Five years ago in Vienna, an Austrian researcher discovered a song from the Hebrew liturgy written by a famous cantor murdered in Auschwitz by Nazis because he was a Jew. On October 8, the Alei Gefen Choir will sing that song to honor the memory of Israeli-born US journalist Daniel Pearl, murdered in Pakistan three years ago by Islamist terrorists because he was a Jew.
The song, called "Hashkivenu," (Tabernacle of Peace), is written by Cantor David Grosz, the father of Eli Gefen, founder and music director of the Alei Gefen choir. The concert is part of Daniel Pearl Music Days (DPMD), a worldwide network of Harmony for Humanity concerts in tribute to Pearl.
In a sense, the first such concert took place in Israel on the day after the world learned of Pearl's beheading. His friend conductor George Phelivanian, conducting the Israel Philharmonic, dedicated the concert to Pearl, a classically trained violinist, avid folk fiddler and mandolin player, who made friends through music wherever he traveled.
After his funeral that August, the Pearl family invited people to create or support a musical event in their communities on his birthday, "in repudiation of hatred and cruelty and in celebration of tolerance, friendship, and respect for diversity" as the Daniel Pearl Foundation's website has it.
Some 100 concerts were held that first year in 17 countries. Last year, there were 406 events in 39 countries, ranging from performances by Afghani school children, via Sir Elton John to the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Alei Gefen became part of DPMD about six weeks ago, when a friend asked Sylvia Gefen whether she'd heard of the event.
"Do you have a program?" the friend asked, and the ball began to roll. Sylvia Gefen wrote to Daniel's parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, "who were very supportive and registered the concert through their channels," while husband Eli Gefen went into high gear with rehearsals.
"The idea suits us very well because over the years we've developed an ideology of using religious music as an instrument of tolerance and a medium for passing on a message of reconciliation among faiths," says Eli Gefen.
Alei Gefen's repertoire is about 99 percent liturgical, as reflected in the October 8 program. As well as the Grosz song, there are five of Tchaikovsky's "Nine Sacred Songs" (Eastern orthodox); Missa Brevis by contemporary Czech composer Zdenek Lukas (Catholic); and another Hebrew sacred song, "Eli, Eli" by David Zehavi.
Gefen founded the choir in 1990, comprising mostly formerly professional musicians from the FSU. The Gefens had just moved to Tel Aviv, leaving behind in Herzliya a choir that Eli Gefen had founded and led for a decade.
"I was looking to build a new choir. A friend put an ad in the Russian papers, and I was swamped," he recalls.
Well-regarded soprano Larissa Tetuev, now with the Israel Opera, was a founding member of Alei Gefen and one of its first soloists. Today the choir numbers some 30 singers, most of whom are veterans. They give six to seven free concerts a year in churches and community centers. "Free because we can't afford the expense of renting halls, publicity, printing tickets, and all that's related," says Sylvia Gefen the choir's administrator.
Eli Gefen, himself a baritone with the Philharmonia Choir, takes care of the musical side. He teaches, coaches, conducts, and tries "to find music that other choirs don't sing, such as Puccini's Messa di Gloria and Gounod's St. Cecilia Mass."
Alei Gefen singers are not paid. "There was a little money in the beginning [from a donation] so I could pay them a tiny salary, but after two years there was no more."
Nor does the choir receive funding. The Tel Aviv municipality has cut its NIS 1,400 stipend, but they still receive their weekly rehearsal space at the Mandel Music Center in Jaffa.
The members now pay NIS 50 per month to cover expenses such as music scores; and when Alei Gefen goes on its annual trip abroad, the members pay their own way. They are extraordinarily dedicated, coming once a week to rehearsal from as far as Beersheba, Hadera, and the Rafiah area.
Past highlights abroad have included placing third at the Prague International Choir Competition (2001); concerts in London's Westminster Abbey and in Vienna; and a particularly memorable performance in Sligo, Ireland, where they sang the Puccini mass as part of the service at St. Anne's Church. When the mass ended, the 1,300-strong congregation burst into spontaneous applause.
In December they will present sacred concerts in Spain during Christmas and sing Hebrew songs on the first night of Hanukka for the Madrid Jewish Community.
Sylvia Gefen (alto), who also sings in the choir, has sung in choirs from childhood. The proper English girl and the refugee from Vienna met 24 years ago at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's offices, where Sylvia did translations and Eli was the librarian.
"They always say 'you marry who's around,'" says Sylvia, who made sure then that Eli would stay around by inviting him to sing with her in the Herzliya choir.
Born and raised in London, medical secretary Sylvia made aliya just before the Six Day War in 1967. Retired now, she still helps out with translations for the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition.
Born in Vienna, Eli and his family fled in 1938 after the Anschl ss, arriving penniless and jobless in Bratislava, where they had relatives. A violin student, Eli had his instrument, "a real gypsy violin" that he'd inherited from his grandfather.
Luckily for Eli, a Youth Aliya emissary had family in the same building and was persuaded to take the boy. Once in Israel, he was sent to Kibbutz Ashdod Ya'akov where, at age 16, he started a choir, teaching the youngsters the melodies he'd learned and sung at home "because I loved it and missed it. I started to sing in the choir at age four, and by seven I was a soloist with a high, high soprano."
From 1942-47 Eli Gefen served in the British Army and was wounded in action - an injury that put paid to his violin career. That's when he decided to concentrate on choirs.
The day Eli Gefen said goodbye to his father in 1939 was the last time he saw him. The song he received from Austria in 2000 is a poignant reminder of man's inhumanity to man and of the healing glory of music. It is a fitting piece to sing at a concert for another Jew who was killed because of the former and believed in the latter.
The concert takes place on October 8 at 8:30 p.m. at the Eynav Center on the roof of Tel Aviv's Gan Ha'ir shopping center. It is supported by the US Embassy Public Affairs Office. Admission is free.