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An Unexpected Trip to Israel, Part 2: Music Everywhere

Dear Friends,

Last Friday I shared with you in detail about the Catholic-Jewish Conference that brought me to Israel last week. In this installment I would like to share another aspect of my trip that I found very moving.

Israel is a small country essentially overflowing with passion and energy. The Galilee is the beautiful rolling northern reaches of Israel. Christian pilgrims from all over the world flock to the Galilee to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. The Galilee is also filled with the relics of ancient Jewish towns and synagogues, and tombs of rabbis to which Jews make their own pilgrimage. In modern times the Galilee was the birthplace of the kibbutz movement. The kibbutzniks were the vanguard of the Zionist movement, manifesting with incredible dedication and sacrifice their utopian vision of a reborn Jewish people. And the Galilee is home to large numbers of Moslem and Christian Arabs, Bedouin, Druze, and other ethnic groups as well.

Within the Galilee just about anyplace can be reached by car within an hour, often less, sometimes a bit more – it’s not a big place.

During my recent visit I witnessed three different musical events in three very different settings in the Galilee – and missed another that I wish I had been able to attend – that for me epitomized this passion, and provide a fascinating cross-section of life in Israel.

The event I missed was the annual Lag B’omer celebration that takes place on Mount Meron, the highest peak in the Galilee. Meron is the traditional site of the tomb of the 2nd century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the hero of the Zohar, Judaism’s medieval mystical masterpiece. On Lag B’omer hundreds of thousands of Jews converge on the site. They build bonfires, drum, dance, drink, barbecue, and pray all night long – it’s a blowout. Also, a nightmare for the traffic police, which is why I decided not to try to go! Keep in mind that in a country of 8 million, that is a huge portion of the population on the move.

But Lag B’omer was not the only show in town. On Tuesday, May 5, at the conference I was attending at the Domus Galilaeae we were regaled with a performance of a symphony, “The Suffering of the Innocents”. Composed by the charismatic Catholic leader Kiko Arguello, who had invited us to Israel, “The Suffering of the Innocents” is billed as a “musical gift to the Jewish people.” It imagines Mary, mother of Jesus, weeping alongside Jewish mothers at Auschwitz as they watch their children being slaughtered.

I did not find the music to be especially original or inspirational, but the passion of the full orchestra and the 80 voices was impressive, as was the setting. The hall is situated above the Mount of Beatitudes, the site of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, with a sweeping view of the entire Sea of Galilee spread out below us. The piece climaxes in the fourth movement with this rendition of Shema Yisrael. I captured it on video:

L’havdil is a Hebrew expression that means “on the other hand”, or better, “and now for something completely different!” So, l’havdil, two days later I took my seat in a full auditorium at Kibbutz Yif’at. My brother and sister-in-law Dan and Roberta had invited me to a lecture and concert about the iconic Zionist poet Shaul Tchernichovsky. This was an annual event mounted by the members of Nigun Halev, a group of secular Jews who have been reclaiming their Jewish roots. Nigun Halev gathers every week to welcome Shabbat with a mixture of Modern Hebrew poems and songs and ancient psalms and hymns. They see themselves as a uniquely Israeli Jewish spiritual renaissance, reclaiming and renewing old forms without being beholden to rigid adherence. Israeli Reconstructionists, if you will. There is much irony in kibbutzniks, whose original socialist ideology cast religion as evil, embracing their heritage in this way. But the pendulum always swings, and to me this new synthesis is a beautiful expression of a living culture.

Shaul Tchernichovsky was born in Russia in 1875, and was one of the pioneers of Modern Hebrew, writing poetry, translating classics into Hebrew, coining Hebrew words and phrases when nothing suitable existed. Trained as a physician, in 1931 he was finally able to find employment in Palestine and moved to Tel Aviv. He died there in 1943. Israel’s great poets have often been set to music, and many of Tchernichovsky’s poems are part of the Israeli canon. The performance I attended was homage and a testament to the ongoing vibrancy of the original Zionist project of creating a new Hebrew culture in the land of our ancestors, a culture based on the highest values of humanism. This vision is on the defensive in Israel right now, but it still lives. I wish I had a recording from that evening to share with you, but here is a translation of perhaps Tchernichovsky’s best-known song:

I Believe (Sachaki, Sachaki)

Laugh at all my dreams, my dearest

Laugh and I repeat anew

That I still believe in people

As I still believe in you.


For my soul is not yet sold

To the golden calf of scorn

And I still believe in people

And the spirit in them born.


By the passion of their spirit

Shall their ancient bonds be shed

Let the soul be given freedom

Let the body have its bread!


Let the time be dark with hatred

I believe in years beyond

Love at last shall bind all peoples

In an everlasting bond.


Everyone in the auditorium sang along. You can listen to an old recording here:


One more vignette that took me completely by surprise: On Shabbat I was visiting Dan and Roberta and their family in the village of Tzipori, near Nazareth in the central Galilee. As we took our Shabbat stroll a convoy of tour buses was making its way up the quiet road that runs near their house and by their daughter Talia’s house. The buses parked along the road, and out poured hundreds of Eritrean African refugees. What was going on?

As you may know, in recent years tens of thousands of refugees from Eritrea and South Sudan have left their war-torn countries and risked their lives to cross Sudan and Egypt to reach the border into Israel, hoping to receive asylum. Their reception has been very mixed in Israel, and there are very active efforts to deport them, but indeed their lives are not at risk in Israel and at least for the moment they have found a safe, if only marginally welcoming haven. Many of the Eritreans are Christians, part of the ancient Coptic Church of Africa. These folks have not only arrived in the modern state of Israel, but in their Holy Land. So again, what were they doing in Tzipori, parking in front of my niece’s house, smoking cigarettes and eating lunch and talking on their cell phones?

Tradition has it that ancient Tzipori was the birthplace of Mary, mother of Jesus. Just up the hill from where the buses parked is an impressive ruin of a 12th century Crusader church. The church was built on a site traditionally associated with the home of Mary’s parents Joseph and Anna, and the Church is known as the Church of Saint Anna. The roof long ago collapsed, but four massive walls still stand, framing a large courtyard. The vaulted apse at the front of the church remains intact, and pillars and other carved stonework lay around randomly on the ground. A convent and girls’ school is located next door. The Eritreans had come to pray and celebrate in the birthplace of Mother Mary.

I followed the crowd up the hill and into the church ruin, and my jaw dropped. The worshippers had donned robes and headdresses, like royalty. Giant drums were beaten and songs and circle dances flowed one into another, as everyone knew the words and steps. Joy was in the air. They sung in their native tongue, and the only word I could recognize was Halleluyah. Take a look:

This is Israel. This is why I have insisted that to understand the country you must travel there. The vitality of the place cannot be captured in news reports – the news in fact flattens the country into an endless conflict zone, an endless morality play.

Yes, the new Israeli government now includes ultra-nationalists and even out-and-out racists whose stated goals are to undermine the Israeli judiciary, weaken the fundamentals of democracy, and continue what to me is the ethical disgrace of military rule over the Palestinians. Yes, just miles away in Syria civil society has collapsed and hundreds of thousands are being tragically slaughtered. But here in Israel, yes, unlike anywhere else in the Middle East, everyone is free to worship according to their faith. And yes, in the Galilee last week, music was everywhere!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan