Two years ago, Philippe and I went with friends to an Idan Raichel Project concert in New York City. The mastermind behind the group, a young Israeli named Idan, sat on the far left side of the stage behind a keyboard and sang along with a dozen or so musicians from Israel and other countries. While Hebrew dominated the lyrics, others were in Arabic, Amharic, Swahili, Spanish and Creole Portuguese. The diversity of the musicians on stage, playing instruments we had never seen before, singing in languages we had never heard served to illustrate that no matter what our skin color we are all people, all one. I later learned that the singer-songwriter’s interest in other cultures was triggered after he completed his military service, when he taught music in a school filled with immigrants from Ethiopia. There he witnessed the stunning ethnic diversity within his own society.
We knew that if we ever had the opportunity to hear Idan again we would invite our kids. When I saw that he was performing at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center on a Thursday night in January, we got tickets for four (Benjamin turned us down).
Arriving late, Philippe dropped off the girls and me while he went to park. Once seated in the center of the balcony, we kept a lookout for him. Finally, thirty minutes late, in standard Israeli fashion, the lights dimmed and a spotlight went on almost directly below us on the main floor. Suddenly, people stood and applauded.
“Ze Shimon Peres, tistakloo,” I heard everyone saying to look at Shimon Peres, pointing. There, right below us, walked in the president, ushered by body guards and press. A small, slight man with a full head of silver hair, he bowed and shook some random hands before taking a seat.
The lights went to the stage, where one musician after another appeared, 15 in all. Idan was seated at the keyboard, far left, just like last time. The girls and I clapped in anticipation and then Philippe arrived.
“Did you see Shimon Peres?” we screamed over the music.
“Oui, oui. Did you see me? I shook his hand.”* The girls and I looked at him incredulously, shrugged our shoulders and turned our attention to the show.
Song after song, this gifted man with long dreadlocks tucked into a black turban, flowing shirt and baggy trousers, making him look like a dressed-up surfer dude or a desert Bedouin, enchanted us. Then he stopped to tell a story. He had a new song to sing, he said, one never heard before, that he hadn’t written, and wanted to know what we thought. We sat back in our seats and listened intently. The music and lyrics sounded beautiful even if we didn’t understand.
When he finished, the audience clapped and Idan stood to speak, telling us a great man that we all know wrote that as a poem, which he turned into a song. Then, while still clapping, we watched as Shimon Peres was escorted on stage. The spotlight beamed directly on him as he told this story.
Recently, President Peres visited an elementary school in Jerusalem to see how it has successfully integrated its predominately Ethiopian student body. There, he spoke out against the recent wave of discrimination that has targeted Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community. And, while there, he was particularly moved by a fourth-grade Ethiopian girl who sang with the school choir. Following her performance, Peres told his advisers: “Every time I looked at her, through her eyes I saw the tribulations and the endless longing of Ethiopian Jews for Israel.”
Once home, still moved by her performance, Peres wrote a poem called “The eyes of Beta Israel” in reference to the names of Jewish communities in Ethiopia in which he expressed his deep appreciation for Ethiopian Jewish immigrants. He then asked none other than Idan to put the poem to music and turn it into a song. The President, along with the rest of us, heard the song for the first time that night.
We stood and clapped again, roaring and shouting in support of the human spirit, of this Israeli leader, of Idan Raichel. We cheered in support of his message: we are the world. The question, as Michael Jackson once suggested, is if change can come when we stand together as one?
*Note: Only later, after the show ended and we were in the car, did we hear Philippe’s story. Upon entering the auditorium and quickly glancing at his ticket, he saw row 15, seat 38 and without looking at the section, he walked into the main floor, noticed two rows of empty seats, didn’t see us, but sat down. When Mr. Peres entered and came to the row in front of him, he shook his hand and then looked at his ticket, only to realize he was in the wrong section.