Flute player and singer David Menahem straddles the Jewish-Arab dividing line with ease. Now 26, he was born in Jerusalem. His parents came to Israel from Iraq and Menahem grew up in a Torah-observant household surrounded by piyutim and traditional music. He became an accomplished singer and flutist and many of his brothers and cousins are professional musicians as well. Although his parents spoke Hebrew at home, he learned a bit of Arabic from his grandparents. As a teenager, Menahem taught himself to read and speak Arabic on his own, motivated, he says, by his desire to understand the famous, compelling works of the great composers of the Arab world. At a recent outdoor concert at Jaffa Gate over Succot, Menahem was able to delight the diverse crowd with a seamless medley of piyutim, Carlebach melodies and Oum Koltoum favorites. Tellingly, during his rendition of the classic "Enta Omri" - which he partially translated into Hebrew - many of the young Mizrahi yeshiva students in the audience sang along, word for word. Most of the Arabs in the audience seemed surprised to see a young, religious Jew singing the songs of Oum Koltoum, but Menahem seems to have found a place of balance between the cultures. "If there were peace, I would be ready to live in the Arab Quarter," he says. "Or to spend half a year in Iraq. Why not?" Yet in the context of the social and political divisions in Israel, Menahem's comments are unusual, especially given that he is also an ordained rabbi who studied at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, the bastion of the Religious Zionist movement. Currently, Menahem teachers Judaism and piyutim at numerous and diverse places, including Merkaz Harav and the secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv. "Clearly, six years ago... people didn't want teaching of piyutim or listening to music like this," he observes. "Today, Israeli pop singers perform piyutim and many of my students are Ashkenazi and secular. There is a spiritual connection... I can understand [why people wouldn't want to hear] Arabic music, but with piyutim, people suddenly realized that it is theirs. Once they thought that piyutim were very religious, suddenly they realize that you can take from the religious world without having to be a part of it." Menahem agrees readily with Effi Benaya's vision of Middle Eastern music as a gateway to understanding between Jews and Arabs. "If we had a prime minister who loved Mizrahi music and who spoke Arabic, then the two sides would be able to speak. Part of the war is cultural," he contends. During this year's Oud Festival, David Menahem will participate in two concerts: on November 5 at the Confederation House he will perform with Ensemble Shaharit in a concert dedicated to the poetry of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra; and on November 11 he will perform the music of Asher Mizrahi, a Jerusalem composer who lived and worked in Tunisia during the 1930s and 1940s who wrote in Arabic, Hebrew and Ladino, at Beit Shmuel with an ensemble formed especially for this event.

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