This past weekend, I had the opportunity to perform onstage at Avery Fisher Hall with my international Jewish chorus for teens called HaZamir. The chorus is made up of precisely 350 nerdy, Jewish adolescents who are obsessed with the sounds of Sondheim and whose lives revolve around the culture and religion of Judaism, as mine does.
For three days, all members of HaZamir participate in an annual festival that takes place in an old-fashioned hotel in the Catskills- the Hudson Valley Hotel and Resort- which still looks like it did during the Jewish-domination era of this once-vacation hotspot of the mid to late-20th century. For three days, we vigorously practice and perfect our two hours worth of repertoire, which contains pieces varying from ancient, Yiddish, cantorial works to modern, Middle-Eastern, Israeli pop sounds.
Being an international choir, having over 26 chapters in the United States and in Israel, there is one group of people in particular that always stands out to me: the native Israelis. For three days, these chapters straight out of Israel struggle over the complex syntax of the English language, trying desperately to make friends by being funny, yet sensible, in an entirely different language. The Hebrew language is so far away from English; it’s like comparing Catholicism to Zen Buddhism. To speak Hebrew requires intense, guttural sounds, like the rolled or flipped R’s, and the infamous, throaty, Jewish “Chhh”. The Hebrew language expresses a dramatization of impatience and “chutzpah” (ballsy-ness), traits synonymous to true Israeli and Jewish character.
As I used to be nearly fluent in Hebrew (although I have forgotten a lot throughout my years in a public high school), I managed to befriend a beautiful, curly-haired, olive-skinned girl from Kfar Saba, a small town near Tel-Aviv. This girl I came to know really well in those few days is named Razi Shemesh- “shemesh” meaning sun in Hebrew, which perfectly matches her bubbly, smiling personality. (I will never forget her imperfect set of teeth, the big, yet impressively beautiful, spaces within her smile that reminded me of my own set of teeth, which I always self-consciously describe as an “accordion”.) Razi actually got to sing a solo in one of our songs, “Mishaela”, an upbeat, Middle-Eastern choral arrangement in Hebrew based on an actual Israeli pop song by Achinoam Nini. It matches Razi’s unique, raspy, jazzy, Yemenite voice, perfect for the little riffs and artistic scoops required of such a song. We sat next to each other during rehearsals and we would whisper about the girls around us in Hebrew, making such snide, typically Israeli remarks like “Ma Yesh La?” (“What’s with her?”).
I melted with joy when I finally got to hear Razi sing her solo onstage at Lincoln Center. When we walked off for the second half of the performance, Razi was still evidently nervous about how well she did. I noticed her uncertainty and so I held her hand and face gently and, shaking her, exclaimed: “At lo maaminah kshe hayah madhimah!?” (“You don’t believe how incredible it was!?”).
I feel like I particularly connected with Razi that weekend because I miss my connection to Israel in perhaps a painful way. I miss the likeable language and the constant exposure to Israeli culture I once had. I attended a Jewish private school for 9 years of my life before high school, where I was exposed to native Israeli teachers and classmates, constantly wishing I was born a tan, beautiful, curly-haired Israeli girl, like Razi, who could speak Hebrew fluently with her parents at all times. Sometimes I feel as if I had been born in the wrong country, while, as Razi confided in me, she wishes she could live among the excitement and diversity of New York City. What I got out of that weekend was not only a strong friendship with Razi, but a new sense of what defines my American Jewry and Razi’s Israeli Jewry.
Here is a link to the original song “Mishaela” by Achinoam Nini, just to get a sense of what true Israeli music is like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbPztdl7jLo