of photographing people, so I try to do it as often as possible. Maybe in a year or two I won’t be as timid.

In this case, it is understandable that I was a bit fearful. The only time anyone has ever threatened to stone me was a couple of years ago when I was photographing a huge demonstration by orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem.

A photo from a protest of 10,000 orthodox Jewish men and boys in Jerusalem in 2010 that I covered.

But standing there in the idyllic setting of Ein Kerem, I overcame that bizarre and isolated incident and whipped out my Samsung Galaxy smartphone (basically a miniature computer) to take some photos and video.

Ein Kerem is a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that is a huge tourist attraction. The small scale of the dancing street worked to my advantage because there was no through traffic (actually they were blocking any through traffic). The tourists were also an advantage, because there were quite a few people standing around gawking at the men as they danced and sang with their holy book, the Torah. Sukkot is the end of the Jewish calendar year and marks the point when religious followers of Judaism start reading the Torah from the beginning after spending the year reading through it.

A view of the mountains from Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

While I was taking the video, I knew I wasn’t close enough. I took a few small steps forward, measuring my distance against other onlookers. I was very consciously seeking strength in numbers, but why? What did I think these singing, dancing men were going to do to me if I got a bit closer? Yell at me, tell me to get lost, or pick up the nearest rock and chuck it at my head? It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but coming clean about shortcomings as a reporter post-story can be instructive if you make a brutally honest assessment. Well, it doesn’t have to be brutal, but  it should be without permissive trimmings and excuses if you want to do better the next time. And there will be a next time, unless you plan on quitting.

While still mid-story, there are a few things at play when photographing or videoing people on the street. First of all, are you invading their privacy? Second of all, are you interfering with them in any way? Sometimes there are no answers to either question, but they should be asked. Rule number one in journalistic ethics: do no harm.

Sadly, when it comes to certain kinds of public gatherings, a large media presence can serve to embolden even the most timid reporter (and protester, for that matter!). Just take a look at this video of recent protests in Spain. It’s something akin to mob mentality. You can easily see what a large gathering of photographers looks like. It takes a strong journalist to break away from the pack in such a situation and work on the outskirts of the story, away from the mutually-generating vibe of protesters and journalists.

In 2009 I was in Jerusalem covering some tensions between Muslims and Jews outside the walls of the Old City. The situation was electrified, and the gaggle of reporters there didn’t  help.

Police horses form an equine barrier during tensions near the Old City in Jerusalem in 2009.

In that situation, I was extremely bold. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like anything that I believe I am capable of. I got in front of a row of police horses and snapped several shots. I stood alone in front of a huge pack of Muslim men and photographed them as they bent in prayer, not moving until they told me, “Uh, can you move? We don’t want to pray with a woman in front of us.” I also got very good close-up shots of people’s faces while they were yelling at each other, shots from the roof of a building, and several shots of armed border patrol and police.

That experience proves two things. It proves the controlling force I think fear has on me as a reporter actually doesn’t exist. But more importantly, it proves that I am capable of getting as close to the story as I want to.

Jerusalem’s Confusing Geography

Tensions at Jerusalem’s Old City’s Damascus Gate

Reporting on any story involves a bit of geography; often a bit of map reading. For those of us not naturally skilled at reading maps and taking directions, this can be….well, tough. But Israel is a particular challenge.

The capital city, Jerusalem, even though technically and officially united, is still mentally and emotionally divided between east and west by an invisible “green line.” There are sometimes disputes about what is on which side, and sometimes disputes about what belongs to which side. The City of David is a perfect example of one of the many controversial points in Jerusalem.

Even inside Jerusalem’s Old City, residents of east Jerusalem can sometimes find it difficult to do something as simple as go to the mosque at Al Aqsa to pray. The Old City has ancient territorial divisions between different religions, and when there are security concerns, the Israeli authorities take control and make it harder for everyone to move about.

The key to understanding, navigating, and enjoying Jerusalem is to navigate around major landmarks. As with many things in Israel, it’s seriously complicated.

An Epiphany about Peace in the Middle East

You can tell a lot about people in a certain locale by the way they drive. In Japan, drivers are super-controlled and maintain a façade of calm almost at all times. In Central America, the general attitude of drivers is like, “Whatever….” In both cases, this parallels with the respective cultures. In LA (the worst possible example in the US that I can think of) you’d better have your last will and testament in order before you get behind the wheel. You know the second Matrix movie—the one where they get on the freeway? That’s LA. Basically, California drivers are known for being “free spirits” (a.k.a. people who disregard rules) on the road. That corresponds well with the whole vibe of California in general.

If you apply my theory to how people drive in Israel, there seems to be a general frustration and desire to be in control among the populace. A typical example was the tiny car I saw recently on the narrow highway into Jerusalem that played chicken with an enormous semi-truck full of hay. The semi tried to switch into the car’s lane, but the little car refused to budge. It was fascinating to watch, because it seemed impossible that any driver could be that outright crazy. But the really crazy part was that the itty-bitty car won.

Another time I saw a woman leave her car in the middle of the road to go yell at the driver in the vehicle behind her. Their only crime seemed to be that they had yelled some criticisms out their window. And more than once I’ve had other cars that do not have the right of way drive straight at me, honking like maniacs.

Roundabouts in Israel are a special problem. They seem to suffer from being treated merely as suggestions. Using them according to the universal rules by which they operate is optional. The option is: If you’re not in the mood to do things according to the rules, no problem.

One day not long ago, I came upon backed-up traffic at a roundabout because of a police car block. The presence of the police car (which I assume contained at least one police officer) was not enough to inspire drivers to be on their best behavior. Instead, everyone got riled up and it turned into a free-for-all. The one lane for cars to merge into the circle became three. Cars managed to wedge themselves into all kinds of odd positions that were generally not facing in the direction that traffic flows. I ended up in the “middle” lane, with a militant-looking bald guy on my right yelling at me as he inched his way past with his right tires on the sidewalk. It was all of about three minutes before the cars started moving again, but it was enough to make mortal enemies out of the drivers.

Pedestrians are not innocent, either. People on foot use crosswalks when they are available, but they also freely jaywalk—with some serious attitude. Jaywalking isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s generally a good idea to look and see if there are any cars coming, and then wait. In Jerusalem, where the streets are old and many were built when horses and donkeys were the main mode of transportation, sometimes pedestrians don’t even have a sidewalk to walk on.

But the blatant, amateur jaywalking that abounds here is enough to make your blood pressure shoot up 20 points when you’re behind the wheel. Usually, you feel pretty good after you’ve swerved and just missed hitting some lady with seven kids who jumped out from behind a row of parked cars. But when you come upon the random guy walking lazily in the street, parallel to the sidewalk, pedestrians start to seem like part of the problem.

Not everything about driving in Israel is bad, though. Personally, I love the thing they do with traffic lights going from red to yellow to green. That way, you can have your foot on the gas and start moving before the light actually changes. I’m pretty sure Israeli engineers stole the concept for their traffic lights from those Japanese video games I used to play as a kid at the pizza parlor. It’s exactly the same—all that’s missing is a lady standing on the side waving a checkered flag.

So between people inventing driving rules, lights that change backwards, and pedestrians who seem to think they have more right to the roads than cars, everyone in this country who walks or drives is in danger and under pressure at every second. That brings us to my (unqualified) theory about how to achieve peace in the Middle East: have a society-wide campaign to improve road etiquette. Maybe more civil behavior on the road will lead to more civil behavior between the parties trying to achieve peace. It’s worth a try.