Hitting the notes, together

Domestic social and political milieu constraints notwithstanding, Hendler and the choir have been doing good harmonious business for some years now.

Micah Hendler directs the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus (photo credit: OR DOGAN)
Micah Hendler directs the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus
(photo credit: OR DOGAN)
Music is often touted as a means of bridging cultural, religious and even political discrepancies and has been termed by not a few as “a universal language.” Micah Hendler is not sure about that epithet. Mind you, it’s not that he is against the idea of musical engagement bringing people from diverse backgrounds together.
Quite the opposite. The American- born choir director spends most of his waking hours getting the inclusive message out there, in Jerusalem and across the world.
Hendler is director of the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which incorporates around 15 Jewish, Muslim and Christian youth from both sides of this largely still politically divided city. The ensemble is based at the YMCA, that most striking of architectural gems designed by American architect Arthur Loomis Harmon – who also conceived the plan for the Empire State Building – in a style that embraces Eastern and Western aesthetics.
All of which makes it the perfect home for the chorus, which will unveil its latest album, Home, at a ceremony at the YMCA in the capital at 7 p.m. on Sunday, followed by a concert.
It is something of a gala event, with free admission.
The repertoire for Sunday’s show takes in material from Home, which traverses a wide range of styles and genres. Fans of the TV series Friends will be able to roll back the years when the young singers perform the theme tune of the wildly successful TV comedy series, which ran from 1994 to 2004.
“I’ll Be There for You” sounds like the perfect thematic vehicle for the group.
“We have a sense of mutual responsibility and mutual caring,” says Hendler.
“That is a part of what we are about.”
Just in case you don’t remember the words of the Friends soundtrack, the chorus goes as follows: “I’ll be there for you (When the rain starts to pour). I’ll be there for you (Like I’ve been there before). I’ll be there for you (‘Cause you’re there for me, too).”
Judging by the choir’s “A Mashup for Change” video – a deftly woven brew of “Some Nights” by indie band Fun, “Stay With Me” by English singer Sam Smith, and Michael Jackson’s 1987 number about the downtrodden “Man in the Mirror,” as well as the aforementioned Friends theme tune – it is stirring stuff, and Sunday’s concert promises to warm the hearts of one and all.
Hendler appears to hail from the right part of the world, at least in nominal terms.
“I’m from Bethesda, Maryland, right outside Washington, DC,” he says. Sounds suitably biblical.
“It’s named after Bethesda in the Old City [of Jerusalem],” he notes, referring to the pool – the remains of which are located in the grounds of the Church of St. Anne near the Lions’ Gate and are mentioned in the Gospel of John.
“It is actually the church where we recorded one of the songs on our album,” says Hendler, achieving a neat marriage between his birthplace and the Middle Eastern real deal.
Hendler came to Israel five years ago with a plan.
“I came over here to find youth from east and west Jerusalem, creating an opportunity for them to sing together, get to know one another and perform,” he explains.
We eventually get to the unifying idiom definition sticking point.
“As far as me as an ethnomusicologist disputing the idea of music being a universal language, I think that oversimplifies things. You can have many different very distinct musical languages. Obviously music, as a way of communicating, is more permeable between cultures than spoken language, for sure, but you can definitely hear a piece of music from a culture you have no idea about, have never heard of before, and it will move you.
“That’s true, but in the chorus we make sure that we incorporate different cultures and different musical languages in the music that we sing, so that the music that we sing can overall really speak to everybody – not on a superficial level but on a deeper level as well.”
Hendler brings impressive professional and cultural baggage to the local choral fray.
“I am very passionate about ethnomusicology. I studied that in college.”
The college in question was Ivy League institution Yale, where Hendler also performed with the university’s famed Whiffenpoofs a capella troupe, which played at the YMCA last year.
“I was always fascinated by different musical cultures. I grew up in a Jewish musical culture, and I studied Arabic classical music in Damascus in 2010. It is something I care very much about.”
He clearly also cares very deeply about this part of the world, and sees music as an opportunity to – at the very least – alleviate some of the sectarian tension in the capital and, hopefully, elsewhere too. Hendler began putting his efforts where his mouth is soon after getting here.
“I went to different schools in east and west Jerusalem, basically finding different students who liked to sing, or thought they might like to sing.”
There was a mind-set divide to bridge too.
“Most of them had never met anyone from the other side of Jerusalem, or even thought of meeting someone from the other side of the city.”
But there was always the music.
“All the students were interested in singing,” Hendler continues. “I thought the hardest part of the project would be finding singers. I was prepared for having maybe 10 singers in the first year, and I’d be doing okay. I’d conditioned myself not to be disappointed.”
Hendler may have been ready to make do with a low turnout, but he wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming response.
“In the first year we had 80 singers. The majority were from east Jerusalem, which was also really interesting.”
Hendler did not come over here wide-eyed and merely full of bonhomie and wholesome intent. He had a fair idea of some of the trenchant individual and group hurdles he’d have to leap in order to get the venture up and harmonizing.
“If you think about the politics of things, you’d never think you’d get that result, because of the immense pressure Palestinian society places on activities like this. There’s pressure in Israeli society as well, but the pressure in Palestinian society is pretty extreme right now.”
Domestic social and political milieu constraints notwithstanding, Hendler and the choir have been doing good harmonious business for some years now, performing throughout the country, as well as for appreciative audiences abroad. Just over a year ago the troupe put in a creditable appearance in the US on the popular CBS slot Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and have proffered their alluring mix of global pop music, with classical Arabic seasoning, hip-hop and gospel-leaning colors to audiences in Japan and the UK, too. It is an intoxicating artistic alloy that manages to convey a sense of musical and personal unison behind the polished delivery.
For Hendler, it is a means of sidestepping political minefields and finding a healthy common ground, but it is definitely about the music, about providing youngsters with an outlet for their artistic tendencies.
“You never would have gotten results like this if you look at things on a political level. But if you look at people on a human level – because people exist on many different levels – then you see there aren’t really a lot of extracurricular opportunities in east Jerusalem.”
The choir director was keen to bring people into the togetherness fold through the music.
“A lot of people joined for the singing, not for the encounters. I want people joining for the singing, not for the encounters, because I don’t want to have a choir only with people who are already super into meeting each other from the beginning. Those kinds of people are not going to be transformed as much by the program. I am hoping to also draw people who are into the singing, and are open enough to meet people from the other side.”
For more information: ymca.jerusalemyouthchorus.org