June 13, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Thursday, June 13, 2002

Dear family and friends,

Shabbat brought a searing "sharav", a dry, dusty heat wave which blows in from the desert. Temperatures hit about 40 C (over 100 F) all over the country, even hotter in some areas. Our apartment isn't air-conditioned, but it was just bearable compared with outdoors. Stepping outside, even into the sheltered entrance to our building, was like stepping into a furnace.

The furious wind we saw whipping the trees in the gardens below was deceptive, for the sharav wind is not a refreshing one, but a choking, hot wind, carrying with it sand and dust from the desert.

This is the weather for forest fires, spread rapidly by the fierce, hot wind. While some are accidental, sadly many of them are acts of arson set by Palestinian saboteurs in their eagerness to destroy everything Israeli, even the trees. Several acres of woodland were destroyed in the hills to the south and east of us, towards Bet Shemesh and Jerusalem, with the flames at times threatening the homes of a nearby kibbutz.

By the evening it was down to "only" the low 30s (90s Fahrenheit) and we began feeling a bit better. We started getting ready to go out for the evening to a concert in Jerusalem we had been looking forward to.

Turning on the radio for the first time after Shabbat went out, we felt worse again. Once more a terrorist had infiltrated a Jewish village in the Hebron area, this time murdering 23-year-old Eyal Sorek and his pregnant wife Yael, as well as an army reservist, Shalom Mordechai, in the early hours of the morning.

No longer in the mood, we decided nevertheless to go through with our planned night out. The longer this terror war continues, the more determined I feel to live life to the fullest, not to put off plans for a hoped-for better day, not to spend long hours at home wallowing in sorrow, shut up with the news reports.

As we neared the club we wondered if something was wrong. A police van and several officers armed with M-16 rifles were stationed in front of the building. Metal barricades blocked off the entrance. It soon became clear that this was just the latest in security for a popular place of entertainment. The police eyed up anyone approaching the place, and a private security guard by the barricades searched each patron. After another set of barricades, we finally reached the ticket desk. By the door, a member of staff kept an eye on all those entering.

Had you stopped by during the evening you might have heard the band sing an impassioned rendition of, say, Psalms 121, traditionally recited in times of trouble "I cast up my eyes upon the mountains, from where will my salvation come? My salvation is from God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth". The crowd sang along, each word resounding clearly.

You would be forgiven for thinking this was a concert of Hassidic music for the religious public, perhaps a performance by one of the many groups following in the footsteps of the singing rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach.

You'd be wrong though. For one thing the clothing was a clear giveaway. Only one of the band members had his head covered and with his turban and bare arms he looked more like the genie from Aladdin than a rabbi. A guitarist sported thick, matted dark dreadlocks. Other band members wore gaudy loose cotton pants, oriental tops, brocade vests, Arab style pristine white robes or rock chic faded t-shirts.

Only a tiny handful of men in the audience wore kippot, and they were easily outnumbered by the men with ponytails. Several women were clad in the long, flowing Indian skirts so popular amongst religious women, only here they were mostly worn with revealing strappy little vests, crop tops or transparent gauze blouses.

Near the stage a gaggle of young women in tight jeans and miniscule t-shirts seemed mesmerized by the music. Sitting near the back, still dressed in our Shabbat clothes, we did feel a trifle out of place.

In short, not the sort of crowd you'd expect to be singing along enthusiastically to verses from Psalms or other traditional Jewish texts as they bopped and shimmied, undulating trancelike, many couples with their arms around one another.

And yet at the end of the concert Jason remarked to me that he had rarely heard such genuine, sincere, religious music. My thoughts exactly.

The group performing were a band from the Galilee called Sheva, comprising six Jews and one Arab. Their music is rooted in traditional Middle Eastern and Jewish/Israeli music, but with clear influences from around the world, be it reggae, the Balkans or central and southern Asia. Each musician is a master of several instruments, an eclectic mix of East and West: electric guitars and Balkan baglama, Western woodwind alongside Middle Eastern ney (reed flute), darbuka drums and a rock drum kit, even a zither.

Lyrics from traditional Jewish texts featured prominently in their repertoire. They began the evening with a song whose words were from the first chapter of Psalms. Another number was set to the opening verse of Grace After meals thanking God for nourishing the world. The melodies melded beautifully with the texts, bringing out the words, emphasising the grace of the Hebrew.

There were also many peace songs. Not the breezy, starry eyed anthems about imminent rosy utopias so typical of the Oslo years, but rather poignant yearnings for a day which right now seems hard to imagine. Through melancholy ballads and swirling, ecstatic rhythms the simple words touch a chord with every Israeli, the hope that someday we will have real peace.

Sheva also has a vision for that peace, a grand "sulha", the traditional conciliation ritual feast between feuding Middle East clans. One of the members announced that they were looking forward to a world sulha, but they'd be happy to start with a regional one, perhaps at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron where finally the descendents of Isaac and Ishmael would meet and be reconciled. Or perhaps in Jerusalem, in fulfilment of the biblical prophecy of all the nations gathering in Jerusalem on the pilgrim festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) and celebrating together.

At the end of a week so stained with Israeli blood, a week in which terrorists murdered 21 Israelis and wounded dozens more, it is amazing that Israelis can still sing such songs of peace and reconciliation, let alone pen new ones. For now we are fighting for our lives, but we still cling to the dream of redemption our prophets expressed so beautifully all those millennia ago.

Just because the Messiah is taking such a long time to come, does not mean that we cannot continue to hope and pray for that most joyous of all days.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.