It took no longer than a few seconds after I landed in Tel Aviv for a year of study that I spotted Elad in the crowd at Ben Gurion Airport. He was wearing Naot sandles, army pants, a tattered T-shirt, some heavy duty diving watch and a knitted kippah serugah of the Religious Zionist type. I remember it vividly because I was dressed as his mirror. We met at Camp Ramah in the Poconos when Elad was serving as that year’s emissary. He was one of the more reserved and conservative amongst the Israeli staff, uncomfortable and unsure at the beginning of the summer as to whether he could pray in a traditional egalitarian format with women around him wearing phyllacteries and reading Torah. By the summer’s end, we were brothers, that reserved facade dissolved, to the point where now in Ben Gurion airport I could sense the wild excitement, reaching a near rapture, as he went on describing to me how transformative this was going to be. Elad was taking me on an dawn trek into the eastern edge of the Judean desert somewhere near the foot of Masada— for a David Broza concert! I had not been back to Israel for years since making another pre-dawn pilgrimage of sorts up the snake path to celebrate my bar mitzvah on the ancient outpost of those last Jewish freedom fighters against the Roman Empire. Elad wanted me now to have the unofficial experience every Israeli was initiated into—- making pilgrimage to the desert to encamp till sunrise as legendary Israeli singer-songwriter, David Broza, serenaded the rising of the sun. And how propitious it was that I landed just when word of mouth had it that out in the desert around 3 in the morning Broza would encamp as was his custom on stage that felt like a clef in the mountain and play without a break until the sun began to crack through the horizon. Elad gave me a brotherly embrace as he gathered and my belongings, whisking me from the airport, to his home, for a wonderful home cooked meal that covered all the bases from Sephardic to Ashkenazic delights. Now that we were fed, we were ready to set off into the Negev, footless and carefree, and I could hear those words being sung by another bard, calling us into the desert:
I’m on the night shift now
I don’t care ain’t going home anyhow
Barreling through unmarked dune trails enveloped in a desert darkness that had no patience for our dim car-lights, how we found the concert site remains a mystery, but I guess it was nothing if you’ve been through the IDF. Sitting in near darkness on a blanket with sand swirling around us, we fell into a trance as hours later, Broza reached the crescendo of a song about the sounds of the desert, with the amassed crowds intoning every word by heart together. That other song continued:
When the Western Stars have turned to screams
And the Milky Way turned to dreams
Can you tell me what the holes in my soul do me?
If I could find me a horse with legs of steel
I’d call back to you just how it feels
No matter how many screams and dreams have poked holes in my soul since then, that sunrise in the Judean desert with Elad remains forever a fire burnished in my bones. It was a powerful way to re-enter the Land of Israel — from Masada back to Masada. Looking back decades later, the sounds of Broza crooning once in Hebrew have been transformed into the English lyrics of American country legend, Townes Van Zandt.
The most recent show I had seen of Broza in New York was his performance of all new material, called Night Dawn. Although my Broza Hebrew music collection had long been collecting dust, this new title intrigued me enough to check it out. Entranced by those sounds of the desert deep in this Diaspora club, it felt like eons since those late night debates in the woods of the Poconos over those self-censored stanzas in Broza’s song Yihiye Tov (“It’ll all be good”) that dared to suggest that peace in Israel would come once “we all got out of the occupied territories”. How did it come to pass that David Broza was no longer singing in Hebrew rather Americana songs written by Townes Van Sandt in English? What kind of re-enchantment was this for a Zionist like Broza?
I recently confessed my ignorance of Van Sandt’s repertoire to an old friend turned activist lawyer named, Ryan, as we caught up over drinks back home in Toronto over the luminal darkness of Hanukah in Hogtown. Through the years we had developed a deep connection over Bob Dylan as the “jokerman” of our Jewish journeys. Ryan came through the snow squalls to greet me at Aroma Cafe in the Annex on his bike, wearing a black Stetson and biking gear, while I was in a beaten up brown bomber with my burnt-out Borsalino. We were two lost cowboys searching for something in our own diaspora of Hogtown. As the night unfolded, and we drained the jukebox at a local watering hole, we returned to Ryan’s basement to uncover some hidden treasures–just a few Townes Van Sandt songs before you go, he promised:
We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that’s real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own
The choice is yours to make
Time is yours to take
Some dive into the sea
Some toil upon the stone
That feeling of being at once riveted to and ripped from the core my soul in that wintry basement—like a hundred billion stars once discovered immediately wandering away. In hearing Van Standt intone “We all got holes to fill” as an ode to those spaces we make in life, especially the gaps in between— the longing, the remarkable absence we are present within much of waking existence — I immediately understood the wandering path of Broza on Night Dawn. And if these wandering words were starting to sound like downward way to end an otherwise exhilarating evening, Ryan’s smiling eyes caught mine, warning me never lose sight of Van Sandt’s star, concluding with this uplifting chorus:
To live is to fly
Low and high
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes
Shake the dust off of your wings
And the tears out of your eyes
Even though the sum of the relationship between these two bards “low and high”—one from Texas and other from Haifa— was nothing more than sharing a stage in Houston back in 1994, somehow that wandering lead to an encounter between David Broza and Townes Van Sandt that changed more than the margins of music history. In handing a dozen unpublished poems to Broza that fateful night, Van Zandt “dusted off his wings”, somehow knowing in his soul that those words he never set to music in his lifetime would finally be set free to fly with Broza’s music through the desert landscapes of their souls—now forever intertwined.
In the world of Americana, Van Zandt’s music retains an almost cult-like status in the masterful way this bard sings stories of wandering and yearning. Much like Van Zandt, who was born in Fort Worth, Texas, 1944, wandering throughout America into Colorado then back to Houston, Broza, born in Haifa, 1955, also spent time wandering for periods through England and Spain. Yet on the eve of that New York release of “Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt”, Broza unveiled his mask a bit, sharing with the audience:
“I feel like a knight in armor, and that armor is his poetry.”
Broza’s affinity for Van Zandt is more than merely one of two underdog bards who happened to meet by chance back stage on the margins of their respective musical cultures. This affinity runs deeper against all odds like the luminal darkness alighted by the Hanuka candles into a shared wandering – with Van Sandt through Broza, with Ryan through Elad – in search of that desert Night Dawn to can bring a soul yearning for Zion homewards.