Meditation on National Celebration and Personal Connection

“When you expect good you will get something good.”  This is what my son’s teacher told me when I thanked her for encouraging him to do something hard at school a few months ago.  She has an amazing ability to motivate students and to get the best from them. She sees within them what is possible.

It’s a life lesson really, for me as an educator, mother and citizen of Israel.  It’s been about four years since we made aliyah. My kids read Hebrew more easily than English, are fully embarrassed by their parents’ American accents and smoke tuna on family campouts with the finesse of a native Israeli scout.

And while there is so much work to be done in Israel, a real reckoning with the dwindling opportunities for two state solution with the Palestinians, creating a fair immigration policy for non-Jewish citizens of the state sparked by the crisis with asylum seekers to name a couple, with Israel approaching its 70th birthday, there is also so much to celebrate.

A phenomenon that has been sweeping Israel this past year puts elements of that celebration into sharp relief.  It’s the social-music initiative called Koolulam — shira b’tzibur (the public sing-a-longs that date back to the early 1900s and the first kibbutzim) on steroids.

“When you expect good you will get something good.” This could be an implicit refrain by Kululam’s founders. These gatherings began a year ago as a group of 500 plus Israelis who came together, “to stop everything for a few hours and just sing.”

The outcome?  A deep experience of communitas — an acute feeling of coming together for a common purpose.  The purpose here is to create music. And over the past year it has attractive thousands of Israelis from all walks of life.  Last week’s event in Tel Aviv had about 12,000 people in attendance — including my family of five.

It works because the creators have tapped into a deep need of Israeli citizens today — needs that characterize what is so powerful about the Zionist project in the first place.

Power of the individual — Israel’s founding happened because of individuals, the early pioneers, who formed groups who settled the land and made history.  In the early years, every individual who decided to join the yishuvim (early settlements) in British mandate Palestine, mattered. With today’s population of Israel topping over 8 million citizens, it’s hard to remember how every person contributes to make a country, community, and home what they want it to be.  It’s easy to fade into the background, to relax into stance of ‘someone else will take care of things.’ My experience at the Koolulam event awoke within me a different reality. While the event drew a crowd of thousands, each person was counted. The stadium was divided into two groups, and we all had song sheets with clear instructions around how to deliver this original composition of a Zionist classic,  Al Kol Eleh (For All These) by Naomi Shemer.  But there were some parts I just didn’t get. I forgot the harmony. I figured, with 12,000 people there, does it really matter if I just revert to to my old habits and sing the song the way I know it to be sung?  What amazed me is that the conductor, Ben Yafet, could sense this lazy reversal (it wasn’t just me). “Lo, lo, lo” (no, no, no) he instructed to each of us individually and no-one in particular, “try again, really enunciate! That’s better!”  At that event, your voice, quite literally, mattered.

Draw to be a part of something larger than yourself — within one year, Koolulam has grown over 20-fold. The growth speaks to a way the project meets a deep spiritual need — to connect to something larger than ourselves.  We feel that way when we protest, when we go to sporting events, for some of us, when we pray. Coming together en masse for a common purpose moves us beyond the particulars of our lives.  It moves us from being among people to being with them, a feeling of communion.  Coming together in this way helps expand and inspires us.  The work back home is to sustain this high through the deep weave of relationships and the sense of responsibility that comes from being active in local communities.  As Parker Palmer, the US based writer, activist and educational reformer, famously says, “Community begins not externally but in the recesses of the human heart. Long before community can be manifest in outward relationships, it must be present in the individual as ‘a capacity for connectedness’ – a capacity to resist the forces of disconnection with which our culture and our psyches are riddled…”  The founders of the event actively inspired this ‘capacity for connectedness’ We were there for just two hours. But the project of creating a society and culture in which generosity of spirit and listening (key components of this social choir) lasts a lot longer. In a certain way, the event at Kululam was a preparation for what comes next.

From consumer to creator — the early Zionists created reality.  They built kibbutzim. They drained swamps.  They challenged themselves to speak Hebrew, only Hebrew.  They shaped a new culture. But as any good Western capitalist society knows once it develops, economies are built on consumption.  A consumer mentality assumes that the more we purchase, the more fulfilled we’ll be. We experience a consumer mentality in our relationship to culture as well.  We go the theatre, we pay for tickets to concerts and we adore singers on the stage. But here we were challenged to create. “You are the culture” is Koolulam’s explicit message.  What is happening on the stage is simply there to guide you to create within you, all 12,000 of you, the music of your lives. Bring everything to this moment.

Striving for excellence — While all of us are a work-in-progress and none of us is perfect, we can always strive to become better.  After the fourth take (this social choir was recorded and turned into a four-minute video clip), we (read: I and my 5-year-old daughter who was way too over-tired to take in the grand Zionist character of the evening) were ready to pack it in and head home.  But Ben, the conductor pushed us to do better. “It was almost there, but I have a couple of more suggestions” he coached. As we celebrate Israel’s 70th, a healthy celebration of Israel will guide us to know that we can always do better. We must do better.

One teacher, one parent, one citizen. If you expect good from someone that’s what you will get.

What if we had that mentality all the time? Every day? When we enter into political debates? When we encounter each other on the street?  When we encouraged our children to take initiative? When we encounter lethargy in ourselves?

The woman who was seated in front of my family during the event kept turning around to dart a grimace to my daughter who was rhythmically (and annoyingly) kicking her son’s chair.  My “mama bear” instincts led me to defend my daughter in my mind with a “How dare she!” expression on my face. A few moments later, I calmed down. When I noticed that this mom didn’t have a song sheet, I tapped her on the shoulder.  She looked apprehensive. When I offered her the song sheet she had been missing, her expression softened. Two notes creating human harmony, in a gathering filled with potential.

About the Author
Dasee Berkowitz is a Jewish educational consultant living in Jerusalem. She is the Director of Ayeka's "Becoming a Soulful Parent" project.
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