“Shadrach! Shadrach! Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego!” the singers intoned rhythmically, as they told the story of the three Jews whom Nebuchadnezzar ordered to be thrown into a fiery furnace because they refused to bow down to his golden idol. “Shadrach! Shadrach!” they sang, telling how the three emerged unharmed, causing Nebuchadnezzar to recognize the might of the trio’s deity (Daniel 3: 1–30).
The singers were the Kibbutz Artzi Choir, members of kibbutzim founded by the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. From Kibbutz Baram on the Lebanese border in the north to Kibbutz Paran on the Jordanian border in the south they came to Jerusalem. Forty men and women dressed in black, the women with turquoise scarves and the men with aqua ties, mounted the stage of the Henry Crown Auditorium yesterday afternoon to take the audience on a musical tour of religious and folk traditions from four continents.
They began their performance with two psalms, 42 and 29, set to music by Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun. The second of these, includes the words, “The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness; the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.” It is the very psalm of David sung when the Torah is carried in a procession around the synagogue on Shabbat before it is read.
Hearing this psalm sung by members of kibbutzim whose founders broke away from religious observance was no odder than hearing their rendition of the gospel song “Shadrach” in Hebrew-accented English. It was a reminder that music crosses all borders—national, religious, and cultural.
Only one song on the program, “Shir Am Naki” (A Clean Folk Song; or, the Song of a Clean Nation), came straight out of the kibbutz tradition. It describes one of the main preparations for the Sabbath: bathing in the communal showers and coming down the path in a veritable parade of freshly washed and combed heads, some with a part in the middle and some with a part on the side. What other constellation of human experience could have produced such a song?
My favorite part of the program was the cantata Navidad Nuestra (Our Nativity), by Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez. The composer, who died earlier this year, is best known for his Misa Criolla (Creole mass), which he once said he had written in response to a visit to post-Holocaust Germany.
“I felt that I had to compose something deep and religious that would revere life and involve people beyond their creeds, race, color or origin,” he is reported to have told The Jerusalem Post.
Like the Misa Criolla, Navidad Nuestro incorporates Latin American folk instruments, tunes, and rhythms. Israel’s Latino America ensemble, founded in 1998, accompanied the choir with various instruments, including a bandoneon (a type of concertina) and a charango (a small stringed instrument of the lute family).
The performance—conducted by Yuval Ben-Ozer and with soloist Tal Koch—was a foot-tapper, though I’ve never heard one as good as that of Los Fronterizos, whose recording of the mass and the cantata for Philips I’ve listened to dozens of times.
The concert was part of the Etnachta series, free weekly chamber music concerts, every Monday at 5, produced and edited by Hayuta Devir. The series is an endangered species that Devir has been fighting tooth and nail to keep alive.
And the freedom to sing the most beautiful musical offerings of all religions in Jerusalem—will we have to fight for that too? Or will we overcome the madness of the city and always be able to “involve people beyond their creeds, race, color or origin”?
For more on religion and the power of music see my post “From Kol Nidre to yoga nidra,” on September 24.
Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.