Adding harmony to the mix

Adding harmony to the mi

gronich and levy 248 (photo credit: )
gronich and levy 248
(photo credit: )
While, as most would agree, religious tolerance is a very important issue, few would deign to claim that it is a serious contender in the entertainment stakes. Then again, when you decide to present an annual award in the field - with a sizable financial reward to boot - to a couple of popular and highly personable entertainers, you may have something of a marketing success on your hands. Earlier this week the annual Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance and Cultural Openness in Israel was awarded by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem to radio personality and performer Jacky Levy and veteran multidisciplinary musician Shlomo Gronich "for their contribution toward religious tolerance." The ceremony was held at the Conservative Judaism movement-affiliated institute, which is located near the Israel Museum and serves as one of the movement's main rabbinical seminaries. When you consider that previous recipients include former government minister Rabbi Michael Melchior and Eretz Aheret magazine editor Bambi Sheleg, you can get an idea of the mind shift involved in the Levy-Gronich choice. Understandably, Levy has no problem with the selection and also feels that he and his professional ilk do have some added value to throw into the religious coexistence arena. "Art involves interaction between people, between performers, and between the people on stage and the people in the audience," he says. "I do believe that performers can bring about change. It may not be like the earth-shattering stuff that politicians put out, but I believe you can give an audience something to think about after the show. Personally, I've always been more affected by the arts than by politics. And I think you'll find more than one prime minister who has been affected by, say, a Bob Dylan song - although I'm not sure it works the other way round." Gronich echoes that sentiment. "I think people like Jacky and me can make changes, drop by drop. You know, peace is made by people on the street. I don't see any great leaders in politics today who are capable of doing that." By definition, practicing and promoting religious tolerance requires an ability and a willingness to leapfrog sectoral demarcation lines. Gronich says he has always had that tendency anyway. "My work and music have the dimension of crossing borders, appeasement and bonding with roots and Jewish identity," says the 60-year-old singer-songwriter-composer-choir leader. "My music has always crossed borders - classical and rock and lots of other genres. I like to erase the boundaries, just like John Lennon sang all those years ago in "Imagine." Indeed, during his almost four decades on the music circuit, Gronich's oeuvre has taken in singalong pop, abrasive rock, classically seasoned works, ethnic music of a variety of hues and even some challenging avant garde-oriented efforts. So, presumably, drawing on an eclectic array of cultural inspiration can naturally lead to a harmonious secular-religious mindset. "I think so," Gronich muses. "I am always delighted to see religious and non-religious people in my audiences. I have always been curious, like a child, and that brings you to explore all kinds of areas which, in turn, brings you into contact with people with different ways of thinking. You get to know and understand them and respect them." Levy's selection as this year's Liebhaber Prize co-recipient is less surprising. He has been entertaining and discoursing with Jews of all religious leanings for quite some time. His weekly Kalabat Shabbat sessions at Beit Avi Chai, generally based on the weekly Torah portion, is a standing-room-only event attended by many secular Jews and their more Orthodox brethren. With his theatrical bent and gift of the gab, Levy has an appealing across-the-board ethos. Does he think he has been given a sort of "acceptable religious" persona by the non-religious in general? "I don't think I am 'an okay religious guy.' You know, I think everyone is good, or tries to be good," Levy proffers. "If you look at gravestones, you never see the word 'wicked.' The departed are always 'beloved' or 'good.' And I don't think religious is the opposite of secular." While Levy is a kippa-wearing observant Jew, he says he does not differentiate between religious and secular wisdom. "I often find myself kissing a secular book I've dropped as I would a book with religious content. I don't blindly accept what religious people tell me, and some things from so-called secular cultures are sacred for me. That may sound funny coming from a religious person, but that's the way I see it." The award's promotional material poignantly - and understandably - mentions cross-sectoral strife in the capital over certain establishments around the city operating on Shabbat, and other issues of a religious color. All of which makes the holding of the ceremony by a Jerusalem institute all the more fitting. While Levy is a longtime diehard Jerusalemite, Hadera-born Gronich lives on a moshav near Ra'anana and admits to having something of an ambivalent take on the capital. "Ever since I was a kid, I have been excited about trips to Jerusalem, when the car goes past Sha'ar Hagai and starts climbing up through the hills. But Jerusalem also has all the history and everyone fighting over it. It's as if no one allows it just to live in peace and calm. It really wants to be a city of peace and harmony, but it isn't allowed to." The latter objective, Gronich feels, can be achieved by circumventing the sharper edges of society. "When I get to the first junction in Jerusalem and I see all those haredim in their black clothes, I become aware and wary of extremists - whether they be from the religious or the secular side. I am opposed to any coercion. Jerusalem should be open to everyone, with no restrictions, for example, on traveling on Shabbat. You have to live and let live." Part of the Levy-Gronich religious tolerance philosophy was conveyed in a song they wrote and performed at the ceremony, called "So That." Explains Levy, "Shlomo came up with the idea of taking something from Pirkei Avot that talks about being enslaved to the quest for prizes. He said I should do the lyrics and he'd put the music together. The song mentions [third century BCE scholar] Antigonus [of Sokho], who warned people about all sorts of things." The song includes the following lines: "He said: 'Don't!' He said: 'Do not be, do not be slaves.' He said, 'Do not be slaves who pander to the rabbi to get a prize.'" Levy and Gronich certainly don't appear to be overly zealous about gaining official recognition for their tolerance orientation, but it's still a nice kudo. "People often ask me if I think I live in a bubble and am fooling myself about all this harmonious stuff. But the prize shows that your work does make a difference and hopefully makes other people happy."