Saturday, April 2, 2011

What a difference a few decades makes

Shavua Tov.

This evening I had the problematic pleasure to hear a really nice concert.

Shir Appeal
Honorable Mention
For many years the social action committee at my synagogue, Congregation B'nai Brith in Somerville Massachusetts, has held a benefit for  a wonderful domestic violence program, Respond. This year we sponsored a concert featuring two very different - but each in their own way wonderful - Jewish a cappella groups. Shir Appeal [a wonderful pun: shir ha-piel literally means Song of the elephant] is "Tufts University's ONLY Co-ed, Jewish A Cappella group" and has tremendous energy and a wonderfully quirky take on Jewish/Hebrew songs.  Honorable Menschen [also a great pun] is "Boston's premiere semi-professional Jewish a cappella group" and is really polished with clever uses of a variety of musical styles.

The problem? Shir Appeal opened the evening with the iconic Naomi Shemer song, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav [Jerusalem of Gold].  Just a couple of years after living in Jerusalem I was part of a group that ran a Jewish educational program for teenagers where music played an important part of what we did. Songs like Yerushalayim Shel Zahav were at the heart of our groups' sense of who, as American Jews, we were and what we were connected to. Both the words ["Jerusalem of Gold, of bronze and of light"] and the underlying message [the rebirth of our Jewish homeland, the center of our religious identity] were inspiring, comforting and a sign of God's love and eternal commitment to us. For me personally it evoked the many hours I spent soaking up the grandeur of the Old City from the outside and the enormous sense of comforting spirituality I felt when meandering through the maze of narrow streets inside. I can remember, even decades later, passing the reassuring mixed salad of people: Orthodox Christians in their long black robes and high hats, Orthodox Jews and Hasidim in their black suits and hats and a variety of Arab types in the homes and shops that were packed into to such a physically limiting space.  I remember the feeling of comfort I derived from all of these disparate peoples sharing this palpably holy place. A place I thought of as Ir Shalom, the City of Peace.

Fast forward  more than three decades later. I've driven around the outskirts of the city and once again wondered at its amazing beauty: the gold of the Jews' Temple Mount which Muslims know as the Noble Sanctuary, the blinding sun reflected by the Dome of the Rock and on the ever-present Jerusalem stone, all enclosed within the seeming safety of the ancient walls.  Then I remember walking again through that same labyrinth I walked years ago. But now I can't escape the realization that all the old types - Hasidim, Christian priests, Arab shop keepers, etc. - are still there, except the sense of their moving through a shared, sacred place is gone and all I can see is a mass of people who, while packed together and bumping into one another, seem, in some surreal way, to be inhabiting totally different places simultaneously. Because of this I find that it is painful, almost impossible to go into holy places I was once so moved by. I'm not even able to go down to the plaza near what was once known as the "Wailing Wall" and is now, since 1967, the "Western Wall." I remember that on my last trip there I could only watch from the terrace overlooking the plaza, viewing the mostly black-garbed men [the women are separated by a barrier  into a contained, smaller area,  where they are forbidden to do certain rituals] in various forms of prayer, the golden-domed Mosque looking on over the wall, all "protected" by the always present uniformed, armed Israeli soldiers.

This evening these images forced themselves into my mind as I listened to the wonderful harmonies of Shir Appeal and flavored the rest of the concert for me. I wanted to let myself fully enjoy the music and the energy of the two talented groups but couldn't free myself of the words they sang, words that were once comforting, energizing and so much part of my Jewish being but now insist on reminding me of how the "conflict" has so drained the hopes of so many of those old songs.  James Carroll, the ex-priest who is now an insightful author and Boston Globe columnist, recently introduced his latest book, "Jerusalem Jerusalem." The double title reflects his sense of a city that is the most fully holy place on earth [shalom comes from a root meaning "whole-ness"] and, simultaneously the place that has engendered some of the disharmony between peoples.

Strange how symbols change over the years.

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