Welcome to our inaugural column. We are recent olim from the United States. We served in the American rabbinate and in Jewish education in the US for over four decades. We’re absolutely thrilled to be living in our homeland and will use this column to report on some of our experiences in our adjustment to life in Israel.
A couple of weeks ago, we attended a concert at the Jerusalem Theatre. Several aspects of it were genuinely moving to us. First of all, was getting there. Having lived in the suburbs of New York City for all of our lives (except for two years spent in Israel over the course of 50 years of marriage), going to a concert involved at least an hour-long car trip, searching for a parking spot or paying through the roof for a lot, or timing your departure to meet a train that ran, at most, once an hour, it was absolutely incredible to set out on foot on a clear, cool evening from our Jerusalem apartment 30 minutes before “curtain time,” and arrive with 15 minutes to spare, and walk around the broad plazas of the theater, even meeting a few people we knew. It was like living 10 minutes from Lincoln Center in NYC!
The concert was called “Yerushalayim b’Harmonia,” and was the annual musical event sponsored by Emunah Jerusalem. So many aspects of the concert spoke to our hearts. The evening benefited Emunah’s projects, including a center in Sderot that has contributed so much to alleviate the anxiety, distress and trauma that children from that city on the Gaza border have been subjected to due to years of rocket fire.
We’ve visited Sderot over the years and have been tremendously impressed with what the residents have built there; a terrific, “normal” town that includes a hesder yeshiva, an amazing Chesed center which provides many goods and services to the needy portion of the population, a fantastic playground for kids that is sheltered from attacks and so much more. The concert was that much more meaningful because of the worthy beneficiaries of the evening’s proceeds.
For us, the performers and the selections performed were just beautiful and inspirational. The broad spectrum of performers from the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra provided both outstanding musical arrangements as well as background for the soloists and the choirs. We’ve always loved hearing Hazan Shai Abramson, chief cantor of the IDF, and were moved to tears when we lived in the US and he sang the Prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel, the prayer for the soldiers of the IDF and many other meaningful songs.
As fans of the music of Shlomo Carlebach since he first entered the Jewish music scene in the 1950s, hearing Carlebach’s Mimkomcha from Abramson was just beautiful. We had never heard cantor Simon Cohen before, and his unique vocal talent coupled with the awesome lyrics of You Raise Me Up warmed the heart and strengthened one’s faith.
We’ve been tremendous admirers of Naomi Shemer since 1967. A scion of a Vilna family, born and raised in Israel, she became a reflection of our emotions about major events during the first 55 years of modern Israel’s existence. Chastised and punished by Israel’s left-controlled media (who often would not play her songs whose content reflected her love for all of Eretz Yisrael), she proudly represented her passionate feelings for a Jewish state in Israel. We were teenagers during the Six Day War when Jerusalem was reunited and heard the original Jerusalem of Gold with the middle stanza lamenting the divided city, the empty shuk (market), the wailing winds in the hollow caves and then celebrated the rewritten stanza that rejoiced in the shofar on the Temple Mount, the sunshine in the caves and stones, and the drive to the Dead Sea via the Jericho road.
We’ve enjoyed so many of her compositions over the years, and have even taken our grandchildren to visit her grave in the cemetery at her birthplace, Kibbutz Kinneret. In the Hebrew language and literature classes I (Rookie) taught in the US, the words to Shemer’s songs were explained and the learning was topped off with listening to the musical renditions in class. We both have a special emotional connection to Shemer’s song Al Kol Eleh, so when the two cantors joined forces to sing that song as a duet with the Halelu Choir, it was just heavenly. While this column isn’t meant to be a “review” of a concert, so many selections were so well chosen and deeply meaningful that we felt it necessary to recall them and explain how they touched our hearts.
The very talented and brilliant Leonard Cohen had cast off his Judaism and found his way back to Israel and Jewish tradition during the Yom Kippur War by entertaining the soldiers of the IDF in Sinai. We found the inclusion of the music of his composition Hallelujah, sung to the words of King David’s 150th Psalm, to be another beautiful addition to the well-planned and beautifully arranged program.
It was an absolutely special evening, crowned by the short walk home to our Jerusalem apartment under a clear, starry sky. We hope to have many more such uplifting experiences of both the holy and the ordinary aspects of our new “home city.”
A new oleh, Heshie Billet is rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere and a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. A new olah, Rookie Billet recently retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal and shul rabbanit in the US and hopes to continue to contribute to life in Israel.