Shabbat will be welcomed at Congregation Rodeph Sholom this weekend with an unusual Middle Eastern beat.
Seven Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, American and Norwegian musicians, members of the group “My Favorite Enemy,” will be performing at the Upper West Side synagogue on Friday, Feb. 15, in the group’s first synagogue appearance. Last month, it performed at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
All the members of My Favorite Enemy — men and women mostly in their 30s — are successful songwriters and recording artists in their home countries. Their music, featuring the oud and traditional percussive instruments and guitars, blends Middle East rhythms with contemporary pop and rock music.
“They have such a high caliber of musicianship,” says Cantor Rebecca Garfein, senior cantor of Rodeph Sholom, who organized the musical event and will perform one song with the group. “Their music really speaks to the soul.”
The group began working together in 2009. Since then, the artists have met regularly in Amman, Ramallah, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Oslo and have written and released their first recording, “My Favorite Enemy.” Their lyrics are in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Recently, the group performed at the European Union Parliament, the Israeli and Norwegian ambassadors’ residences in Jordan, Copenhagen City Hall (at the Six Days of Peace Festival), and in Tel Aviv and Oslo.
In a telephone interview just before a West Coast performance earlier this week, Michael Ochs, a founding member of the band, explains that when the group first met in the Middle East, the members set guidelines: “Let’s not talk borders or politics or history,” Ochs recalls saying. “Let’s get to know each other and build relationships and focus on the music. Amazing friendships were born.”
“When we do talk about the issues, it’s a whole different thing — you’re talking to someone you trust and care about,” he says.
They write music together in teams. Others in the group have said that getting to know the group members has changed their lives — and their music.
Ochs, who grew up in New York, now lives in Nashville, where he is the composer-in-residence at Congregation Micah. He has recorded in many genres and has written songs for films and for performers like Josh Groban. Some of his Jewish liturgical settings are now standards in synagogues around the world.
Cantor Garfein was in touch with Ochs in the fall to see about working together on some music for the synagogue — “his gospel-style ‘Oseh Shalom’ is a cult classic at Rodeph — “and then heard that My Favorite Enemy was going to be performing in the U.S.”
After hearing the group’s CD (the music is also on their website, middleeastprogram.com), the melodies keep playing in your head. “It’s a real fusion of what each person brings to the table,” Cantor Garfein says. “The style is so distinctive and crosses a lot of boundaries.”
The group is part of a broader endeavor, Middle East Program, which aims to “build meaningful, long-term relationships between emerging leaders from various sectors of society.” A project of the Abildso Foundation based in Norway, the program also brings together teachers, chefs, entrepreneurs and others “who share a common vision for a transformed Middle East.” They work openly with contacts in the Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Norwegian governments.
Rabbi Robert Levine, senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, says, “We’re at a point in time where there’s an unprecedented lack of contact — there’s an alarming lack of people knowing people as people.” He adds, “We like to use the bima to bring in music and to bridge some divides.”