Notes from the Jewish Federation of North America's Fly-In Week
It is the middle of the night, and I am sitting in bed in the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C. thinking about music.
This may come as little suprise to those who know me, as I am a lifelong singer. I am not thinking about how I make music, however. I am thinking about how music made me. I am thinking about how music defines the Jewish people.
This evening kicked off a two-day Israel and Jewish advocacy meeting organized by the Jewish Federation of North America. As the North Jersey Israel Advocacy Corps representative, I packed my little suitcase, hopped in the car yesterday, and drove down to D.C. (without needing a GPS - a-thank you), and joined several hundred Israel advocates for a transformative experience.
And we have not even reached the lobbying part of the trip yet.
Last night, after hearing from some of the most erudite and passionate advocates for the Jewish people, the evening ended with a musical performance by a newly formed quartet of musicians called Shufoni. It is composed of four young talents who all share a common feature - they all hail from the Gaza Envelope, the region attacked by Hamas. They all experienced deep, personal loss and trauma.
And they all are finding peace and moving forward through music.
They are four individual artists drawn together by an intense, personal tragedy who are finding solace and healing by making music together. They never played together before the war, but you would never know that to see how bonded they are, how supportive of each other’s very different musical styles, and how much like a Family Band the appear despite having no familial relationship.
But then, we are Jews. We are all family.
This experience moved me like no other. When 26-year-old Daniel Wais deftly strummed his guitar, you could feel him telling the story of how he barely survived at Kibbutz Be’eri, knowing the terrorists were directly on the other side of his window, smelling the smoke from the gunfire, and coming awake and alive in every fiber of his body to be fully present as a survival mechanism.
When he described learning that his father was among those killed on October 7, when he recounted learning that his mother’s body had been found in Gaza one month later near Al-Shifa Hospital, his words were laced with a profound anguish.
But when he sang.
When he sang, every ounch of pain poured like sieved honey into the souls of a captive audience of 300. He played his father’s favorite song on the first guitar his father ever gave him, and he ended the song by thanking his mom and dad in the lyrics.
I do not know if there were any dry eyes in the room, but there were none on my face.
I began to think about the rally in Washington, D.C. where first we sang with strangers on the subway. Later, we sang with strangers on the Mall. We sang in the parking lot. We sang on the bus.
How songs like “Getting over Depression” and “Harbu Darbu” have punctuated and characterized this war. How Jews sing in times of joy and in times of sorrow. How we find our catharsis, our humanity, and our salvation in song.
For me, music always has been wrapped intimately with my Judaism. My childhood cantor, Melvin Luterman, used to give me voice lessons as a teenager and encouraged me to sing all manner of songs. He taught me how to “sing to G-d,” as he put it. Singing for him - and for me - has always been a transcendant experience. It is a way to convey emotions from one soul to another as if touching by direct contact. It is how hearts hold hands.
Watching the contrast between our pro-Israel rallies and the pro-hamas anger-fests, music stands out as the major differentiator. We do not march angrily or bitterly. We do not chant death slogans or fist pump in rage or threaten passers-by on the street.
Our music lifts our spirits, tethers our souls, and conveys our prayers upward on the wings of holy sound waves. When Daniel sang, his spoke to his murdered parents. He spoke to his community. He spoke to HaShem.
In doing so, he found solace, healing, and a connection to those still here to witness his pain and inner strength.
Being a Jew defines me as much as being a musician. I just never realized until tonight how much the two are inextricably intertwined.
*Look up Daniel Wais on Spotify and YouTube. You will not be disappointed, and you will be supporting a prematurely orphaned artist who needs your support.