The vision began — as so many fine ideas do — with wine.
In 2009 Lin Arison, co-founder of the National YoungArts Foundation and the New World Symphony, visited Israel’s Carmel Winery and was persuaded to try a cabernet sauvignon. This was no simple undertaking: Arison had never been a fan of what she calls the vineyard’s “syrupy, boiled grape juice.” But instead of recoiling, she marveled at what she tasted: “My first sip rolled around on my tongue, with a complex, heady, beautiful bouquet.”
If the terrible wines of Israel could improve so dramatically, she wondered, how else had the country she had learned to love changed?
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The seed was planted. Now, seven years later, comes the fruit: the box of treasures that is “The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel” (Chronicle, $125), a collection that offers a kaleidoscopic view of contemporary Israel.
The brainchild of Arison, co-author Diana C. Stoll and art director Michelle Dunn Marsh, “The Desert and the Cities Sing” includes four beautifully designed books about the country’s arts and culture, dining, entertainment and recreation, agriculture, technology and industry (including the wine business); four documentary films, including the inspirational Academy-Award winning “Strangers No More,” which Arison produced, about children of migrant workers at a Tel Aviv school; a flash drive full of animation highlighting Israel’s innovations; and 25 gorgeous, frameable photographs of the country’s otherworldly landscapes by Neil Folberg.
There’s even a limited-edition scarf created by Israeli designers Frau Blau (though there was consideration of instead including a small vial of actual dirt from Israel that was deemed “too fetishistic,” Stoll confesses).
“It’s like a wonderful box of chocolates,” says Stoll, who collaborated with Arison on a previous book, “Feast for the Senses: A Musical Odyssey in Umbria.”
“You see the top row and think that’s it, but there’s another level.”
Arison, who joins Stoll and Marsh at the New World Performance Hall for the project’s Miami kickoff on Oct. 18, fell in love with the country via her late husband, Israeli businessman Ted Arison, founder of Carnival Cruise Lines. She had spent a lot of time there (and is eagerly looking forward to a post-launch trip to see her grandchildren). Stoll, on the other hand, had never been to Israel before they embarked on the project.
“I had the definite thought it would be a good thing to have somebody who didn’t have any perspective on Israel,” says Arison, who’s also the author of “Travels with Van Gogh and the Impressionists: Discovering the Connections.” “I’m a travel writer, and I want people to love Israel, to feel what the land is. ... I’m hoping people will see it as a nation like any other nation and look at it as a place to travel to, to explore and make your own decisions about.”
Like most people who haven’t visited, Stoll knew about the country from what she read and saw on the news, which was mostly political clashes, religious strife and violence. Yet “The Desert and the Cities Sing” is pointedly nonpolitical; it takes no sides and looks forward instead of digging back into the country’s rich history. As a result, the comprehensive travelogue makes Arison’s convincing argument: Come and see for yourself.
“We’re not denying there are difficult and complicated things happening in Israel,” Stoll says, adding that the idea was to focus on positive innovations. “We wanted to show more than the headlines. It would be awful if the whole world thought America was about that [presidential] debate only. We’re more than that. Israel is more than its headlines.”
Still, immersing herself in the culture was “an incredibly intense learning experience.”
“I found it fascinating, you can be talking to two rational people, and they will have very different ideas on what’s going on in the country. I remember meeting with an educator, and in our brief conversation I heard something that was so poignant it stuck with me: ‘We have a very flexible history.’ I did have trepidation about going at first, because most of the news about Israel that we get here is bad news. It was surprising to see all the good things happening there, all the forward-thinking things, the pockets of peace we encountered of people happy to be there.”
Like any massive undertaking, “The Desert and the Cities Sing” had to be condensed: Tough choices had to be made about what stayed in and what got edited out. Fortunately the website allows Arison and Stoll to continue and expand the story.
“Whatever we left out, we’ll be putting in,” Arison says. “We’ll be writing forever! But I’m excited about extending the story. It’s not over — that’s the fun part.”
Whatever is added — more restaurant recommendations? more innovations in irrigation? how to keep improving crops in a desert climate? — Arison wants it to build on what she sees as a message of hope. She points to the children at the Tel Aviv school in “Strangers No More” as an example of the true heart of Israel.
“That was what got me when I first went into the school,” she says. “All these kids of different colors loving each other. They don’t have prejudices. They wonder what’s wrong with the adults. If all these kids can love each other, there’s hope for us all.”
If you go
What: Miami launch and book signing for ‘The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel’ with authors Lin Arison and Diana C. Stoll and art director Michelle Dunn Marsh
When: 7-9 p.m. Oct. 18
Where: New World Performance Hall, 500 17th St., Miami Beach