Israeli Designer Shulli Goitein on Artists in Israel Since Oct. 7

GREAT BARRINGTON – Israeli contemporary art jewelry designer Shulli Goitein will have a booth at the Berkshires Arts Festival this July – some of our Berkshire snowbirds may have already met her last winter in Palm Beach or Boca Raton, or perhaps at one of the other crafts shows in North America she’s sold at over the last seven months. Under ordinary circumstances, the designer would be selling her creations in museums and at a shop in Jaffa, Israel – but alas, these are no ordinary times.

Like many artists who rely on the tourist trade and a stable Israeli economy, Goitein has had to pivot since Oct. 7 and the Gaza War in order to make living – and this challenge comes only a few years after the Covid-19 lockdowns. Goitein had to close down her shop in Jaffa during the pandemic and again during this time of crisis. Goitein has more options than many of her peers – she sells her work through museum gift shops and she was born in the US, possessing dual citizenship that allows her to travel and work more easily overseas. Her experiences offer a window into how Israel’s artists have had to cope.

In May, Goitein spoke to the BJV about her work and Israel’s artists. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

What’s it like in Jaffa these days?

For the first half year, it was like what Covid used to be like – lots of stores closed. It was super quiet, nothing going on, even Israelis, especially in Jaffa, because it's a mixed community. There is fear on both sides, the Arabs and the Jews. Israelis weren't keen on going to have a beer in Jaffa. It was dead and still hasn't much revived, although it's better now. And for the first six months, there were zero sales in the museums as well, because they're also dependent on tourism. Actually, what saved me and a bunch of my colleagues was an initiative by a man called Stuart Katz, who is a tour agent. During war, he organizes artists, especially from the war zone areas, and arranges sales in Jewish communities in the States. In November, we had a tour in New York and New Jersey. I had just closed my store and I had all of my inventory.

For the first three weeks, I was raising funds for war efforts and for the soldiers with my jewelry and with no income to me. I'm a single mom and I have two kids to feed, and at a certain point I said, ‘Well, okay, you can't just make jewelry for nothing. You have to make a living.’ So, this opportunity came, they said that you have to buy your own a ticket to the States, and I said, I'm going, I'm doing this. I took my suitcases and left. I left my kids in the middle of a war where there were sirens here every day, and they had to run to the shelter every day. I arranged for an adult to be with them every day – they didn't like it, but that was that. I was able to make a living for the next two months from that tour.

How many artists participated? And how did you get around?

There were forty of us. The expenses were all on us. We shared car rentals because we had a lot of equipment and merchandise. There was a wonderful turnout and people were very supportive. Meanwhile, at home, anybody who didn't have the guts to do this didn't have an income for at least four months. The government, unlike during Covid (which was easier) didn't support us at all. There was nothing. I think because the budgets are going all towards war efforts, there is nothing left for the civilians. Then, in February, something very strange happened to me. I sell in the Tel Aviv Museum, where the Kikar Hatufim [Hostages Square] is located. That's the biggest aliyah la’regel (pedestrian) place in Israel at the moment. It's very shocking. It's very troubling. But Tel Aviv Museum is the only shop there is in the area. So suddenly, from February, I started selling at the Tel Aviv Museum because of the Hatufim, which is very macabre, I guess you could call it. The other museums only started selling during Pesach. A little bit of Jewish tourism, I would say, is coming in.

Everybody's trying to figure out how to make a living. I'm fortunate to have a passport and to be able to do what I'm doing now legally. A lot of artists are asking me, ‘how do you do arts and crafts fairs in America?’ I just decided that since I lost 90 percent of my income here, I have to do this. I'm traveling five times to the States this year, and I'm doing shows, and I'm spending more time there and less time with my kids because I don't know what's going to happen next. I have a friend who asked me if I want to share a shop on Sheinken Street in Tel Aviv, and I said, ‘Thank you. I'm not doing adventures now. I'm going to be working hard, traveling, and being very conservative on any endeavors here in Israel.’

Some things I put up on social media, some things I don't, because I don't want to make people feel that I'm talking about happy things. It's like the guilt of being able to survive this.

For more on Shulli Goitein’s work, visit The Berkshires Arts Festival will be held on July 5-7 at Ski Butternut, Route 23 in Great Barrington.