Women and women’s voices were front and center at a moving, musical evening at Neve Schechter on January 2, 2020. Neve Schechter and the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts awarded the first ever Neve Schechter Prize for Contemporary Israeli Art to musicians Maureen Nehedar and the members of the band A-WA. Given Israeli news with its seemingly never ending reports that document the exclusion of women in the public sphere, the prize committee decided to recognize talented musicians who are women. The award reinforces The Schechter Institutes’ mission of promoting an egalitarian Judaism that embraces a wide array of voices. Maureen Nehedar, singer, composer and poet, is an internationally recognized Jewish-Israeli singer of Persian origin. A-WA, a band made up of sisters Tagel, Liron and Tair Haim is world renowned for musical creativity that is extraordinary in it quality, originality and depth. These four women reach diverse musical audiences in Israel and around the world, connecting the traditions, languages and stories of ancient communities to key issues and the cultural landscape of Israeli society today. These rich paths of expression are what Neve Schechter aims to encourage, cultivate and recognize.
The prize was awarded in a festive musical ceremony at Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv. The evening included a panel discussion with Ethiopian-Israeli rapper Eden Derso, folk-rock musician and vocalist Aya Zahav Feiglin, Galgalatz radio station DK Noa Argov and Sharon Arbiv, artistic director of Yahalom Records. This diverse group of contemporary women musicians discussed their role models and sources of inspiration, the joys and challenges of the music business and their lives as artists.
A-WA, a musical trio that blends traditional Israeli and Yemenite musical traditions with hip hop and electronica rhythms, tell stories of the Yemenite-Israeli experience in their own musical language with verve. Their debut album, “Habib Galbi” (My Love), came out in 2016 and is based on Yemenite women’s songs that passed as oral traditions from generation to generation over hundreds of years. The video of the single Habib Galbi has over 13 million views on YouTube. Their second album, “Bayti Fi Rasi” (My Home is in my Head), tells the journey of their great-grandmother Rachel from Yemen to Israel. It includes a deft political criticism of the absorption of Yemenite Jews into Israeli society. A-WA has achieved worldwide success breaking boundaries and bringing the depth and beauty of Yemenite culture to young audiences across the world. Their music and their visually dramatic concerts blur boundaries of religion, culture and language.
Maureen Nehedar’s unique voice gives her the ability to integrate the world of Israeli music and piyut, liturgical poetry. The songs she composes are based on deep musicological research that brings to life forgotten liturgical texts. In her albums “Asleep in the Bosom of Childhood” and “Why are you Standing Far Away?” musical traditions are preserved but also made new. Nehedar is at the vanguard of Israeli composers in her professionalism, clear voice and her ability to give voice to memories and experiences of longing. She breaks gender and cultural conventions, and works her way through the male poetic world without trying to please the audience or compromise on musical quality and originality. She brings vision and originality to contemporary Israeli culture.
In her acceptance speech Nehedar said: “It is a privilege for me to be included among the generations that have been are part of strengthening the Jewish people from within. I’ve given voice to a generation that never had a role model in general culture nor a place in the center of the conversation. I saw the wonder and happiness in the eyes’ of my audiences as they discovered songs in Hebrew and Persian. I have seen and received reactions of delight from people of different origins – from the east and the west – who expressed their joy at the Persian and original Jewish music in the performances and albums I put out. They realized that this culture is not just of a specific and defined group in the population, but that it belongs to us all.
Neve Schechter is proud that the prize’s inaugural recipients so perfectly embody the musical and artistic diversity of Israeli society. Neve Schechter director, Romina Resin, explained how the prize and the recipients exemplify the best of Israeli-Jewish culture and Neve Schechter’s mission: “This award is a new way to fulfill Neve Schechter’s vision, as a home that allows intellectuals, artists and the general public the opportunity to meet, experience and create from a deep, sensitive and bold dialogue with their identity, from correspondence with Jewish and universal traditions and from connection to the cultural, social and political realities we all share today.”