I am writing this while returning on the 12 hour flight from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, Israel to Newark, New Jersey and then finally to Boston. And like I often do when I am coming home from my annual trips to Japan, I thought I would send a letter with some of my observations about the trip my experiences.
My friend, the talented and imaginative Israeli bassist, Ehud Ettun who completed his masters degree at The New England Conservatory a few years ago (and now lives in Boston) set up a tour for us that included a rehearsal, three concerts and two clinic/master classes. We stayed in his mother’s large apartment in Jerusalem on a hillside south of the old city with breath-taking views of the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives.
It became almost instantly clear that my preconceptions of this place had very little to do with the reality I experienced. And the more I learned about the history, culture, people, geography, politics and religion, the more incomplete and less solid any view or opinion I might have had became. To the point where I noticed that I had been harboring views for years that I didn’t even know I had.
Ehud picked me up from the Tel Aviv airport and drove me the 45 minute drive on the highway to Jerusalem. The elevation of Jerusalem is 2500 feet, and it is cooler up there than it is in Tel Aviv which is on the Mediterranean Sea. That evening, we hung out in the city, heard part of a concert that an Arabic string orchestra was playing at a Jewish arts center, ate an incredibly delicious shawarma, sat in (played a few tunes) at a little jazz club, and walked through ancient winding tan colored stone alleyways and street filled with bars and restaurants all jammed and spilling with people into the streets. We cut through other restaurants to get to even-more-hidden and crowded warrens of clubs and eateries.
After a breakfast in the Shouk, the large market, on the way to our rehearsal with our percussionist the next day, when I mentioned that I felt completely safe at night there, Ehud replied that we are indeed safe there, that were anything to happen to us, that the entire country would be mobilized to look for us, that it would in fact be in the world newspapers. I didn’t know what to say.
Usually any discussion we had about Israel, it’s history and current situation got put into a new perspective. It seems that I was often reminded of the short comings of our own nation. Contradictions that make it quite difficult for Israel to live up to its ideals of freedom and justice for all, are also present and apparent in U.S. society today and throughout our history. Many people in our two countries are working to help us come to terms with some of the underlying “original” sins built right in to the founding of these nations.
I always asked the people I met how their families got to Israel, often hanging out after our gigs with Ashkenazic (Western European) descendant Jews. And everyone without fail had a story of their grandparents getting out of Europe before or somehow during the Nazi reign of death. The people who stayed behind or who were left behind were killed. The first Zionists were empowered by the work they did building a self-sufficient safe haven in their new socialist communities. The work of their zeal is everywhere present. I met Russians and Bosnians whose families came as well.
Once the country was established formally, then Arab Jews who were being expelled from their communities in great numbers from Iraq and Egypt and Morocco and Libya began arriving. These Arab Jews (Sephardic) were not welcomed in the same way as the European Jews into Israeli society, even though they soon made up half the population of Israel. This prejudice is a complex and sad issue. It is not hard to imagine the difficulties for both the Arabs and Arab-Jews living within Israel but also the complexity of all of this for a nation built on immigration.
Our percussionist, Yshai Afterman is single-mindedly devoted to exploring the rich tradition of North African, Arabic percussion. He plays a frame drum, and darbuka, and riq. His solos have a curve of open space – a whole orchestra of sounds (all coming from one drum at a time) moving towards explosive, seemingly impossible bursts of fireworks. And his groove is severe, focused, buoyant and conversant. From the first note in rehearsal Ehud and I both knew that this was a match made in heaven.
Our clinics at the music schools were packed. The high school kids, who already know that they want to be musicians and are in special schools that allow them to focus early on, ask incredibly deep questions about practice, the purpose, and the search. I was deeply inspired by the Music Directors of these schools who are raising the next generation this way. After our first clinic, we went out to dinner on the vibrant streets of Jerusalem with Tal Gamlieli, my dear friend whom I met and played with in Boston, who now leads the Jazz Program in the Jerusalem Academy of Music’s High School Division.
We had our Tel Aviv concert in an intimate and acoustically perfect room with a gorgeous sounding Steinway B at the Felicia Blumenthal recital hall. I was really happy and I don’t think my music has ever sounded better. No mics, no bass amp, no P.A. Just our natural sound.
Then for our last concert we drove three hours south into the Negev desert to the little town called Mizpe Ramon, perched on the edge of a vast and deep crater. We watched the sun set and the full moon rise over this grand canyon, had sound check and a meal outside under the moon, and when we came back for our show the room was packed with folks hungry to listen to our music. The venue is run by a man named Gady Lybrock who repurposed a prefab industrial building into a music room in this little town and he has built the room and the audience from nothing. With a little upright piano, bass, and percussion we again played acoustically with no amps and drew these enthusiastic music fans who live high up on the edge of a vast crater into a universe of music, but one had the sense that they were all used to listening to the vast silence all around them.
I could write three more letters about people I met and conversations I had, and I have hardly mentioned the food, or the architecture, or the nightlife, or being woken up at 4:45 am in Jerusalem by the sound of the Muslim Muezzins singing their call to prayer. It gets to you. It can’t help but get to you, being in this ancient place. And you begin to wonder whether the separation of sacred and secular is a false distinction. At the very least it stimulates reflection and a boundless gratitude for how blessed we all are to be here.