First festival of Jewish music opens in Jerusalem
An outdoor, public classical music concert in Beer Sheva featuring Leonard Bernstein, 1948. Photo: Library of Congress

June 20, 1950

Israel’s first Festival of Jewish Music lasts from June 20-July 1, 1950. It is arranged by the Music Department of the Israeli government’s Ministry of Education and Culture, and the Government’s Tourist Department. The festival features a survey of contemporary Israeli music, as well as works by Jewish composers abroad. Performances take place throughout different cities, towns and settlements across Israel. The opening night of the festival is held at the historic Y.M.C.A. building in Jerusalem and features two performances by the popular Kol Yerushalayim Orchestra—the first is conducted by renowned Israeli conductor and composer Karel Solomon and the second by world famous Israeli conductor Marc Lavry.

The festival’s numerous events focus primarily on classical music, including popular arrangements by American Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein, however, features two events showcasing Israeli folk music. Aligning with cultural traditions established during the mandate period (1920-48), the performances are held in both formal concert halls and outdoor amphitheaters, allowing the general public, even if they cannot afford to purchase a ticket to an indoor event, to hear the music and participate in the festival, even from an apartment balcony or hillside overlooking an outdoor venue. 

The 1950s represent a period of Israeli history where musical culture is closely tied to national culture. Hebrew folk music and dance are central to this connection and only increase in significance in Israel into the 1960s. Accordingly, it is not a surprise that, despite the heavy focus on classical music, the closing night of the festival is a folk music and dance performance held at a major outdoor venue in Tel Aviv, Ha’Kirya Garden.

This inaugural festival marks the beginning of a long standing, rich history of Israeli music festivals featuring a variety of Jewish musical traditions within Israeli society (often funded in part by the Israeli government’s Ministry of Culture). Today, the Red Sea Jazz Festival, Jacob’s Ladder folk music festival, Tamar Rock Festival, the Piyyut Festival in Jerusalem, Safed Klezmer Festival, and Jerusalem International Oud Festival are just a few of many.