Israeli Life: Tipping the Scales
Middle Eastern music, which has been pushed to the margins in Israel, may bridge the chasm between the Jewish state and its neighbors.
It all fit together for me one night when I sat in a Jerusalem hall listening to Ilana Eliya’s smoky voice weave together the intricate tonal arabesques of “Inta Omri”—“You Are My Life”—a love song from the repertoire of the late, magnificent Egyptian diva Umm Kalthum.
The performance was part of the Oud Festival, a mid-autumn celebration of Middle Eastern music that annually grows longer, more crowded and more ecstatically sold-out. The hall was packed. In the row in front of me, a trim silver-haired man was passing a slim flask of araq to his friends, the anise scent adding one more flourish to the melody. Down in front, some women had given way to the irresistible urge to dance. In the ensemble behind the singer, the silver finger picks of the qanun player flashed above the countless strings of his instrument. If you had questioned me at the moment, I would have confessed to levitating without a license.
Then a shard of conversation crossed my mind. “When I was young, my father sang Umm Kalthum in the shower,” a friend of mine, whose family came to Israel from Tunis, once told me, “because you could not sing that anywhere else.” The friend belonged to a group of activist-intellectuals whose parents immigrated from Middle Eastern countries, and he was explaining with smoldering pain how Israel of the 1950’s and 1960’s, dominated by European Jews, had made clear to his parents’ generation and his own that they would have to pack up the culture they’d brought with them and lock it in the attics of their minds. Israeli folk music had Russian tunes; its symphonies performed Beethoven; its pop music came from France and America. Arab culture belonged to the enemy, across the uncertain armistice lines.
That fit together with another shard of memory: The poet Haim Gouri had told me how, in 1955, he had brought Nathan Alterman, the unofficial Israeli poet laureate of his day, to the barbed-wire borderline running through Jerusalem. “From here to Shanghai is Asia,” Alterman had said, “and from here to the beach in Tel Aviv is Israel.” Israel was not in Asia. Psychologically, it lay on the imaginary border between Hungary and Luxembourg. Which actually was not the destination I had sought when I packed my bags and left the United States.
I looked around the concert hall. Judging by looks and by lips forming the lyrics, some of the crowd might remember the Baghdad or Alexandria of their youth. Others—judging by the fold of the women’s headscarves—were Arabs from East Jerusalem. And some must have had names ending in “-stein” or “-witz” and, like me, were willingly under the spell of music they had never heard in childhood. This was not just a matter of mental attics opened, heirlooms taken out for viewing within the family. The Oud Festival—sponsored by the Zionist Confederation House, a Jerusalem cultural center—has no political manifesto, and properly so: We’d all come for the music. All the same, the festival is part of a tectonic shift, a necessary relocation of Israel.
One day this winter i went to visit the musician Roni Ishran. (I don’t do fan pilgrimages—except when the star lives within walking distance of my home.) Ishran, 40, is the founder and director of Shaharit, an ensemble of eight Israeli musicians who perform classical Middle Eastern music, often with words from Hebrew liturgy. On the wall of his small apartment in central Jerusalem hangs an oud, the voluptuous pear-shaped lute essential to Arab music.
A lute, Ishran points out, has no frets, which would constrain the musician to full tones and half tones of Western music. Arab music uses quarter tones and subtle variations on them, creating a far richer spectrum. In place of the major and minor modes of Western music are nearly 100 scales, or maqamat, grouped in 10 families, Ishran explains. Each maqam has its own arrangement of notes and intervals, its own name, its own mood. Turkish music, going a step further, uses eighth tones, with close to 400 maqamat.
“A maqam is more than a set of tones,” Ishran says. “A thousand years ago, people prescribed scales to treat illnesses.… In one of his books, Rabbi Yisrael Najara of the 16th century connects the 10 sefirot [Divine emanations] of Kabbala with the 10 basic maqamat. In the tradition of the Jewish communities of Aleppo and Jerusalem, each Shabbat of the year has its own scale, and the hazan has to sing on that scale. There are countries in North Africa where each hour of the day had its scale.” The scale structures life.
Yet within the structure of maqam and melody, each singer and musician improvises, adding patterns within patterns. To Western ears, the music can sound off-key and atonal—or rich, expressive and unexpected. The latter is how I usually hear it, certainly when Ishran is singing, in rustling Hebrew, his own arrangement of “Eli,” a Hebrew prayer written 900 years ago by Yehuda Halevi. The song is on Shaharit’s debut CD.
Ishran’s personal journey can be read as a parable for a larger renaissance. His family is from southern Turkey, where Jews spoke Arabic and belonged to the wider community of Aleppo, across the border in northern Syria. In the Jerusalem neighborhood where he grew up, Syrian Jews gathered before dawn each Shabbat of the winter to sing songs known as bakashot, petitions. In his teens, he says, “I cut myself off” from music he saw as “belonging to old men.” Then one Shabbat night in the army, 20 years ago, doing guard duty alone in the desert, he found himself singing bakashot. The next weekend he was home on leave, he was in the synagogue before sunrise.
He was on his way back. He came to the Syrian synagogue on Saturday afternoons, when men gathered to sing in Hebrew to classical Arabic melodies. He bought recordings of Umm Kalthum. At 25, he learned to play violin in the Middle Eastern style from a blind Iraqi-born musician. At 30, he enrolled in a new program for Middle Eastern music at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, itself a sign of renewed recognition for music once consigned in Israel to slums or history. Five years ago, he formed Shaharit. Since then, he has also helped write a textbook on Middle Eastern music for Israeli elementary schools.
But the renaissance is incomplete. Shaharit’s first CD “got the best possible reviews in all the papers,” says Ishran, yet “it was only played here and there on the radio.” The music is still treated as outside the mainstream. “I grew up here. I’m Israeli. I served in the army and did 20 years in the reserves in a combat unit…. Today, I create music. Why isn’t it Israeli?” He’s not the only one facing that question. Last year, for instance, American-born composer and educator Stephen Hornstein started transforming a religious high school in the poverty-ridden town of Lod into a center for Middle Eastern and Ethiopian music. (Full disclosure: Hornstein is an old friend.)
The school, now called Pisgah-Meitarim, has undergone “unbelievable transformation,” he says, as students learn to perform and go out into their neighborhoods to record traditional music. Hornstein intends to expand the program to other towns populated largely by Jews of Middle Eastern ancestry. He is also demanding Education Ministry recognition for a high school major in Mideastern music, complete with a matriculation exam—part of the college entrance process—in the field. So far, he’s still fighting the ministry over the issue. As Ishran says, quoting a religious maxim, “The redemption comes little by little.”
The Zionist Confederation House overlooks a deep green valley. On the far side rise the walls of the Old City. “We’re in the West city, facing the East,” says Effie Benaia, in a statement of geography and attitude. Benaia is square faced, with a steady, warm smile. His father was born in Alexandria. Benaia grew up hearing Arabic and Turkish music at home. In his 11 years as director of the Confederation House, he has turned it into a center for music that has been pushed to the margins—Arabic, Persian, Ethiopian, Central Asian and more.
It was a Zionist decision, Benaia says: He chose to showcase the culture of communities of Jews who had chosen to come to Israel. That also led to a desire to build a bridge across the valley and expose Israelis to the music of their Arab neighbors. In 2000, he held the first Oud Festival—five concerts in the Confederation House’s hall, which seats 100 people. The hall was full every night. The next year, the festival grew and it keeps growing. Benaia says he made an “ideological” point of advertising in Ha’aretz, the highbrow daily, “just like a Beethoven concert.” For some events, he booked a hall with 400 seats, and then larger ones.
Tickets sold out early. The musical variety extended from Arabic and Middle Eastern Jewish to Persian, Armenian, Turkish and Central Asian. The crowd was no longer limited to traditional-leaning Jews with roots in Islamic countries. It included “secular people who go to jazz and classical music,” notes Benaia. The music “became something Israeli.” Going a step further, Benaia arranged to sell tickets through community centers in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. In November 2006, the Oud Festival included 16 performances in Jerusalem and three more in the Israeli Arab city of Nazareth.
The new openness reflects wider changes. “At the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict, we [Israelis] didn’t want to hear about anything Arab,” says Benaia. In the 1990’s, “when real dialogue began with the other side, a dialogue of compromise, a cultural dialogue began as well.” Not only could the Oud Festival present Arab composers, it could draw 1,000 people to an opening night concert. “I believe,” says Benaia, “that this festival touches on the culture of peace.”
The comment is startling because precisely in the years that the Oud Festival has flourished, political dialogue has been replaced by explosions. And yet, in the midst of those bad times, Israelis and Palestinians could listen together to a Jewish woman sing “Inta Omri” in a Jerusalem concert hall. Leaving Benaia’s office, looking out over the valley toward the Old City, I wondered which maqam heals anger, which scale is assigned to the hour of peace.