Monday, June 02, 2003

Dancing with the Snakefish

Ben and Marla died.

Let’s dance.

As incongruous and inappropriate as the sentiment sounds, that was exactly the inspiration behind a free concert attended by thousands of Jerusalemites last Wednesday night: a concert to honor the memory of Marla Bennett and Ben Blutstein, two very special individuals who were killed almost a year ago now in the terrorist bombing at Hebrew University .

But much more than that, this was a concert to celebrate life.

Their lives.

And ours.

If there is one thing that has impressed me over the nearly twelve years I've been here, it's the astounding ability the people of this country have to bounce back, to keep on going, despite it all. It never ceases to amaze me.

Last Passover, we were paralyzed. After a spate of suicide bombings in Jerusalem, Netanya and Tel Aviv, sometimes at a rate of several every day, most people we know basically stopped going out. We ordered in pizza and videos. We went from home to work and back and that was it.

We were afraid.

But then it was like we all woke up unison and said to ourselves: this is crazy. We’re not going to let our fear stop us from doing what we love. What we need.

And so we flocked back to the cafes and the discos and the theaters. The streets filled up again. Color returned to the rhythm of life.

And now a year later, 3,000 people (the police said that was a conservative estimate) crowded the Jerusalem Tayelet, the outdoor promenade that overlooks the Old City from the direction of the Southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, to hear the bands Sheva and Hadag Nachash (in English: Snakefish) play their hearts out on a warm Jerusalem night.

The choice of musicians was not accidental. Marla loved Sheva. Their blend of new age rhythms and Middle Eastern vocalizations represented for Marla all that was unique and positive about this part of the world.

Ben was a bridge-builder in the best sense of the word: by day he studied Jewish texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies with Marla; come nightfall, he spun disks and played the latest hip hop, rap and jungle in clubs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with his tzitzit (ritual fringes) twirling like 45s. Snakefish is one of Israel’s top rap bands and was a favorite of Ben’s. Both groups donated their time.

To those who knew and loved Marla and Ben, a concert seemed more fitting than a night of speeches and sadness.

And a whole lot more inclusive.

The audience for the show was as varied and multi-cultural as I have ever seen in Israel. Gathered together in one relatively compact space, you had everything from completely secular teenagers in the most revealing of clothes out for a good time; modern religious families dressed more conservatively in button down shirts, knitted kippot and berets; black bearded, black hatted Yeshiva students from I don’t know where; and three busloads of North American college kids visiting Israel on the birthright program.

And they were all grooving together. It was a sight to be seen. No: to be experienced. I felt privileged to be there.

Still, the event was confusing. As much as I believe in celebrating life, I felt that on an evening to remember, I should be grieving more. Marla was, after all, our cousin, a dear and close part of our family. The heavy security presence guarding every entrance served as a reminder that all was not as it should be. It seemed somehow wrong to be enjoying myself as much as I was. Meeting up with old friends (the atmosphere was like a college reunion). Letting the music take me wherever it would.

Perhaps the best way to make sense of the evening would be to compare it to a wedding. According to Jewish tradition, the reason we break a glass under the chupah (the wedding canopy) is to remind us that at even the most joyous of moments, there is always a little sadness. Two people find their life partners, marry, plan a life full of adventure, but still take a moment at the height of their happiness to remember the many, many innocents who have died in wars of injustice and man’s inhumanity to man.

I thought about Michael who had been planning just such a life together with his girlfriend Marla. His world is inverted now: a great big broken glass with only a little joy in the center.

During the break between Sheva and Snakefish, Amanda Pogany (Marla’s best friend), spoke to the crowd about Marla.

I was standing at the time near a group of Israeli teens. Tank tops, belly shirts, pierced everything, tattoos. During the speeches, they just wouldn’t shut up.

Maybe it was the English - clearly not their native tongue. Maybe it was the age: do teenagers anywhere have respect for speechmakers?

A battle of sorts ensued. Some of the educators from Pardes, who were standing nearby, started shushing the teens who just laughed. Shush. Laugh. Even louder talk. Louder shushing. It might even have been amusing if I hadn’t wanted to hear what Amanda was saying.

And then, Amanda and others who had joined her on stage began to recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. And a hush fell over the crowd. Even the teens. They knew what this was. They knew all the words. They said them along with Amanda, with Michael, with my wife Jody and me. They knew exactly when to say Amen.

Before this moment, I wondered, did they know that this was a memorial event and not just a free outdoor rap concert? Even at this point, they probably hadn't copped the full reason, but they also knew something was different. That there was a glass that needed to be broken.

And then Snakefish roared onto the stage and the crowd went wild. Gyrating and sweating in the warm night air.

The juxtaposition and the message: Don’t stop dancing, don’t stop having fun, don’t stop living.

And never forget.

Aaron Bisman who organized the event has just posted pictures on his JDubRecords website. Click here to view them.

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