Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Percussionists not politicians

Music in Jerusalem, photo credit: Diana Lipton

This story may have changed in some details along its chain of transmission; it may even be apocryphal. I would be hard pressed to spell out exactly what it means, but it has a message that I really love.

There was only one Orthodox Jew living in the English city of Coventry. He may have been a Professor of Mathematics at the University. Whenever the large Christian community organized interfaith dialogue events, he was invited. On one occasion, he spoke to an audience of about 200 about Jewish beliefs and practices. At the end of the lecture, a woman put up her hand and asked, What is it like to be a Jew? The speaker thought for a moment, and started to sing a niggun [this isn’t it, but you’ll get the idea]. One by one, the audience joined in until all 200 were singing. When they finally stopped, the speaker looked at them and said, ‘That’s what it’s like to be a Jew’.

Here’s a related story — this time from a more reliable source.

A strongly identifying but non-practicing Jewish man was dating a non-Jewish woman. They discussed marriage and conversion, but the woman told her boyfriend she was afraid she wouldn’t feel Jewish. A few months later they went to see The Jazz Singer. In one scene, there’s a synagogue service, and the non-Jewish girlfriend heard the congregation sing a snatch of Adon Olam. She told her boyfriend that maybe she could feel Jewish after all. Some time later, she converted, they got married under a chuppah, and raised a Jewish family.

This story, also related, is from another reliable source.

A few years ago, my son Jonah volunteered as a music teacher in a South London primary school. Once a week, he went in to play piano and sing with a class of seven-year-olds, almost all from ethnic minority groups. Jonah taught them a three-part setting of some beautiful words from Jewish liturgy: ilu finu malei shira ka’yam, If our mouths were full of song as the sea. Kirsty, the class teacher, made a podcast in which the kids spoke about their experiences of music. I listened to it. When I sing ilu finu, said one little boy, I feel Jewish.

I can’t resist a short narrative detour. Our family learned ilu finu from Simon and Shoshana, who learned it from Barbara and Daniel, who learned it from their North London A Cappella choir. I was the head teacher of our synagogue’s Hebrew School — in Cambridge, England — at the time, and I taught it to the 120 plus kids, parents and teachers who came to our weekly assemblies.

The Engel family, visiting Cambridge from Pennsylvania, learned the song. During a vacation in Jerusalem, they went on Shabbat morning to Beit Shmuel, Israel’s center for Reform Judaism. After the service, there was a lunch and informal singing. We know a great setting for ilu finu we can teach you, they said. As soon as they started to sing, another woman there, also by coincidence from Pennsylvania, said, I composed it!

Now that I’ve made one detour, I might as well make another. Some years ago, I was having Shabbat dinner with my friend Julian in the amazing apartment in which he lived at the time on Jerusalem’s Helena Ha’Malka street. We were an eclectic group of guests — non-Jews, secular and moderately religious Jews, and members of Toldot Aharon, one of Meah Shearim’s most insulated Hasidic sects. Julian started singing a niggun and, unless my memory is playing tricks on me (now that I live in Jerusalem myself, I can hardly believe it), we all joined in. He told us he’d learned it in Northern Turkey when he was captured by bandits, Iranian deserters fleeing the Iran-Iraq war. Thereafter, our family sang the Bandits’ Niggun most Friday nights while our guests were washing their hands.

Julian is one of those people who’s been everywhere and met everyone. He doesn’t tell stories as such, but if you ask, Where does that carpet come from? Or do you know anything about such and such phenomenon in such and such a remote corner of the globe, he’ll give you an answer based on intimate firsthand knowledge that beggars belief. But however unbelievable and implausible his extraordinary casts of characters and exotic locations sound, they are always, always accurate down to the last letter. Julian doesn’t need to embroider the truth; it’s ornate enough as it is.

So I was more than surprised when I bought a CD of Jewish music by a singer I’d never heard of and noticed that one of the tracks was called the Bandits’ Niggun. Needless to say, the explanation was simple. A note on the CD cover credited Julian as the source. To complete the story, while I was looking just now to see if his CD was on YouTube, I found a video of his son’s wedding party, complete with the Bandits’ Niggun, the story, and — much chubbier and frummer-looking than now — Julian!

Although it began as a detour, the Bandits’ Niggun has brought me back on track. One of the final events in last week’s Mekudeshet festival was a concert with Turkish Jewish Israeli percussionist extraordinaire, Zohar Fresco. I love drums, but this was … I have no words.

The concert opened with Zohar Fresco himself, another guy with a conventional drum set, and a pianist. They played something jazzy, and it was great. They were joined on stage by two musicians from Spain — a traditional flamenco singer, and a percussionist. The Spanish guys performed alone, and then with Zohar and crew. It was really great. Then came a percussionist from Uzbekistan. Think the King of Siam juggling drums which he also managed to play at the same time. It was awesome. Then came flute player, followed by another drummer, both from India. Each played alone and in various formations. It was phenomenal. Finally, a drummer and an accordian player (yes, strange but true) from Italy came on to the stage. What can they add to all this, I wondered? It was spectacular. Independently and — especially — together, they were all spectacular.

When the standing ovations and encores came to a close, the musicians hugged each other, glowing with happiness, pride and deep mutual respect. Given their disparate geographic locations, I doubt they’d played together as a group before, but their interaction was beautiful to behold. I doubt I was the only one at YMCA that night who wished that percussionists ruled the world instead of politicians.

Someone made a similar point in last week’s edition of Arrivals/ Departures, a Haaretz feature in which travelers are interviewed at Ben Gurion airport. The Arrivals interviewees last week were four members of an Israeli band who were returning from an ad hoc tour on the streets of Berlin. Friends had warned them, they said, that it could be unpleasant and even dangerous, but it was the opposite. Syrians, Lebanese, even a former Gazan, came to enjoy their songs in Arabic. Why is the world like it is, they asked, and not like our concerts?

It’s a good question. King David, Israel’s first successful dynastic monarch and the ancestor of its future messiah, came to court as a player of tunes (1 Samuel 17:18). His name is inextricably bound up with the biblical psalms, the only part of the Bible that comes with musical stage directions. It’s as a musician that he’s best remembered and best loved, from Hallel to Hallelujah.

North French Miscellany: King David in a Jewish manuscript. c.1278-98
North French Miscellany: King David in a Jewish manuscript. c.1278-98, British Library

You might reasonably object that it was King David’s other attributes — military might, political savvy — that made him a great leader, not his musicianship. But I’m ready to be convinced otherwise. I’m sick of politicians. Send on the percussionists.

On that note (sorry!), if you’re in Jerusalem tonight, Wednesday 28 September, please consider going to the YMCA, opposite the King David Hotel, at 8.30pm to support Hear Our Voice, a rescheduled concert (and more) by Jerusalem-based choirs whose performances at the city center Clal building were halted last week by the extreme right-wing Jewish hate group, Lehava. Lehava members, mostly in their mid-to-late teens, rioted at the grand finale of the Manofim Jerusalem Contemporary art festival in objection to the inclusion of an Armenian Christian choir.

As police and protesters clashed (Lehava leader, Bentzy Gopstein, was arrested), the assembled choirs, including the brilliant BenZvi Piyut Ensemble and a local community choir, joined together in Banu hoshech l’garesh, We have come to drive out darkness. That’s the song we should all be singing now.


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'.