I woke up last Thursday with music and peace on my mind. Zamir was scheduled to sing at the Massachusetts State House in a joint appearance with the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, a multi-national, multi-faith, multi-lingual ensemble of teenagers from East and West Jerusalem who meet regularly to make music and make peace.
As I was packing my gig bag and getting ready to leave the house, I heard on the radio about the Charleston shootings, an act of barbarism that left me weak and teary. The idea that someone could be welcomed into a house of worship then murder members of the congregation hit me hard and continues to hurt my soul. It’s not unprecedented: it happened just months ago at Har Nof, when five Jews were killed while in prayer at their synagogue. This sort of attack violates basic decency and humanity, seemingly beyond repair; that it would happen twice in half a year makes me shudder.
My mood when I arrived at the State House, harried and rushed, was raw; but there is no greater mood elevator than music. Singing with my friends in that glorious place would have been enough — dayeinu! Seeing a fellow Zamirnik, a new mother, mouthing the words of Birkat Kohanim to her newborn son in the audience would have been enough — dayeinu! But then the JYC took the stage, and something magical, beyond even music, happened.
These kids sang a song they had composed together over the course of several months. The song was about what it was like to be them, and because the them in question is a variegated group, a mixed multitude, in one of the most contentious regions in the world, the song had a lot to say. Micah Hendler, the JYC’s founder and conductor, didn’t shy away from saying how difficult it was to work on the song together. What they were able to accomplish provided just the sort of hope I so desperately needed that day. The music was a rich stew of pop rhythms, Arabic chants, Hebrew folk sounds, and more; and the way the kids sang it, with full hearts and obvious, hard-won bonds, touched me deeply. When they ended the song holding hands, the place got misty, and it was clear that something profound was occurring.
After the applause died down, it was time for the two ensembles to sing together. One of the songs we did together was Akanamandla, the South African freedom song. The Zulu lyric had been supplemented with Arabic and Hebrew, saying, “We have the power, we have the spirit.” The message was clear: if South Africa can overcome its bloody history of apartheid and focus instead on making peace, so can other regions.
And on that day, it was painfully clear to me that the Middle East was not the only region in need of such healing. Our own country is struggling under the weight of a history it refuses as yet to face in a meaningful way, a struggle which grows more urgent with each tragic loss. But being together, singing together is a good first step.
We’ll still need to look for the next step — and take it together — but I suspect it will be quite a lot like the first step. The more we see each other, b’tzelem elohim, the better I like our chances.