Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

From the Maghreb to Beit Avi Chai: A Remnant Survives

Neta Elkayam, Youtube screenshot

Sometimes I ask myself if, just once, I could relive the experience of attending a particular concert or musical performance, which would it be? Since I’m definitely one of those for whom ‘the past is another country’, I’m not sure why I play this game. It must be a sign of how much I love live music.

I’ve heard many outstanding classical music concerts and operas in my life, but I wouldn’t use my once in a lifetime ticket for time travel for a performance that — from my perspective — could well be replicated next week at the New York Philharmonic or the Royal Opera House.

Stellar music alone is not enough to lure me back. I’m looking for charismatic performers in an unrepeatable context or combination (so probably not a soloist, though Ella Fitzgerald on Boston Common and Bob Dylan in Brixton and Claudio Arrau in various locations are on my list), and an audience that brings its own chemistry to the mix.

One of my front-runners is a concert I attended with my son Jonah at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem on October 17 2014. Jonah had come to Jerusalem unexpectedly in mid-September, his anthropological fieldwork in Freetown interrupted by the catastrophe of Ebola. Most airlines had stopped flying to Sierra Leone by the time his university told him to leave, but he was able to get a seat on Royal Air Maroc (thank you, Morocco!), and was with us in time for Rosh HaShanah.

Since Jonah plays keyboard, I was excited when I found out that we could spend his last evening in Jerusalem at Beit Avi Chai, listening to a pianist and a singer I’d never heard of, but who both sounded promising on YouTube.

It’s not dramatic in the sense of, say, David’s Tower at sunset, but Beit Avi Chai is a Jerusalem venue I love. It’s modern yet warm, elegant yet self-effacing, and attracts performers such as the magnificent paytanim Haim Louk and David Menachem. It also attracts some great audiences: enthusiastic, highly participatory, and seemingly all related to each other. Sitting in Beit Avi Chai’s courtyard on a balmy evening waiting expectantly for the Piyut festival to begin (never exactly on time …) feels more like a simha than a concert.

On this occasion, the pre-concert hall resonated with French and Arabic-accented Hebrew. The pianist, Maurice El Medioni, is an Algerian Jew in his mid-80s, and the singer, Neta Elkayam, is a young woman whose Moroccan family still spoke Arabic when she was growing up in an Israeli development town.

Maurice walked carefully onto the stage with someone at hand to support him if necessary, but even if his legs were stiff, his fingers were fantastically agile; the opening bars exploded into the hall like fireworks. A keen singer in Hebrew from a young age, Neta found her true voice (and what a voice!) only when she began to sing in Arabic. That night, she intoxicated the audience with Arabic songs some of which were popularized in Algeria by Jewish women (google Line Monty, if you’re interested).

I’m guessing that many of those sitting around us at Beit Avi Chai were transported back instantly to their North African youths. Jonah and I were taken to a world we didn’t know existed, the exuberant blend of jazz, oriental, and bop reflecting a vibrant popular culture that’s all but gone.

A concert that could easily have evoked loss — a man in his 80s playing music that evokes a past he can’t recover even if he wanted to — exuded life. That had a lot to do with the music itself, which is as full of joy as any I have heard. But almost as crucial was the remarkable synergy between Maurice El Medioni and Neta Elkayam: keys and vocal, male and female, age and youth, yesterday and today. A world was lost, but a remnant had survived and we were privileged to witness it.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.