As Americans and as Jews, we are living through a time of profound disharmony. Terrifying violence threatens our schools, deeply rooted societal and political alienation are fraying the edges of the American social fabric, and ever-more-tenuous and fractious relations between the Jewish communities of Israel and the United States threaten the Jewish people in ways that could be catastrophic.
But there is harmony, too, and we have the chance to savor and support it. HaZamir, the International Jewish Teen Choir, is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its creation with a gala concert at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center on Sunday, March 18, at 4 p.m.
HaZamir is a sparkling jewel in the crown of the Zamir Choral Foundation, whose founder and director, Matthew Lazar, originally conceived of it as a “next-gen” iteration of the well-known Zamir Chorale. But it was his wife, Vivian, an honoree at this gala concert, who passionately, persistently and powerfully shepherded the choir to its current, previously unimaginable status. What began as a modest project has grown into 38 synchronized choral chapters across the United States and Israel. They each meet weekly in their individual locations, and then gather once a year, for a joint Shabbaton and performance in a major concert venue.
To hear HaZamir in concert is to be astounded by the beauty of the musical product. That is not a given in today’s Jewish world, where merely having young children singing a catchy melody line is often considered “good music.” HaZamir’s insistence on musical excellence, with a challenging repertoire that encompasses classic Israeli and traditional Jewish songs as well as newer compositions, immediately sets it apart.
But the harmony/disharmony metaphor extends further, and much more deeply.
Choral music itself is, intrinsically, a pluralistic endeavor. You may be a bass or an alto, but you can’t make choral music without the tenors and sopranos who blend with your voice to create a more beautiful whole. Similarly, there are all kinds of Jews in HaZamir, ranging from the deeply observant to the totally secular. In “real life,” they have precious little chance to interact, and develop an appreciation of the other as individuals. We Jews tend to build islands, and associate with others who are most like ourselves. But in HaZamir, all kinds of Jews are making beautiful music together, and in so doing also modeling, in real time, a genuinely pluralistic Jewish community. The whole of HaZamir is greater than the sum of its parts, both musically and existentially.
The whole of HaZamir is greater than the sum of its parts, both musically and existentially.
Within this superstructure, HaZamir gently and supportively exposes its participants to Jews who will, inevitably, challenge their preconceived notions of what it means to be Jewish, to feel Jewish, and to live Jewishly. They will encounter, up close and personal, both the complexities and possibilities of modern Jewish identity. It comes in many stripes and shadings, with few as black or white as we too often allow ourselves to imagine. That, in and of itself, is a valuable life lesson for a Jew growing into maturity in today’s world to absorb. I often wish that my adult contemporaries in the American Jewish community could wrap their brains around that concept.
But ultimately, what brings these very different young Jews together is their love of music — more specifically, the music of our people. By tapping into the vast repertoire of the Israeli songbook, classic and modern, the members of HaZamir learn a love of Israel and its values that is meta-historical and meta-political, in a way that only music can transmit. HaZamir uses the medium of Jewish choral music to teach not only Jewish identity, but love of and identification with the State of Israel. Teens from the Israeli branches of HaZamir get to know their American counterparts, and come to appreciate the many colors of American Judaism. Many of them learn, for the first time in their lives, that to wear a kippah or celebrate Shabbat does not have to label a person as “one of them.” American members get to know their Israeli counterparts, and appreciate, often for the first time, the difficult reality that their fellow singers will soon be putting their lives on the line in defense of the State of Israel in the IDF. When they, together, sing David Burger’s iconic “Tefilah,” the prayer on behalf of the State of Israel that he so hauntingly and majestically set to music years ago, they are singing their love of Israel, and appreciation and understanding of each other. They are literally singing their Zionism, way beyond left and right, Labor and Likud, religious and secular. Their harmony is profound, and inspiring. It is the perfect antidote to what plagues us today, both in America and in Israel.
Come see and hear the next generation of Jewish unity, and feel the power of these emerging leaders of a stronger, healthier Jewish world.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, and a vice-president of the Zamir Choral Foundation.