Commentary: Oud sings the song of peace | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Oud sings the song of peace

May 9, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Israel at 60 can be proud of many accomplishments, and one glaring failure: the elusive peace. I have an experience of Israel across its great divide that few people in the world have had. In a country of Jews and Arabs that rarely mix, I have mixed with both.

The first time I visited Israel, I went as a student for a year. I was 27 years old, on my own schedule. In addition to my studies, I was recruited by an enterprising Israeli who set me up in a theater in Jerusalem playing American music: jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, I also traveled all over the country. My handler booked me into secret military installations and on kibbutzes. One night we crawled into a recently excavated second-century synagogue and gave a performance by candlelight.

By day, I was a rabbinical student; at night, I owned the stage. People were dressing like me, "Jimmi, Jimmi" I heard on the streets of Jerusalem, I had my 15 minutes of fame and it lasted a year.

My life was altered one afternoon that year just after Passover. I sat down in a Jerusalem park and heard a series of performers on a stage.

"What's this?" I asked. "Maimouna." Maimouna is a North African Jewish celebration loosely in honor of Maimonides. On stage there were dancers, singers and oud players (the oud is an 11-stringed ancestor of the lute, much loved in the Arab world). I had never heard such sound, an indigenous Middle Eastern sound. It changed everything for me.

I came back to the States and continued my studies. I bought an oud and began to experiment with it. I couldn't get the sound I had heard in Jerusalem out of my head. It slipped inside me and rearranged everything. In my research, I discovered there had been many Jewish masters of the oud. The oud player assigned to the former King of Morocco was a Jew, then living near Beer Sheba.

Not long after I acquired my instrument, I read that an Israeli Arab-Jewish musical group was touring the United States led by a great Arab master of the oud. I went to see them, thinking I might make a connection with some needed lessons on my instrument.

I loved the intimate sound of the instrument: wood and string, the pure acoustic sound. Oud means wood in Arabic and that's what I heard in the playing, the liberation of music lurking in wood, coaxed out by finger, nail, bone, flesh.

After the concert, I talked my way backstage and showed the oud master my instrument. He asked me to play for him, which I did in my unconventional style. "That's interesting," he said, "but of course all wrong."

"Teach me," I said, knowing that this might be the one opportunity in my life to receive proper instruction on my instrument.

He laughed and informed me that he no longer took private students, he was much too busy, and besides, he lived in Israel.

"I'll come," I said. I meant it. He laughed more, but he saw my seriousness and relented.

"Come to Israel, and I'll teach you. But bring your instrument."

We had been talking about a sabbatical in my family, so we packed up our three kids, moved to Israel for the better part of a school year, and I left for one of the great adventures of my life.

In Israel, I drove to his Arab town once a week for a three-hour lesson: Three hours to drive to Shfaram, three hours nose to nose with my teacher, three hours back to Jerusalem. Most Israelis I met thought I was nuts. The Arabs in Shfaram who watched me come in and out week after week looked at me the same way.

No Jews live in Shfaram today, it is one of the largest Arab towns in Israel. Today, there are Christian Arabs, Moslem Arabs and Druze living in Shfaram. There is an ancient synagogue, and I was told by an old man on top of a nearby mountain that Jews were living there as recently as the early '70s but none since. At one time, not long after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) met there.

It would be this way the entire time he taught me: I would show up, and we would play for two or three hours, discussing only music. I realized that in our time together, we exchanged not one sentence of personal information. He knew nothing about me, I knew little about him. We spoke only music to each other, and it was enough.

I was finding something in the oud that linked me with my teacher. I also felt that somehow through the music we were contacting what was common in our people hood, something so deep that we were unaware of having lost it, deeper than the divisiveness of our history. It was a nod to the future as well as a visit to the past -- music as a clue to our shared character and a possibility for a reciprocal peace. We knew each other through our music. Through music, we had entered a place deeper than our differences, before the separation of Isaac and Ishmael -- the music of Abraham -- and all the peacemaking Isaacs and Ishmaels of the future.

Abraham, our Middle Eastern patriarch, had two children of different mothers. Isaac we remember as the progenitor of the Jews, Ishmael as the progenitor of the Arabs. Our relationship was broken a long time ago, as recorded in Genesis, chapter 21, of the Hebrew Bible. There is a teaching in the Zohar, the classic text of Jewish mysticism, that something was broken in the generation of our ancestors that only their children, the future, could repair.

I know that music prefigures something that history will follow. I feel in my hands the peacemaking of the future Isaac and Ishmaels. We are the future. The oud opened my mouth, and it was singing the world.

Israel at 60

As part of the St. Louis observance of Israel at 60, Noa (Achinoam Nini, is Israel) will be in concert at 7 p.m. May 13 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Michael Makovsky, Ph.D. will discuss his book, "Churchill's Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft,"on Friday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m. at United Hebrew Congregation, 13788 Conway Road. The discussion is open to the public.