Hebrew is a familiar medium for Walter Turnbull’s vocalists. “We were singing in Hebrew 10 years ago,” says the founder and director of the Boys Choir of Harlem. Psalms are a constant part of the group’s repertoire. “We’ve always sung in Hebrew.”
But the world-traveling choir had even more opportunities to practice the language in recent months. In May, Turnbull and 48 of his singers made their first trip to Israel for 10 days of performances, workshops and tours. And earlier this month, the choir took part in a musical salute to Yitzchak Rabin, the United States premiere of Dov Seltzer’s “Lament to Yitzhak,” at Lincoln Center.
“It just happens to be a confluence of things,” Turnbull says of his group’s recent spate of Jewish activities. All the singers — students in the Choir Academy of Harlem — are Protestants and Muslims. The academy is a college-preparatory public school Turnbull established in East Harlem for at-risk youths; all the students are involved in the music curriculum and the best are selected to travel with the choir. Sitting in a conference room in his high school, he bursts into a soulful rendition of “Ya’ase Shalom,” one of the choir’s Hebrew staples.
He says the Israel trip, scheduled to coincide with the annual Israel Festival, was a long-planned stop for the choir, which has performed in a score of countries. With stops at kibbutzim and Israel’s major musical halls, the tour was coordinated by the country’s Foreign Ministry, the New York State-Israel Cultural Cooperation Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and El Al.
Although primarily a cultural event, the trip was a tacit example of interracial understanding between the Jewish and African-American communities, which have often been at odds in recent decades, says Turnbull, whose choir has taken part in interfaith model seders in New York. “Children coming together, no matter where they are, makes a statement.”
“I was excited by the reception of the people” in Israel, he says. “From the heart — people responded to us.” His black friends here, he says, were all excited about the trip. “We had no negatives.”
The Harlem youths renewed their friendships with the Moran Choir, a 14-year-old group based at Beit Yizhak, a moshav near Tel Aviv. The Moran Choir, which performs some 30 times a year in Israel, gave a joint concert with the Boys Choir at Congregation Emanu-El in Manhattan two years ago. “They remembered each other,” Turnbull says.
In Israel the two groups performed together again and held a joint workshop.
The Harlem youths also sang with the Sheba Choir, composed of Ethiopian immigrants.
The Israeli teens peppered the visitors in May with questions about music, dating and general American life; members of the Moran Choir showed up, unexpectedly, with gifts; on the Americans’ final day; they sang together, informally, again. “They made us feel at home,” says Sheldon Charles, a 17-year-old choir member.
The Harlem choir received rave reviews in the Israeli press. “They sing like angels,” a headline in Ma’ariv declared.
Israeli audiences “cheered. You could hear them clapping,” says Aquil Holden, 18, another choir member. “They really accepted us.”
Like all students at the Choir Academy, he learned about Israel in a months-long, pre-trip curriculum. “Basic things.” Israeli history, geography and customs. A little Hebrew.
“We greeted the audience and used some of the words that we learned,” says Sheldon Charles, 17.
The New Yorkers, who performed in Tel Aviv with the Moran Choir, shared a Friday night Shabbat meal at its agricultural settlement.
“About a hundred people. It was wonderful,” Turnbull says. The Israelis and Americans sat together. “Lots of singing, in both Hebrew and English. The rabbi was there. The kids learned the traditions.”
Back in New York, the choir was asked to take part in the program at Avery Fisher Hall honoring Yitzchak Rabin, Israel’s assassinated prime minister. The choir appeared with the New York Philharmonic, pianist Emanuel Ax, and the Philadelphia Singers Chorale in Seltzer’s ambitious requiem for a fallen hero. Dressed in deep red robes, a powerful visual counterpoint to the white-robed Philadelphia Singers, the group provided “Lament for Yitzhak” with what may have been its most poignant moment.
In the hour-long work’s fifth and final movement — “Ya’ase Shalom” (“He Who Makes Peace”) — the ensemble sang a sweet yet deceptively profound poem, “The Box of Colors,” by 12-year-old Tali Harpaz, sounding a note of hopefulness amid the darkness of assassination. “I had a box of colors/Bright pretty and soft,” the choir sang. “I did not have red/Of the blood of the wounded/I did not have black/Of the orphan’s mourning/I did not have white/Of the face of the dead/ … I had orange of the joy of life/I had green of flowers and blossoms/I had blue of bright skies./And I had pink of dreams and tranquility,/I sat and drew peace.”
Turnbull is already talking about bringing the choir, which he formed in 1968, to Israel again. “Can’t wait,” he says.
Aquil Holden says he has a personal reason to return. He planted a tree, in a ceremony with the other choir members, in the Jewish National Fund’s Martin Luther King Jr. Forest in northern Israel. He marked the spot by carving his name in a rock with a shovel. “I want to go back and see how my tree came out.”