Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word

Dana’s Story

photo provided by Dana Saba David
photo provided by Dana Saba David

What’s it like to be an Israeli student in the US, right now?

I spoke with Dana Saba David, a music student who has unwittingly found herself in one of the centers of left-wing antisemitic, pro-Palestinian action: The New School, in New York.

Saba David is no stranger to struggle: She describes herself as naturally rebellious. Dana’s perfect musical ear and talent were discovered early, but the strict piano lessons, while her friends were out playing, did not go down easily. That changed when her father died suddenly when Dana was 11. Music became her solace. Her father, a music lover and professional sound editor, left her his vinyl collection, and as she entered her teens, she left behind her classical training and turned to the more emotional strains of modern jazz, playing riffs on her piano day and night.

Skipping both the end of high school (she later earned her GRE) and compulsory army service, Dana enrolled in the prestigious Israel Conservatory of Music program. Her BA program consisted of two years in Tel Aviv and another two in New York, at the New School’s Mannes School of Music.

Thus, Dana arrived in New York, alone, at age 19, with her contrabass in tow. She had been introduced to the instrument by legendary Israeli bassist Eli Magen when she asked to try a string instrument for her composition studies. “I was immediately freed from the emotional strings tied to the piano, but I also found freedom in playing an instrument that required me to be part of an ensemble, playing as a group, rather than being constantly in the spotlight,” she said. The fact that her instrument of choice was larger than her, that it is almost exclusively played by men (and tall men, at that), was of little consequence to her. She enjoyed challenging the stereotype.

In New York, besides the normal culture shock foreign students experience, Dana struggled to pay for the expensive studies, teaching piano and playing gigs, while other students, she noted, could spend all of their time in the practice rooms, letting their parents cover the cost. COVID put another dent in her studies, and she kept up with them online, playing her piano in Zoom sessions in the middle of the night as quietly as possible in her mother’s Tel Aviv apartment.

She decided to stay on at Mannes, this time with a prestigious full scholarship, to get an MA in music composition.

On October 7, 2023, she woke up reminding herself to buy a ticket to Israel, as she had an audition with the Israel Philharmonic. On turning on her computer, she found an email from her mother telling her to wait before buying the ticket.

“I didn’t know exactly what was happening. I couldn’t sleep at night,” says Dana, who knew friends and acquaintances had been planning on attending the Nova music festival in the South. She found that her good friends had left the festival the evening before, but others she knew had been killed in the massacre.

She tried to get into the school, and had to be escorted through a side entrance by campus police

Still, the shock as news rolled in from Israel did not prepare her for what came next.

The pro-Palestinian campus groups, she says, were made up of those same students who did not have to work their way through school. “They are people who are totally not involved in this conflict.”

As the demonstrations became more vehement, she and many other Israeli students stopped going to class. At one point, she tried to get into the school and had to be escorted through a side entrance by campus police. (Her fear, she says, was for her precious – and expensive – instrument.) She saw students ripping down signs with faces of the Israeli hostages, putting threatening notes on the lockers of Israeli students. A new low for her was when the students for a free Palestine went to the campus leadership with demands, including shutting down the exchange program with the Israeli conservatory.

Possibly more hurtful to Dana were the Facebook posts full of lies and propaganda by those who were only willing to see the conflict in black and white. Dana lost friends, but she also stopped playing in the ensembles she had been a part of, and she hesitated to sit in sessions with students she feared were anti-Israeli activists.

“I was torn,” she said, adding hesitantly, “I have also been exposed to narratives I would not have found in Israel.” Refusing to stand either with the “Israel right-or-wrong” crowd or the pro-Palestinian side, Dana found herself wondering about her identity and place in the world of music. “Music, for me, is the opposite of what is now happening,” she says. “I am always looking for the deeper emotional connection that transcends conflict.”

Dana stopped playing in the ensembles she had been a part of, and she hesitated to sit in sessions with students she feared were anti-Israeli activists

On the one hand, Dana has given into fear: She stopped telling people she is Israeli. That was a hard choice for a woman who grew up listening to stories of her grandparents’ immigration to Israel – from Iraq on one side, Holocaust survivors on the other. On the other hand, she has begun exploring her Jewish identity through the work of Jewish composers. On Purim, she performed the work “Prayer,” written by the Jewish composer Ernest Bloch originally for cello, at the Center for Jewish History. The piece was especially emotional for her, she says, as Bloch was the first teacher of composition at Mannes (1917-1920).

Instead of playing in ensembles, Saba David has embarked on a new project. Together with a fellow bassist Carlos Pino, from Columbia (he gets what its like coming from a country embroiled in conflict) – she has started a project that involves arranging and recording music for bass, alone. “Instead of being in the background, we are bringing bass instruments to the front,” she says. (To cover the cost, they have started a kickstarter campaign.) Between them, they play both the musical phrases generally reserved for piano, guitars or saxophones as well as the bassline.

Is she coming back to Israel? “Yes. No.” says Dana. She’s had enough of New York; her “people” – fellow bass musicians are there. The ones that get her and support her – those are more precious than ever.

She refers me to a song she and Carlos have recorded for the project, which has become a sort of anthem; Mad World (Tears for Fears). The lyrics, aside from “mad world; mad world” go: “Went to school and I was very nervous. No one knew me; no one knew me. Hello teacher, tell me what’s my lesson. Look right through me; look right through me.”

Dana, at 24, is already an accomplished musician who is determined that no one will look right through her. She does not know exactly what her future holds, but she is ready to face it with her authentic self. She is confindent that despite the pain, the music will win out in the end.

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.
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