These past weeks saw many Yale students celebrating the Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as the harvest festival of Sukkot. As someone distinctly not Jewish, what information I have about these holidays comes from my friends’ celebrations and complaints. As I listen to friends remark on their growling bellies during Yom Kippur, or watch them walk back from services carrying pillows under their arms, I feel like I’m looking through a window at a world defined by traditions and history that I will always respect but never quite understand.
On the heels of the Jewish holidays was one of Yale’s own: Family Weekend. Performance groups of all kinds prepared for weeks to entertain their families, and the Glee Club — of which I am a member — is no exception. The Glee Club historically shares its annual Family Weekend concert with the Concert Band and the Yale Symphony Orchestra. This year there was an additional guest: the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an Israeli-Palestinian youth chorus under the direction of Yale alumnus Micah Hendler ‘12.
Hendler’s participation as a teenager in youth programs that focused on facilitating international communication among teens in the Middle East influenced his desire to start the choir when he left Yale. After graduating in 2012, Micah took his knowledge of Arabic and Hebrew, as well as his double majors in International Relations — now Global Affairs — and music, to Jerusalem with the goal of founding a youth choir. After serious recruiting efforts during his first year, 80 teenagers auditioned for the Chorus, and it’s been a thriving group of roughly 35 ever since. The group garnered international fame in part because half its members are Israeli and half are Palestinian. In 2014 they toured in Japan, this summer they participated in Yale’s International Choral Festival and on September 24th, they appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
The group’s diverse composition has implications beyond the various languages in which they sing. Hendler founded the chorus in hopes that it would facilitate dialogue between the opposing groups. The teenagers rehearse together, sing together, tour together and share stories with each other, despite and in defiance of the violence and conflict often exploding around them. They rehearse in Jerusalem’s International YMCA building because, according to the New York Times, it is one of few places considered neutral. As Hendler said to the Huffington Post in 2014, despite the use of force on both sides, the Youth Chorus has continued to meet, sing and talk in order to “[get] into some of the issues surrounding nationality, [and] citizenship.” For the singers, the “other side” becomes not a number or a news clip but rather a colleague and a friend.
Jerusalem has existed for me mainly as a peripheral location, one that occasionally comes to the forefront of my newsfeed whenever a new social or political issue commands an international view. I am, of course, aware of the turmoil surrounding its governance and the tension between Israel and Palestine, as well as the fact that Jerusalem, as an extremely diverse city, is a microcosm for the wider conflict. When headlines distort reality, it’s all too easy to see the conflict in terms of numbers, not lives. But when Hendler and part of the Youth Chorus came to sing at Yale, it led me to see the Israel-Palestine issue in a new light.
On Saturday, the Glee Club and the Youth Chorus collaborated on a song called “Adinu,” based on an old Sufi chant. The lyrics read, “Adinu bidinil hubbi, anna tawajjahat raka’ibuhufal hubbu, dini waimani” which in Hendler’s translation mean, “I believe in the religion of love wherever it is found, for love is my religion and faith.” The arrangement of “Adinu” by Shireen Abu-Khader and André de Quadros that the Youth Chorus performs goes beyond a simple melody. In fact, it’s highly improvisational and sometimes atonal; it stands in contrast to Western musical conventions of traditional harmony. The original melody is fused with different styles, especially the Arabic improvisational tradition of mawwal to transform it into a unique, unexpected sound. So, even though the group has performed it over a hundred times, it’s always new and different — it doesn’t get old for them. Hendler described it as a “collective improvisation that always takes [the audience] into a space that is transformative and transcendent.” For one part of the song, Hendler asked every Glee Club member to think about what the phrase “religion of love” meant to them personally and to choose a song or a melody that best reflected the ideal.
I spent quite a bit of time considering what song epitomized a “religion of love” for me. There were a few contenders, each with their own backstories. First, there was “White Coral Bells,” a lullaby about flowers and fairies that my mother used to sing to me. Billy Joel’s “And So it Goes” reminded me of my melodramatic high school crushes, when my heart was always recovering from various slights and break-ups. The Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” was the favorite song of a dear family friend who was a grandfather to me. A “religion of love” was, for me, a difficult emotion to pin down: it had to be intimate but inclusive, narrow enough to appreciate details, but broad enough to encompass a bigger picture of life.
Ultimately I decided on “The Parting Glass,” an Irish folk song about leaving loved ones behind, but telling them not to worry. The song goes, “though since it fell unto my lot / that I should rise and you should not / I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call / goodnight and joy be to you all.” This is to me the defining line of this song, a reminder that peace can exist despite loss.
The songs selected by the Youth Chorus and the other members of the Glee Club were incredibly diverse, in both language and genre: everything from show tunes like “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables to traditional folksongs and even a rap about love written in Arabic.
Esther Portyansky ‘16 chose the Hebrew song “Ashira l’Adonai” from the film The Prince of Egypt because it epitomizes to her God’s transcendent love and the strength it takes to have faith amid the suffering of the world.
Greg Suralik ‘17 picked “Amazing Grace” because it was less overtly religious, and much more welcoming to people of all religions.
One person sang the Chinese words for “Love us, love them, love you” over and over again in an improvised melody to express how love transcends boundaries and languages. There were songs about raising one’s voice, songs sung for years by parents, songs that reminded people of the love they felt for their family or for the simple objects of everyday life.
I asked Hendler what song he would pick, given the opportunity, and he answered that his expression of love was the song created by the totality of the voices in front of him. “I hold the energy of the song and facilitate the [emotional] space instead,” he said. Sung simultaneously, the ninety-six songs made a wall of sound that was “powerful, breathing, and alive.” He views this role as more profound than any song he could sing on his own.
One of Hendler’s goals is to help the teenagers become leaders and future peacemakers. That aspect of the Chorus, which will work to create the “beautiful Jerusalem” that Hendler imagines, succeeds in part because even though there is strife, the chorus, with its members from East and West Jerusalem, is what draws them in.
“The whole thing is a journey anyways,” Hendler said. As I finished typing up my notes I could only agree with him. Music is a journey, dialogue is a journey, and love is a journey. Most importantly, they are journeys that can’t happen in isolation. Music, dialogue and love are essentially collaborative, and they help us overcome conflicts like the one that currently wracks Jerusalem.