May 19, 2019

A Modern Silk Road

We recently spent a beautiful Passover in Tsfat with family. But, like every year, the holiday ended too soon. 

With all the preparation cleaning, buying special Pesach ingredients and changing over all of the dishes, one would expect the holiday should last at least a month. But no. Every year, it's over exactly when I get used to finding the Pesach items in my reordered kitchen. 

My questions remains: how does all this work remind us of our Jewish ancestors leaving Egypt and wandering through the desert?

As I could not bear to take out the pots and pans, cutlery and glasses just a week after I had arranged them in cupboards and drawers, I decided that procrastination was the best course of action. I closed the front gate and left searching for something more exciting than shlepping pot and pans.  

I didn’t have to go far. Tucked down a cobbled alley in the Artists’ Quarter a few minutes’ walk from Villa Tiferet is the Khan of the White Donkey. 

This 700-year-old building was once an inn for weary travelers. Today it’s a beautifully restored conservatory and concert venue and the ideal place for the Pesach weary to sink onto pillows and be lulled by Eastern melodies.

We had arrived for a concert by the Maqamat Academy of Eastern Music, the only conservatory of its kind in the world. Everyone was gathered for a Mimouna celebration. Held the night after Pesach, North African Jews gather together to eat much missed chametz – and for Sephardim, this translates into moflettas, honeyed crepes.

Concert goers were dressed in their North African finery: long, brocaded robes topped with a crimson fez and pointed slippers (mojari), de rigueur for a carpet ride with Aladdin. Some lay back on pillows, while others sat on stools at low glass tables.

As the oud and percussion started, I was transported. The Arabic words to the songs seemed to float, buoyed by the violin and oud, buffeted by the darbuka and tombak drums. 
I closed my eyes and imagined a caravan of camels bearing frankincense, myrrh and silk across shimmering sand, wending through red canyons, my Passover question finally resolved.

Two men in long robes danced out holding high silver platters of freshly made moflettas. The singer paused. He made a blessing in Hebrew and ate a pancake.

“He’s the son of a big rabbi here,” I heard someone whisper.

If only Turks, Arabs and Iranians could be here, what would they think? The musicians were all Jewish, yet had a reverence for Arabic music, playing their instruments with love and respect. In fact, this was not simply Arabic music. It was the music of North African and Spanish Jewry; melodies that were composed centuries ago by Jews who lived in Persia and in Yemen, in Algeria and Grenada. 

These musicians have adapted hauntingly old melodies from the Ottoman Turks, the Maghreb (North Africa), the Persian and Mediterranean and fused them together, creating a beautiful form. They combined Klezmer, a jolt of Gypsy y un poco Flamenco. And just like the Hebrew language rose from the dust, this melee of Jewish Arabic culture has awakened like a genie rising from a bottle and dancing down a modern Silk Road.

The audience swayed. Some tapped their feet, while others drummed on the tables – it was impossible not be stirred by the beat. My camel caravan dissolved, a mirage from another time and place, because here we were, sitting in Israel in the 21st-century admiring and appreciating Arabic music that we share with our Moslem neighbors.   

I had a renewed appreciation of how similar the Jewish and Arabic cultures are. If only we could sit together and share the similarities instead of focusing on the differences, this country would be a different place.

I recently read an uplifting article about Ashraf Jabari, an Arab businessman from Hebron who wants to put aside differences so we can work and live side by side with shared goals.  He and Israeli-Jewish resident Avi Zimmerman are dedicated to bringing Israeli and Palestinian business people together to work.  


And just a few days ago, Sheikh Ashraf Jabari hosted Israelis at his home for Iftar, the festive meals that Moslems eat after the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast.

“Breaking the fast together at a joint meal in Hebron clearly symbolizes our ability to bridge all gaps,” Ashraf said at the meal. And he took care to provide his Orthodox guests with kosher food so all could eat together.

Slowly and carefully, we are bridging gaps. And when one hears the music that these two cultures once shared, and still do, the bridge is further fortified. 

I invite you to the end-of-the-year Maqamat concert (video below is from last year's concert). They are playing outdoors at the beautiful Maayan HaRedum in Tsfat on June 12 and 13.  If I were to see a few camels wandering through the narrow alleys of the Artists’ Quarter on these nights, I would no longer be surprised. All I need is a pair of Aladdin slippers...