Songs for the Holy City
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Songs for the Holy City

Jews, Muslims, and Christians to gather at JTS for a Berrie-supported evening of music, hope, and prayer

On Jerusalem Day, Rabbi Appelbaum organized an interfaith concert in Jerusalem’s Old Train Station. (Kehillat Zion)
On Jerusalem Day, Rabbi Appelbaum organized an interfaith concert in Jerusalem’s Old Train Station. (Kehillat Zion)

Nobody knows exactly why music has the effect that it does on the human mind, body, and spirit. It’s hard to quantify and it’s hard to define — but it’s also hard to miss.

It’s hard to listen to some music and not to be moved — not to be stirred, or even shaken — by it.

That’s something that Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum knows. She’s the head of Kehillat Zion in Jerusalem, a synagogue that is Masorti and therefore part of the worldwide Conservative movement but also native Israeli, down to its DNA (as she is). She’s also the founder of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, which, as Hartman’s website tells us, is “a joint project of the HaMidrasha Educational Center for Israeli Judaism and the Shalom Hartman Institute.”

It’s also something that Angelica Berrie of Englewood, the head of the Russell Berrie Foundation, knows. The Teaneck-based foundation has sponsored an annual program at Manhattan’s Jewish Theological Seminary for years. The program is co-sponsored by the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and JTS’s Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue.

So that’s a lot of words. A lot of titles. A lot of serious thought. A lot of consonants. Not a lot of music.

Angelica Berrie (Berrie Foundation)

Until this year, Ms. Berrie said, the annual program has been a talk. It’s been a “very frontal affair,” she said. This year, it won’t be. It will be far less formal, far more emotional. Far fewer words, and a great deal of music. And it will be not only about interreligious dialogue, but about peace.

It will be “Songs for the Holy City.” (See box.)

Rabbi Elad Appelbaum, Imam Abdullah Antepli, who is a chaplain at Duke University and active with Hartman and as a leader in Jewish-Muslim interreligious work, and the great oudist  Ara Dinkjian will lead the evening; they’ll be joined by singers including Mr. Dinkjian’s father, the renowned Armenian musician Onnik Dinkjian, and Rabbi J. Rolando Matalan of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, whose passion for piyyutim and other forms of Mizrachi music run as an undercurrent connecting and powering this evening.

The format is based on similar evenings that Rabbi Elad Appelbaum has held in a tent at the picturesque renovated train station in Jerusalem; they’ve drawn “hundreds of Jerusalemites, Jews, Christians, Muslims, left and right wing, to pray together for our beloved city,” she said.

The oud player, Ara Dinkjian, lives in Fort Lee; for 43 years, until he retired a few years ago, he also was the cantor at the Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church in Ridgefield.

“This concert centers around Jerusalem,” Mr. Dinkjian said. “When you say the word ‘Jerusalem,’ it evokes so many thoughts and memories and problems and hopes and fears and history.

Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum leads an evening of music in Jerusalem, as a rapt audience looks on. (Kehillat Zion)

“I’m a musician; we stay away from politics. But even if you live your life as a musician, you are in a sense making political statements by the choices you make, by what you play and who you play for.

“Looking back at history, there was a time when being a musician was a very low-class thing, but frankly I am just so proud to be part of that long history. Musicians never had these issues of color or race or faith or geography. Or even gender. If you could play, you could play. We all kind of coexisted.

“And I have to say that the key word for the future of mankind is coexistence. It is to learn how to coexist — or not. And musicians do that. This concert will have musicians of all faiths and backgrounds, finding the common language that evokes the human condition in all of us.”

How does that work? Where does music’s power come from? “I truly believe that it has that power, but I don’t know where it comes from. No one knows,” Mr. Dinkjian said.

“I just became a grandfather to twin boys a year ago, and this actually goes to that question. I made sure that my daughter listened to music during her pregnancy, and believe it or not the music that she listened to then is the music they find the most familiar and comforting now.

Master oudist Ara Dinkjian of Fort Lee will play at “Songs for the Holy City” at the Jewish Theological Seminary. (Ara Dinkjian)

“How do you explain these little boys who hear dance music and start shaking their bodies? If they hear something on the radio, they start bouncing. They start moving their bodies to it. And if it’s more sad, mellow music, they go into a sort of trance.

“I don’t know if anybody has any scientific answers about how music works, but I know that it does evoke these powerful, physical, emotional responses. It is an incredibly powerful medium.”

Mr. Dinkjian has been playing in public since 1964, when he was 5 years old and he drummed for his father at the New York World’s Fair. “It was at the Singer Bowl,” he said; ironically, the stadium had that name not because of the many singers who performed on its stage, but because it was funded by the sewing machine family. “They had what they called Armenian Day in 1964 and again in 1965,” he said. “They called it a day, but it lasted for several days, with choral groups and dance groups, and folk ensembles. I played a hand drum called the doumbek — that’s because when I was really young I just started banging, and people said, ‘Give the kid a drum.’

“I remember the World’s Fair because all the other musicians were one or two generations older than I was, but there I was, in an Armenian traditional costume, and I remember being annoyed that people were pointing at me and using the word ‘cute.’ I was offended. I remember thinking, ‘Why are you pointing at me?’

“I have retained the idea that music is an oral, sonic art, not a visual art,” he said. “I was thrilled to be playing there. I was very serious.”

Rabbi Burton Visotzky (Burt Visotzky)

Mr. Dinkjian composes instrumental music. “My songs have been sung in 14 different languages, and Hebrew is one of them,” he said. Many of his compositions are used as liturgical music; one of the synagogues where it can be heard is Rabbi Matalon’s B’nai Jeshurun, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I love it when people hear my melodies, and they say, ‘That is ours,’” he said. “I say, ‘Of course it is,’ because really what they are saying is, ‘I am a human being, and so are you.’

“Many times enemies — political and historical enemies — are singing the same melodies, and therein lies our hope.”

Mr. Dinkjian teaches oud; for the last few years, his students have included Rabbi Matalon. “I have gotten involved in this concert because of Roly, who has been my student and therefore my friend,” he said. “I have learned a lot from him. I admire him because he is one of those people who get it. One of those people who knows that we have to sit down with people we don’t agree with.

“We don’t have to agree with them. But we have to sit down together.”

That evening will include “Hebrew religious music, Arab folk songs, Armenian classical music — you will hear everything, and everybody will be represented,” Mr. Dinkjian said. “There will be a thread going through it that we are all just human beings.”

Rabbi Burton Visotzky, a frequent presence on television, is the Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at JTS. He put the concert together. The inspiration behind it, he said, came from Kehillat Zion; he has gone to Rabbi Elad Appelbaum’s synagogue, he said, and he loves it. “Because it is very Israeli, they play a lot of Mizrachi music,” he said. “Before the davening starts, they do Mizrachi niggunim,” the wordless melodies that seem to come from deep inside the Jewish experience, fly through your bloodstream, and penetrate your heart. “You really feel like you are in the Middle East,” Rabbi Visotzky said. “She has drawn not only on the Mizrachi musical tradition but also on the piyyutim” —Jewish liturgical chanted poems, some of them ancient — “and it is extraordinary.

Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum (Kehillat Zion)

“Tamar is a charismatic leader,” he added. When she told him about her Jerusalem evenings, he asked her if she could do a similar night in New York. She agreed; he just had to figure out how to fund it.

“I appealed to Angelica,” Rabbi Visotzky said. “I asked her if this could be our John Paul II Interreligious Dialogue evening, and she laughed. She told me that she had been funding what Tamar was doing in Jerusalem.”

On Wednesday night, “We will have songs in Hebrew, Armenian, Aramaic, and Arabic. We are going to give everyone who comes a songbook, translation, and transliteration. We want everyone to sing along. We want everyone to be engaged.”

The program is “Songs for the Holy City,” he said, “because God knows the Holy City needs our help. And we are calling it the Holy City because we all have our own names for Jerusalem, but the name Holy City fits for everyone.

“We all have deep ties to the Holy City, and we all have a deep yearning for its peaceful future. We want to emphasize that we all share that same prayer.”


What: Songs for the Holy City: An Interfaith Evening of Music and Prayer

Where: At the Jewish Theological Seminary, 3080 Broadway at 122nd Street in Manhattan, and also streaming online at www.jtsa.edu/live

When: On Wednesday, June 20, at 7:30 p.m.

How much: It’s free, but you need a ticket; for more information and to register, go to www.jtsa.edu, click on calendar, and follow the link to Songs for the Holy City.

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