Did climate change kill the Jacob’s Ladder music festival?

by Brian on November 23, 2019

in In the News,Music,Science

If there was one thing you could always count on, it was that the weather at the Sea of Galilee in May, when the spring edition of Jacob’s Ladder has long been held, would be warm with cloudless blue skies.

Not so anymore. 

For the last few years, precipitation has dogged the folk, country, indie, rock, Irish and blues festival which is held outdoors at the Nof Ginosar kibbutz hotel. That might seem like a small inconvenience, but it’s led to a series of cascading events that contributed to last week’s shock announcement that, after 43 years, the spring Jacob’s Ladder was shutting down. 

It started three years ago when the unseasonable threat of rain in mid-May led many Jacob’s Ladder regulars to cancel their plans to attend. And the rain did make a spectacular appearance, pouring down on the thousands of attendees who were enjoying the closing band on Saturday afternoon. The band continued to play as the audience danced and laughed at the ridiculousness of rain in May.

It was not so funny for Yehudit and Menachem Vinegrad, who have run the festival since 1976. 

“Someone had to pay for the damage to the equipment that got ruined,” Yehudit told me over the phone last week. Moreover, the lower number of ticket sales put the festival in a precarious financial position.

The following year, the rain returned, making the ground at one of the two outdoor stages so soggy that the poles holding up the tarps that keep audience members protected from the sun began to sway; eventually they toppled over entirely. Bands had to be shifted to new locations; some didn’t get to perform at all, leading to disappointment and frustration for both artists and fans alike. 

To preempt another weather catastrophe, the Vinegrads pushed the now-canceled spring 2020 show to June. “I figured, maybe by then the rain will be over,” Yehduit said.

Jacob’s Ladder began as a way for the Vinegrads to bring a taste of the folk scene they had left in the U.K. when they made aliyah. It quickly became an intergenerational family-friendly mainstay of the Anglo Israeli community.

Rain is just one of the challenges of putting on a massive outdoor festival, one that in its good years attracted up to 3,000 people. There are also an increasing number of regulations that add to the costs. 

These rules come from good intentions – a reaction of the 1995 Arad music festival disaster where organizers sold 26,000 tickets for a site that was licensed to hold only 18,000. As thousands of people tried to push their way into the site, three teenagers were crushed to death.

All outdoor festivals (and not just Jacob’s Ladder) now have to comply with much stricter – and more costly – orders: additional security personnel and equipment, illuminated exit signs, professional parking supervisors rather than unpaid volunteers. 

“We appreciate the necessity for rules,” Menachem told me. “But when we approach the police, they always say, it’s too early, come to us after Pesach. Then we find out about this or that rule at the last minute and we have to come up with the extra money. It’s very hard to plan.”

Just last month, the security firm Jacob’s Ladder has worked with for the last four years informed the Vinegrads it was raising its prices by 50%. 

Running an outdoor festival as big as the spring Jacob’s Ladder is a hassle, but the Vinegrads were glad to do it – until this year when Menachem added up the numbers and discovered they’d incurred a not insignificant loss.

“It was like we worked the whole year without taking a salary,” Menachem lamented.

The Vinegrads, both 72, are former kibbutzniks not high-tech entrepreneurs and have kept expenses low by running the festival out of their modest two-floor home in Katrzin on the Golan Heights. Given that, other than two small Israeli pensions, the income from Jacob’s Ladder is what the couple lives on, the risk of losing more money next year was just too much. 

The only way around the conundrum would be to raise ticket prices, which the Vinegrads have done in the past, albeit reluctantly.

“Each time, we would get angry letters from people saying, the prices are too high, we can’t come anymore,” Yehudit said. “People don’t understand that it costs NIS 75,000 just to rent the grounds at the kibbutz. Meanwhile, we aren’t covering our expenses.”

That said, the final chord of Jacob’s Ladder has yet to be played. The Vinegrads are shopping the festival around to groups and organizations they hope might be willing to buy the Jacob’s Ladder brand. And they are continuing with the winter festival, which is scheduled to take place December 6-7 and already has a date booked for January 2021.

The winter festival is held indoors, which means most of the permitting and licensing are taken care of by the hotel. It also attracts less than 500 people, making it more manageable, intimate and potentially profitable. 

Attending Jacob’s Ladder has been a big part of my family’s life for much of our aliyah. I even put it on my recent list of “25 reasons to live in Israel.” And while the writing has been on the financial ladder for some time now, no one – not even the Vinegrads – thought it would stop so suddenly.

“We thought we’d carry on until we died,” Yehudit said. “We couldn’t see us ever ending it.”

I first explained the behind-the-scenes story at Jacob’s Ladder at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo credit: Noam Amir.

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