Text & Photo By

Larry Butchins 

STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS 

Given its location, the artists and the ethnic make-up of the audience, Israel’s annual Jacob’s Ladder Festival could be considered one of the most unique music festivals in the world. The location – on the edge of Lake Kinneret is magical; and the selection of top class artists from around the world and an audience of mainly Anglo immigrants from all the former colonies, gives this 35-year-old festival an uncommonly distinctive character.

Every year thousands of lovers of folk, blues, Blue Grass, country, Irish music and more, congregate to enjoy a weekend of music, camping, chilling out and taking in the good vibes and camaraderie that this festival engenders. And many an aging – let’s rather say “mature” – hippie from the 60s finds this an ideal opportunity to revisit those long-gone days of his/her youth.

We still “let it all hang out” – some of us rather more than we wished – we still “groove”; no longer quite as late or as early in the morning as we used to; and “get high” on the music and whatever else takes our fancy – nowadays it’s more likely to be a good Scotch or bottle of fine wine than anything vaguely herbal.

Because Jacob’s Ladder was almost exclusively patronized by Israelis of Anglo heritage – certainly in the early years – it is known in Israel as the Anglo-Saxon “Mimouna”, in comparison to the joyous Moroccan festival held at the end of the week of Pesach, epitomized by song, good food and celebration.

Having just attended the 35th Jacob’s Ladder Festival at Nof Ginosar on the shores of Lake Kinneret in mid-May, I can tell you that the festival has lost none of its charm. There were more than 3,000 of us with a healthy percentage being kids whose own parents were hardly thought of when Jacob’s Ladder kicked off with its first gathering back in 1976. This was when Menachem Vinograd (festival director) and two friends from Kibbutz Machanayim, just north of the Kinneret and  then largely inhabited by immigrants from the UK and US, started a folk club to quench their longing  for the folk and protest songs they had left behind them in their native countries. The name “Jacob’s Ladder” was chosen to reflect the kibbutz’s supposed link to the biblical story of Jacob and the fact that “ladder” in Hebrew (sulam) also refers to a musical scale.

We went to our first Jacob’s Ladder in the late 1980s, shortly after our arrival in Israel. Our three kids were still 'littlies' and camping was a new experience for us.  We had bought a new – and to us then, a very expensive – tent which we all shared, together with our faithful Corgi. We still have that tent, and still use it – it’s an identifying beacon for our camping crowd: “look for the Butchins’ tent – that’s where you’ll find us…!"

To us, coming from staid and conservative South Africa, Jacob’s Ladder was the closest thing to Woodstock we had experienced. Nothing remotely like it in size or scope, but the free and easy atmosphere and rocking to the legendary Libby and her hard-core band belting out earth-shattering blues at four in the morning took us to new heights. We were also convinced that most of the audience was gently floating about a foot off the grass …. the Friday night music marathon would always end with Libby leading a raucous rendition of  "Goodnight Irene" … just as the sun rose.  Since those heady early days we have attended nearly 20 festivals – with a few misses over the years. Migrating from Horshat Tal – that magical camping site on Israel’s northern border with its ancient oaks and icy water tumbling from Mt. Hermon, we followed the festival to the steamy surroundings of Gan Hashlosha in the Bet Shean valley; then to the shores of the Kinneret where we picked it up again at Karei Deshe, just a few kilometers north of its present location at Nof Ginosar, which offers hotel, zimmer and camping facilities.

While the present day audience is still predominately made up of Anglos, a growing number of native Israelis attend. Many of them the spouses of Anglo immigrant children who have grown up in Israel and represent the second generation of “Jacob’s Ladderites”… now bringing their children – Jacob’s Ladder’s third generation – for a shot of rhythm ‘n blues and the fun of camping out, barbecuing and running free. Our group this year was a microcosm of this little bit of festival anthropology. We were a crowd of 27 altogether, 10 1st generation; 10 2nd generation and 7 3rd generation  –  with three more 3rd generation future festival fans on the way!

The Jacob’s Ladder festival is marveled at by the Israelis who attend. They remark about the open family atmosphere, the friendliness and respect that everybody shows and that when packed up, the campsites are left clean! There is very little mess around the many stages and music venues which are now a part of the Jacob’s Ladder scene. This is as much due to the vigilance of the festival staff as to the natural instinct of Anglos to clean up after themselves. But whatever the reason, it makes it all the more pleasant for festival-goers not to have to wade through mounds of rubbish.

From its early single night roots, Jacob’s Ladder has grown substantially and now runs for two nights and two days. It is now held in mid-May instead of late August, providing much cooler weather than in earlier years. A round of applause must go to the festival directors, Menachem and Yehudith Vinograd, and their team of volunteers, stage managers, security people, sound and lighting engineers, caterers, and  to the campers – the team providing the amazingly efficient, clean and pleasant ablutions (after many years of having less than rudimentary facilities), with piping hot water showers at any time of the day or night.

This year’s festival was rated one of the best ever: the organizers compiled a program featuring high quality music, talented performers and other fun entertainment – from prominent international Bluegrass/rock groups such as the Abrams Brothers from Canada (now on their third visit to Israel), to Blues “meister” Hans Theessink from Holland, to local harpist Sunita with her specialty Irish and Jewish melodies, folk/rock duo favorites Larry and Mindy and Irish groups and continual pick-up jam sessions wherever there is an open space.  This year’s program featured workshops, storytelling, Balkan dancing, square dancing, tap dancing, Yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Kung lessons to name a few … a well-rounded program catering to the entire family with much aimed at little ones.

And this year, the old tradition of singing “Goodnight Irene” was revived again, with the large crowd – not a dry eye among them – joining in the chorus at the closing of the festival late on Saturday afternoon.

So Jacob’s Ladder moves towards its 36th year with the knowledge that a sound tradition is being passed on from generation to generation – it’ll be a blast to still be around for the 70th anniversary!

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About the author

Larry Butchins

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Larry Butchins’ career with notebook, typewriter and then computer keyboard and screen, started as a cub reporter on Durban’s Natal Mercury, covering fi...
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