When Rabbi Ted Feldman clicked on a link and heard the spiritual classic “Hinei Ma Tov” sung in Arabic and Hebrew by a Palestinian musician, he knew he’d found something special.
The spiritual director of Petaluma’s B’nai Israel Jewish Center explored a little further and found that the song was just the tip of the iceberg of the collaboration between the Palestinian, Alaa Alshaham, and American Jewish songwriter Michael Hunter Ochs.
Feldman invited the musicians to Petaluma to bring their project, “The Pursuit of Harmony,” to his congregation and the wider community to share their message of hope, peace and dialogue, particularly around issues having to do with Israel.
“I think this will be a new experience for the community,” said Feldman. “We have had other peace organizations speak, but this is a unique form of showing a sense of cooperation.”
“The Pursuit of Harmony” will spend the Jan. 29-31 weekend in Petaluma, performing their music, sharing stories and encouraging people to rethink their perception of those they might not agree with.
“When people see [our] unlikely friendship they will think twice about many things in their lives,” Alshaham said in a phone call from New York. “The only thing we have to do is break the barriers to meet. And once we meet, we don’t have to be genius to communicate. We’re just human.”
Alshaham and Ochs lived worlds apart until they met in 2008. Ochs, who had never before visited Israel and grew up in a New York Jewish household, began work with a regional organization striving to improve the Palestinian-Jewish relationship. The first trip led him straight to Ramallah in the West Bank, and Alshaham was the first person he met.
“It was an instant connection,” said Alshaham. “I thought it was so brave that Michael came by himself — no army! I’m exaggerating. But he has a lot of courage to do such a thing.”
Says Ochs: “I can’t say I wasn’t nervous or afraid. I never heard encouraging words about Arabs or about Palestinians. But you see so quickly that you … don’t judge before you meet actual individuals.”
Their friendship began and intensified through music. They combine Hebrew, Arabic and English and music from both traditions. The music doesn’t have a name, they attest, but it stirs people’s emotions.
“Someone told us it’s the music of hope,” said Ochs. “It goes straight to the heart.”
During the weekend in Petaluma, Ochs and Alshaham will perform two concerts, one as part of a Shabbat dinner at B’nai Israel on Jan. 29 and a second at the Petaluma Historical Museum on Jan. 30. The next morning, the duo will host a drum circle for kids in the morning, and in the afternoon Alshaham will share his experiences as a moderate Muslim Palestinian living in the West Bank amid the political conflict.
These events, which they take all over the world, Ochs said, are part of what keeps them hopeful about seeing and enacting change: When they address the conflict from a place of creating friendship and understanding, people start to feel differently.
That a Muslim Palestinian has visited hundreds of synagogues and an American Jew can walk down the streets of Ramallah and bump into friends is enough to turn people’s heads.
Their performances and talks help bring compassion and understanding to a new generation, Alshaham said. “The immediate feedback is great. There’s tears in their eyes. We leave them with more hope and more chance to do this.”
Feldman said the events have already been embraced by Petaluma’s interfaith community, including St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is co-sponsoring the Sunday program. He added that he hopes Jews from all political leanings regarding Israel will attend.
“This is not meant to be political,” he said, “but it is meant to be a statement about what’s possible.”
“The Pursuit of Harmony” concerts and workshops, Jan. 29-31 at B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma and the Petaluma Historical Museum in Petaluma. For details see Calendar, page 26.