Music unites over all divisions: Playing the harp on the streets of Europe

Shalev Ben Yaakov grew up Catholic, but felt his Jewish roots. Years later, a musical trip across Europe highlighted it so much more.

 Shalev Ben Yaakov playing the harp near the Danube River in Vienna. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shalev Ben Yaakov playing the harp near the Danube River in Vienna.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

MY WIFE and I and a good friend flew to Vienna, Austria, on July 2. We arrived on Erev Shabbat, Friday, and stayed in an apartment which we had pre-booked already in Israel. The apartment was about a ten-minute walk from the Danube River. We even swam there upon occasion although it’s a bit muddy. The weather was pleasant, rarely too hot, but warm enough to swim. Vienna is quite cosmopolitan and one sees there many Muslims, Indians, and in general, people from all over.

Being that Austria is the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, I had always had a basic animosity and disdain for this country. For me, Austria and Bavaria always symbolized the epitome of hatred for my people Israel – Nazism began in these regions. 

A few months ago, I met a good friend in Jerusalem. He encouraged me to continue playing music all around the world. He said, “Music is the only way to open up everyone’s heart. We have to open up our hearts in the whole world! How many Amalekites are there? What, everyone hates Israel? Everyone is Amalek? They are just a few! So the rest of the world – we have to find a way (to bring them to HaShem), and it seems to me that what you are doing, flying all around the world and playing music – is the best way, is the ONLY way!” 

I think this is the reason I do it. We live on the same globe with these people, and with the advent of the Internet, Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, electronic mail, and the vast improvement in transportation – whether we like it or not, the world has become, in some ways, one big neighborhood. Or we continue to kill each other or we find a way to live with each other. I don’t think that we can afford the luxury of imagining that there is no world out there – that the gentiles don’t exist. I don’t say that EVERYONE must do what I do – basically, the people of Israel are returning home, so we must build OUR country. The emphasis must be on STAYING HOME, and on rebuilding our unique national life again, but for those who have a way to touch the nations of the world, and melt their prejudice toward us, it may be an obligation to do so. I remember hearing Rav Shlomo Carlebach, when asked how he could perform in Germany after the Holocaust, answer, “In a world where people can’t change – I have no reason to be in it.”

Even on the plane – on the way to Vienna – I mentioned to a fellow Israeli who sat next to me, how hard it was for me to go to Austria knowing that Hitler organized his movement there. He replied, “I understand you, but in general, I think that the people of the world share more in common then what divides them.” 

I’ll just say a little about myself for the reader. I grew up in New York to a basically Irish Catholic family. After attending the bar mitzvah of a close friend, and being exposed to the horrors of the Holocaust by my mother – many questions began to occupy me. I was only 12. Later on, in college, I began to seriously learn about Judaism and to study Hebrew. After college, I visited Israel and decided to stay. In 1984 I moved to Jerusalem, entered Machon Meir (a Torah academy), and converted. In early 1986, upon visiting my parents in New York, I learned something I had always suspected – that there were Jews in my father’s family. Specifically, they were in my father’s father’s family, and their name was Jacobson or Jacobs.

AFTER THE passing of Rav Shlomo Carlebach in 1995, I began singing songs and telling stories all around Israel. Some 6 years ago I began playing harp as well, and a little later, began playing abroad. I’ve played a lot in Moscow, Yerevan (Armenia), St. Petersburg, and some in New York, Minsk, Prague, Berlin, and now, in Vienna, Salzburg, Kiev, and Odessa. I see this as my shlichut (or mission), and as a way to break down what seems to be, at times, impenetrable and insurmountable barriers between people. 

The harp opens people up a lot. For example, there is a yeshiva of “mekubalim” in Jerusalem where for many years I often take a break there to learn some Torah and to drink a cup or two of tea while busking in Shuk Machane Yehuda. I usually lay my harp down just outside the entrance to the Beit HaMidrash/Beit HaKnesset (seminary/synagogue) – in the hallway/lobby. One day, a man who almost never ever talked to me all the 10 years or more since I began frequenting the place, upon seeing the harp, sat down next to me and asked me if it’s a harp. He began talking to me like he knew me all his life, like I was his best friend. I thought nothing could ever open up this person. The harp did! And I didn’t even play it!

After the Sabbath, and Sunday in museums, I hit the streets of Vienna on the 5th, 6th, and 7th of July. To tell the truth, it was OK, but in other cities, such as Moscow, Yerevan, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, and Odessa, people sit down with you, bring you food, want to know where you are from, sometimes they even help in other ways like bringing cushions to sit on, or encouraging passers-by to contribute. 

I felt little or none of this in Vienna. It was much colder. Being the height of the summer, everybody was out. I saw incredibly talented young people skating, juggling; a group of young people playing table tennis and rotating who were the opponents. Many young people sat in parks in circles, discussing, hugging – but unlike many of the cities we’ve visited, nearly no one took an interest in me as a person or in my instrument. It was as if I didn’t exist. I could be wrong, but they say in Yiddish: “A guest comes for awhile and sees for a mile.” I didn’t feel much “soul” in Vienna.

But this began to change a bit as we headed westward in Austria. On Thursday, the eighth of July, we rented a car in Vienna and headed out northwest in the direction of Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart.

On the way, we planned to sleep over in Wieselburg, a small town about half the way to Salzburg. In Weiselburg, just as we came to the house in which we were to stay for the night, we saw over the entrance of the front door a sign written “Shalom” in big English letters. 

We were immediately accepted with a big smile, smothered with love and warmth, by the hostess, Magdalina, who was more angel than human. We felt like kings! The house was beautiful, with enormous windows overlooking green fields and farms. There was a book in Hebrew containing prayers. 

 Ben Yaakov (right) playing guitar with a friend on the street. (credit: Courtesy) Ben Yaakov (right) playing guitar with a friend on the street. (credit: Courtesy)

Magdalina was so happy to have as guests people from Israel! Her husband, Eddie, or Edwin, although more reserved, nevertheless gave us no less honor than his angelic wife. Edwin had been in Israel sometime before and traveled the country for two months, hiking what we call “Shvil Israel” the well-known and extensive hiking trail transversing Israel. Eddie didn’t stop praising Israel and the people there: “They were so open and warm,” he said, adding, “I loved it there.” Eddie and Magdalina were so happy to have us that they offered to put us up for a week “on the house.” They so much wanted us to remain!

In the evening, they invited us over. We spoke for hours. I played some music on the harp. They very much wanted to honor us, get to know us, and to hear our opinions on all sorts of issues. My understanding is that they are Christians who wholeheartedly love and honor the Jewish people. She even knows and says “Shema Yisrael” in Hebrew. She has a mezzuza in her house from paper, but dreams of having a real one!

She told us that she was taken as a child to Mauthausen, one of the two concentration camps in Austria, and that her father, a member of the town council, tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to get the town to erect a memorial dedicated to the Jews of the town who were sent to their death.

This couple said that there are more believers in the village and that they pray together. He asked me what I think about Jesus and, in my opinion, he was totally open to whatever I would say. He really wanted to know. I didn’t feel in any way that they wanted to make us Christians. She also added that Vienna is not so religious, but as one travels west in Austria, one encounters more people with faith in God. 

On Friday the 9th of July we continued on to Salzburg, and for the first time, encountered some of the mountainous regions of Austria. Salzburg itself is built on the side of a mountain and is quite beautiful. We took an air-rail up a mountain to the ancient fort-city. Later I played harp – people were quite generous. One family became my audience for some 15 minutes, their child dancing to the harp. We returned by car to Vienna for Shabbat.

On Motzei Shabbat we got up at 3:00 in the morning; our friend returned to Israel, while my wife and I flew to Kiev, Ukraine.

On the 11th of July, we found a delightful hostel on the outskirts of Kiev, where they accepted us warmly. I met there a Ukrainian named Bogdan with some Jewish roots and we talked some about Israel, and warmly blessed each other. There we did laundry and toured Kiev for one day. My wife had already been to Kiev and shared with me many of her memories as we toured the city. I played that night in Kiev to thousands of young people, some of whom sat next to me and listened. Kiev is a really cool city to play music in.

In the evening of the eleventh, we slept on an all-night train, with sleeping compartments, traveling on to Odessa, where we were invited by friends to stay by them. 

We stayed in a rural village for about half an hour by car outside of Odessa. We stayed there from July 12th to July 19, and interestingly enough – I didn’t play any music these nine days, except for composing a tune in the first few minutes of entering their house, which came to me to the well-known Shabbat song, “Menucha Ve’Simcha.” I’ve been singing it a lot since we’ve returned to Israel, on the streets of Jerusalem. I really like it. 

In Odessa, we encountered several individuals who are in different stages of conversion to Judaism, including a woman who speaks Hebrew fluently, as well as a Jew who is becoming religious bit by bit. 

We spent Shabbat Chazon (Erev Tisha Be’av) with them. We spent hours singing Shabbat and other Hebrew songs. I did a lot of meditating that week in the fields behind their house, where there is a salt lake. 

On the 20th of July, we went to Odessa and saw the Jewish quarter as well as the house where Ze’ev Jabotinsky lived. I played there that night in the center of the city. There were just so many musicians playing in Odessa’s center – I nearly gave up hope to find a place to put myself, but I eventually found a park to play in. Many couples and young people came to listen and talk to me. There were a few young people who were nearly crying when I played; it apparently touched them so much. That night we spent the night by Zara, a young Armenian woman, who is a second-generation Odessa resident, and who sang us some Psalms in Hebrew. That morning, on the 20th of July, we got up very early to catch a train back to Kiev. I had scheduled a concert in MosheHouse, and my wife – a calligraphy workshop, in return for a place to sleep. We didn’t sleep too much that night, nor did we sleep much on the train, since it was a day train without sleeping accommodations. We got to Kiev exhausted. After resting a little, Liya taught calligraphy, and then I played music. I gave many people to play my harp – they loved it. Our host, Tanya, is not Jewish but said that she seems to be headed in the direction of converting. We stayed another night being that our good friend Natasha, after hearing that we’d be in Kiev, decided to take a train from Moscow (because of the war between Russia and Ukraine, direct flights from Moscow to Kiev have ceased)and meet up with us in Kiev.

The truth is, that although a law was passed several years ago in Ukraine, that all signs be in Ukrainian and not in Russian, in much of the country, Odessa for example – Russian is spoken and not Ukrainian, Lvov (Lviv in Ukrainian), being the most flagrant exception, where Ukrainian is dominant.

Like in Prague, where I encountered a young man in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur – who wasn’t Jewish, but who keeps nearly all the mitzvot, and whose life is by and large the life of a religious Jew – he, and many other people whom I encountered on our trip, remain outside of Judaism, only because their spouse is not halachically Jewish and they don’t want to separate from their spouse. Many of these people speak Hebrew, have lived in Israel, and ARE virtually Jewish. I feel for them.

In Vienna, we also encountered a couple where the man is Jewish and the woman is not. They have children. He began to become religious and to realize that Judaism does not permit him to be with her. She began a conversion program that required them to separate. While being separated from him she discovered, that even without him – she wants to be Jewish! Of course, this extremely taxes their relationship, to say the least. These are but some of the situations which I have encountered.

While waiting in the major train terminal of Kiev, waiting for a train that would take us to the airport in order to return home to Israel, I decided to play harp for an hour or so. A young man sat down beside me and listened for a long time. When I began to pack up he approached me and introduced himself as Alexander. He gave me a very generous sum of money and very kindly offered help in whatever I would need. He wound up helping me take the harp and amplifier. I told him I’m from Jerusalem and that my wife awaits me in the terminal for a train to the airport. He said he belongs to a band of musicians who pray together as well. “God put my life together! Without God’s help I couldn’t have done it.” 

He is currently dating a woman whose child has cancer and he helps her a lot with him. He was such a nice person. I felt he would do ANYTHING for me – help me in any way I need! It was the ideal way to end our trip – and sort of a summary of it! Sometimes God sends an angel-like Magdalena in Austria, and sometimes like Alexander in Kiev. 

We flew from Kiev to Jerusalem, arriving back home on July 23. 

What do I remember of Austria? I entered the country identifying it with Hitler, I saw so much, but I remember a non-Jewish woman whose dream is to exchange her paper mezzuzah for a real one! 

In Vienna, I remember the story I heard of a person who risked giving up the person they loved and separating from their spouse to become Jewish! 

In Kiev, where Bogdan Khmelnytsky’s statue still stands, I remember a man who told me that “God put his life together! That without God, we can’t do it.” 

Perhaps I’m naive in thinking that these people are the real world, and that evil can’t eat up the Magdalenas and the Alexanders in the world. Perhaps. Perhaps not!