Not just another school

Jerusalem’s School for Classical Eastern Music serves as a bridge between cultures.

The School for Classical Eastern Music’s last concert before the summer break (photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
The School for Classical Eastern Music’s last concert before the summer break
(photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
HA’AYIN CHET is a narrow, leafy road in Jerusalem’s Musrara district. Located near the Old City and part of a renewed area, it has attracted pious Jews, Yuppies and a few artsy institutions. A visitor passing through this road recently could have heard the exotic sounds of the sitar; the jingle of a kanoon; the strident sounds of the oud struck by a hard plastic plectrum; a ney flute; a variety of folk drums; a kamanche; the sinuous phrases of a violin; and the wafting voices of singing men and women cutting through the night air.
These sounds all belong to one of Jerusalem’s hidden treasures – the School for Classical Eastern Music, a place where all the magic of Middle Eastern music is conjured up in the subterranean world that thrives beneath the holy city’s tense surface.
“We started in 1996,” explains Avi Shoshani, co-founder of the school. “Yehoram Gaon, the singer and a close friend, had just been elected to the Jerusalem Municipality council and asked me if I’d be interested in establishing such a project. I had just returned from teaching in England and was free at the time, so I said yes, of course, though I had serious doubts about the success of such a venture.”
Shoshani’s doubts stemmed from something he had battled with since he was a music student. “The establishment in Israel is incapable of recognizing that there is a classical music tradition in the East, as well as in the West. In fact, the Eastern classical tradition precedes the Western tradition by several centuries.
Classical Western music was first written down in the 13th century, whereas classical Eastern music began in the 8th century. One British critic wrote that most of the influences on the West came from the East. But the influence was only in one direction. In fact, for 600 years, the East influenced the West in all areas of culture, science, etc., right up to the Renaissance. It's a great pity that they don't teach this in schools. People simply don't know these facts of history.”
The school started with a handful of students and teachers. After some temporary lodgings, it found its present home in 1999, which it has rented ever since. The building, owned since 1948 by a family from North Africa, is typical of Turkish architecture of the 19th century, though because of the prevalence of its many windows it became known as the house of windows. Perhaps that symbolized what the building was to become when it was taken over by the multifaceted school.
Despite Shoshani’s forebodings, the center grew, and today, more than 20 years later, it boasts a student body of 120 and a teaching staff of about 15.
“I don’t want it to be bigger than 150 to 200 students,” he says. “Beyond that the school would lose its feeling of intimacy. The school has a special atmosphere which is important to retain.”
From the very outset, one of the aims of the school was to bring together the various strands of classical Eastern music and use it as a bridge between a diverse student body – Jews and Arabs, secular and ultra-Orthodox, individuals from Peace Now through to settlers in the territories, people with Eastern backgrounds and those with Ashkenazi genes.
This is very apparent with the current student body. Hilla Palmon, 24, a first-year student, studies voice and the kamanche, a lute-like instrument common to the Middle East that is played on the lap with a bow.
“My kamanche is from Azerbaijan,” she explains. “I heard a record of one of the masters of the kamanche and fell in love with the instrument, I said to myself ‘I have to learn to play it.’ I had started to play the Turkish flute – the ney – as well as classical flute, though I played ethnic music on that, as well.”
Palmon embodies the ideal student Shoshani had in mind when he created the school in that she hails from a pure Ashkenazi background – her parents are from Russia and Poland. She discovered, however, that music knows no boundaries.
“I came to this music from a very young age. We lived in Haifa and there was a Greek station on the radio. From there, I began to listen to more eastern Mizrachi music ‒ Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Indian ‒ and I loved it.”
She had thought about coming to the school for 10 years.
“I was working during the day but finally began to study here after work. I was attracted by the place itself and by the range of cultural experiences that can be found here. I do this for my soul. I work for a government office during the day, but every evening I come here.”
IZHAK NACHE, 23, from Jerusalem’s Old City, has been at the school for three years and studies the tarbuka, a small drum. “My sister is also musical but no one else in the family took up the tarbuka. I studied the instrument for seven years in the Academy of Edward Said on Salah-A-Din St. before coming here, aged 20.”
When he finishes here, Nache plans to continue to do what he is presently doing – teaching small children with this instrument in a special education school in Ras El Amud, in the eastern part of the city. But he is also in demand on the Israeli side of the city and proudly mentions that he plays with Israeli groups.
While now well established, Shoshani recalls the struggles at the beginning.
“There was so much opposition, by the establishment and by the newspapers. No one in Israel seemed to know that there was classical music in the East. The mainstream in Israel did not recognize it; the Culture Ministry did not know what it meant. They doubted that there was a tradition coming out of the Islamic world. The Culture Ministry and myself clashed to such an extent that I took them to the High Court and I won. We drew up criteria by which such a school was able to flourish.”
Today, the school has become a bridge between various groups in Israel; there are teachers and students who are Palestinian, which was one of the aims of the founders.
But it is also much more. For Shoshani, the school symbolizes what could be in a wider context.
“In terms of their relations to the Jews, the Europeans come out very badly in comparison with the countries of Islam. From the 10th century onward, Jews were expelled all over Europe – from Germany, England, France, Spain and so on right up to the modern period. Europe has been bad for the Jews.
“By comparison, the Jews did not suffer in the lands of Islam. It was relatively good for the Jews. Of course, the Jews held a lower status than the Muslims, but they were not persecuted as they were by the Europeans. This situation should have caused us to connect with Islam because it did nothing terrible to us. I wrote an article for Haaretz saying as much.
“For cultural and religious reasons, Islam is much closer to us than Christianity. Even the Rambam [Maimonides] wrote that it is permissible to pray inside a mosque [as opposed to a church]. Our attitude toward the Islamic countries was, for me, a historic mistake. The Eastern Europeans came up with an idea to set up a national entity – which I think was a good idea; but its implementation was wrong – they should have done it together with the Arabs. I know this personally because for 100 years my parents and grandparents had exceptionally good relations with the Arabs. The situation today is a great shame because it could be very different.”
The school is exceptional in a number of ways. There are no exams, no disciplinary watchdogs and no bureaucratic processes.
“We go according to the spirit of the students. Only the student knows how he or she wishes to study.”
Students study for three or four years, and they determine the level they reach. “Afterwards,” says Shoshani, “they have a very large marketplace in which to sell their talents. The Western classical world is full since the Russian immigration during the 1980s and 1990s brought with it many talents for classical Western music. But as far as classical Eastern music – we are the only source for this music so our graduates have a large potential audience not only in Israel but also in Europe, where there is great interest in this music. When we were in Berlin for a concert, we were interviewed by the Cultural Station on Berlin Radio.
“I labeled our music as classical Eastern music and not just Eastern music. In Greek, the word ‘classic’ means ‘something that is accepted.’ So, in the West, their music was accepted and here in the East this music is accepted.”
In about two years, the school will move to the center of the city next door to the Gerard Behar cultural complex. As part of a center for arts, it will be one of four schools for performance: Sam Spiegel for film; Nissan Nativ for theater; and the School for Visual Theater. Each will be in its own building, each specially designed.
“This is a fantastic thing,” enthuses Shoshani. “And the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, must be thanked for his efforts.”
Shoshani himself began to learn music at age six.
“My late older brother, Shlomo, was among the top three violinists in Israel – this was in the Mandate period well before Pinhas Zuckerman and Itzhak Perlman – and he was my first teacher. We studied both classical Western and Eastern music. I went on to study music at the academy here and then I did my doctorate in England. But all the time I felt this duality within me, which wasn’t really a duality, but rather these two traditions complemented each other. To know only Bach and Mozart is not enough, or to know only classical Eastern music, is insufficient. But to know both is to be complete.”
Apart from the school, Shoshani attempts to explain to a wider audience how this fusion works.
“Not long ago, I organized a concert for the radio, which I called 'From Classical Eastern music to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.' I showed what was aesthetically common to both modes of music. It excited all those who heard it. They saw that the two are not opposite to each other, that they are, in fact, founded on the same basis. The aesthetic styles are different but the spiritual basis is the same. Classical music shows the real spirit of man. Popular music is OK on its own, but it is passing.
“Here, in Israel, we have a tremendous opportunity to show these multicultural aspects of our collective traditions. People should come to a concert and hear Mozart, but also Abdel Wahab and hear compositions not only in Hebrew, but also in Persian and other local languages. We have an advantage of experiencing these different traditions. We aren’t able to compete with Europe as far as Bach or Mozart ‒ they're much better than us. But we can do something that they can't do.”
Shoshani and his school have raised a generation of performers who slowly but surely are changing the way we appreciate music. The night air on Ha’ayin Chet St. sucks up the sensuous sounds of these marvelous if strange musical instruments and voices that suggest far more than music. Hopefully, someone is listening.