Sderot, the Capital of Rockets and Rock

Letter From Sderot

By Dan Friedman

Published June 16, 2010, issue of June 25, 2010.
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You know you’ve arrived in Sderot because you turn from the dusty highway onto a city street bordered by a thin roadside park with new decorations and beautifully manicured lawns. Three years ago this park was a dump, but donations from Jewish National Fund groups — like the one holding a ceremony in the park, under a tasteful canopy that protects participants from the blazing sun — have transformed the approach to the city. And, after mostly ignoring it for 50 years, everyone’s arriving in Sderot.

A few hundred yards from the ceremony, in the main police station, is a gruesome museum full of the twisted rocket parts that have landed in this impoverished and embattled town of nearly 20,000 over the past decade. The 10,000 rockets fired from nearby Gaza are the reason that Diaspora Jews and journalists are visiting in droves. Their concern goes beyond Sderot itself. The rockets’ steadily increasing ranges and explosive loads suggest a threat not just against Sderot but ultimately against the whole nation.

Still, Sderot is more than an iconic target. The city is also a hothouse incubator of Israeli rock music. A transit camp for Kurdish and Persian refugees in the early 1950s, Sderot (ironically, the name means “boulevards”) was established as a town late in the decade with the arrival of a large influx of Moroccan immigrants fleeing an independent and increasingly antisemitic Morocco. And thereafter it was forgotten — except as an exporter of musicians.

For more than 30 years, residents felt ignored and abandoned by Israel’s Ashkenazi-led, predominantly Labor-Zionist governments. Though barely an hour from Tel Aviv, Sderot’s Mizrahi culture was far out of the mainstream. As if to confirm the town’s outlier image, the government doubled its population in the 1980s by resettling there Ethiopian and Russian immigrants whom officials deemed undesirable.

These later arrivals were not the stereotypical violin-playing doctors of Moscow but hardscrabble folks from Dagestan, Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. And so, in the beautiful but inhospitable hills of the northern Negev, 20,000 Jews whom no one else wanted lived, loved and married within sight of the world’s most virulent hotbed of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda — the Gaza Strip.

Wedged between hostile Palestinians and an Israeli government indifferent to their needs, Sderot’s young residents dreamed of escape. In the 1960s and 1970s, all the kids wanted to play rock ’n’ roll and ascend to stardom. But at local weddings traditional tunes ruled — and paid.

Still, in the close-knit community, children played safely in the streets, everyone knew everyone and musical maestros were feted. Ultimately, the kids created a hybrid music that was totally new. Sfatayim (led by Haim Uliel) and Teapacks — whose diminutive front man, Kobi Oz, played keyboards with Sfatayim as a teenager — brought Moroccan music to the ears of the nation.

For Oz, Sderot remained special, an innocent place where workers from the factories mixed with young musicians and showed them musical tricks from their youth. It was a place where self-belief was fostered quietly in the community and more forthrightly by Mayor Amir Peretz, who would go on to become Israel’s defense minister and Labor Party leader.

Although Israeli television has aired pieces on the phenomenon of musicians from Sderot, American documentarian Laura Bialis is making the first feature-length film to chart the influence of Sderot music. “Rock in the Red Zone” tells the story of the people and music from this tiny desert outpost, which has almost singlehandedly transformed Israeli music by infusing contemporary Western music with the traditional styles of northern Africa.

Even though Teapacks was Israel’s most successful act of the 1990s and the country’s official entrant in the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest — with the catchy and provocative “Push the Button” — they and other Sderot bands have found worldwide sales harder to come by. Domestically, though, Knesiyat Hasekhel (Church of Reason) continues to sell out major venues, while the group Shotei Ha’nevua (Fools of Prophecy) and singers Micha Biton, Smadar Levi and Avi Vaknin are all household names.

Vaknin (whom Bialis married) worked with younger musicians in Sderot — as did Uliel — rehearsing, teaching and producing at the famous “Sderock” bomb shelter before leaving for Tel Aviv to promote his own music. Bialis, like other foreign visitors to Sderot, had first heard of the place when the rocket incidents increased. “I was in L.A., and I was just so angry that this story wasn’t being told in American newspapers,” she recalls.

Similar feelings motivated Noam Bedein, who came to the area in September 2006 from Jerusalem to attend film school at nearby Sapir College and set up the Sderot Media Center the following January. “It’s a media war that we need to win,” he told me when I visited. “There’s a population here living in terror, but because it’s invisible it Musicians in the town created a style that was all their own. doesn’t get column space in the international press. We aim to change that.”

Bedein tries to make Sderot visible by providing statistics, footage and guidance to journalists in Sderot and internationally. During Operation Cast Lead, when journalists were denied access to Gaza and camped out unhappily in Sderot, his media center was invaluable. The son of David Bedein, a prominent pro-Israel publicist based in Jerusalem, Noam Bedein has a more hawkish worldview than Bialis, but simply explaining the situation in Sderot is enough to preoccupy them both. Politics feels like a distant concern.

It’s a slow day when I visit — not many rockets have been coming in, and it’s early in the year for the Birthright tours — but the media center’s Jacob Shrybman is showing two European photographers the border road less than a mile from the Sderot reservoir. He says he personally has shown more than 3,000 people around in just over a year. There is little to do about the overwhelming psychological pressure that comes with living in Sderot. Bus stops, apartment buildings and schools all have bomb shelters and, in some cases, protective structures built over their tops. These measures are everyday reminders of more than a dozen fatalities and a way of life that has normalized war. But these physical defenses quickly become outmoded as the explosives get stronger. Since the military incursion into Gaza in December 2008, 300 rockets or so have been fired into the city — compared with over 3,000 in 2008 alone — but every time the alarm goes off 20,000 people face 15 seconds to live or die.

Once, when Sderotis wanted to escape the threat of the 15-second alarm, they could go to Ashkelon for coffee and a stroll. Now the rockets can reach Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheva. And these other towns have neither alarms nor readily available bomb shelters. Going to Ashkelon, also a target of rockets since 2006, is now considered foolhardy by the Sderotis.

Even though playground bomb shelters are disguised as brightly colored caterpillars, a generation of children is growing up traumatized. A psychologist whom Bialis interviewed for her film noted that the main therapeutic tool for combating post-traumatic stress disorder is to assure the victim that the traumatic incident is over. In Sderot the trauma continues.

Terrorism is both a psychological and media strategy. For terrorists, the importance of tragic deaths is their influence on a media-saturated population. In Sderot the medium of necessity is not a newspaper but a bomb alarm screaming raw alert. Some 20,000 people live in a constant state of fear that is essentially invisible and noncommunicable. As Vaknin puts it: “Sderot these days is a wounded place.”

Yet still they stay in Sderot, for the same reasons we all stay in our homes. We couldn’t sell for enough to move elsewhere. Our friends and family are there. We have made the city what it is. We love the place and all it stands for. The JNF groups come to Sderot to see the gardens they’ve provided. But the real consensus about Sderot is that it is the acceptable face of Jewish victimhood. If you want to see a microcosm of the Israeli struggle for peace without party politics or the issue of the settlements, come to Sderot. They are the ones yearning for peace under the shadow of constant bombs. And they’ve recorded the soundtrack.

Contact Dan Friedman at dfriedman@forward.com


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