Not Just a Yiddishe Kop

One of the most subversive experiments in the history of Israeli culture came to its end last week. The Israel Andalusian Orchestra from Ashdod, the unique project that challenged the prevailing Eurocentric musical culture in Israel, has been shut down. Its musicians and other employees, who dared to protest aloud and even go on strike because of their humiliating working conditions, were fired with the wave of a baton after months of struggle.

And it was not the Ashkenazi establishment that dismantled the orchestra, but the orchestra's own management and the Ashdod municipality - including people who were among the founders of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition, a social movement of Israeli Jews from Muslim countries, and orchestra founders like director Motti Malka and Ashdod Mayor Yehiel Lasri. Thus did orchestra members from Morocco and from the former Soviet Union all find themselves in the same boat. Both groups are oppressed and silenced.

A look at the other orchestras in Israel shows that the oppression of orchestra members did not begin with - and has not ended with - the Andalusian orchestra. Minimum wage earners (though in the Andalusian they did not make even that much) can also be found in the Jerusalem and Rishon Letzion symphony orchestras, and musicians who supplement their income by working as night watchmen can also be found in other orchestras. All of them have one thing in common: Even though they have devoted their entire lives to developing their art, and even though they have had to excel in order to be accepted into the orchestras, and even though their profession is their way of life, they earn a starvation wage.

Ostensibly, the reason for this is simple. There is no demand in Israeli society today for what orchestras have to sell, so classical music - be it Western or Eastern - that reaches toward profundity and transcends the cultural shallows in which society is wallowing is considered trivial, and funded accordingly.

But while the orchestras may seem not to have been getting funding, the Andalusian orchestra actually received NIS 3.2 million a year from the government - more than any other such organization, with the exception of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and its musicians were said to have earned more than any such musicians in Israel. That money - along with the income earned as it played hundreds of concerts at concert halls and schools across the country - should have caused the Andalusian orchestra to flourish. The question of why the orchestra collapsed under such circumstances remains controversial.

The Ashdod orchestra's demand to be defined as classical was justified, because the music it played is classical: It is based on complex and ancient systems of organizing sounds and rhythms, melodies, scales and strict musical forms, and it must be performed by professional instrumentalists and vocalists. This music was born in the Middle Ages, during the Golden Age of Spain, as the court music of the Arab kingdom of Andalusia in southern Spain. During that era, the Jews participated in the entire range of artistic creativity. After they were expelled, the court musicians among them took their traditions with them to Morocco, where some Spanish Jews immigrated. The tolerance with which they were treated there, during various periods and in various regions, brought about cultural prosperity and a "golden age" in its own right.

Initially, Andalusian music reflected the blend that had developed in Spain between the ancient Arab musical traditions and Jewish liturgical music. Ultimately, the music was also shaped by the relationships between the Jewish inhabitants of Morocco and their recently arrived brethren from Spain, and between the Jews and the Moroccan-Arab cultures in the midst of which they lived. It almost goes without saying that this musical culture was not at all a part of the Zionist ethos. It did not enter the musical canon that defined what "Israeli music" is, as Hebrew song did. And it was not taught in the schools - even to children of families that had come from Morocco.

Music classes taught Israeli students taught Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" and not Andalusian orchestral music, songs by Schubert and not the hymns of Rabbi David Buzaglo. That local history enabled the establishment of the Israel Andalusian Orchestra, which aimed at preserving, nurturing and spreading the Moroccan musical repertoire - recruiting musicians from the former Soviet Union along the way, as a complement to those who played authentic Oriental instruments in the string section - was a true cultural challenge.

The orchestra's premiere concerts in 1994, at the Israeli Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv, were amazing. Avi Amzaleg conducted the orchestra, which played unisono - a single melody on all the instruments, without accompaniment and without harmony, but with profound emotional expression. Emil Zrihan, whose singing of liturgical verse is breathtaking, took part in one of the selections. The beauty was unprecedented.

The Ashkenazi establishment embraced the orchestra, whose organizers knew how to navigate the corridors of power and open its taps. Only about a decade elapsed before it was declared the winner of the Israel Prize. Support for it soared, and subsidies surpassed those for all the symphony orchestras - including ones in Jerusalem and Rishon Letzion, as well as the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra, which has nearly twice as many musicians as the Israel Andalusian Orchestra - as well as for the chamber orchestras that resembled it. The Andalusian got more than 10 times the amount received by niche organizations like Israel Contemporary Players and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

Nonetheless, local media reported about two and a half years ago that there was a tremendous deficit in the Andalusian orchestra's balance. The orchestra's recent dismantlement can be traced to the replacement of general directors, which led to scandals and recriminations; the players protested failed management they said caused concerts to be canceled and spoke out against humiliating conduct. Management, in turn, complained of a mutiny and accused the Histadrut labor federation of inciting the musicians. No matter what the exact cause of the orchestra's ultimate collapse, it is clear that the outcome means no less than a cultural disaster.

Last January Christian Lander, a young Canadian who works at an advertising agency, began to write a blog: a list of short posts that he called "Stuff White People Like." In short order, his blog got 20 million hits and Random House paid him a six-figure advance to write a book with the same title - a bestseller that was published in July. Lander has not yet fully grasped his success. At lectures to which he is invited, he keeps saying he's just some guy with a blog, and he takes pictures of the audience, saying it's so people will believe he spoke before so many people.

And what is it that middle-class white people like? According to Lander, they like to play children's games even when they're all grown up. They like scarves, gay friends, bad high school memories, water bottles, and being the only white person around. They also like studying abroad, getting divorced, alternative medicine, recycling, apologies, sushi, having two last names, renovating their homes, hating their parents, having gifted children, and tea, yoga and film festivals. And then there is No. 108 on the list: appearing to enjoy classical music.

Entire industries, writes Lander, are based on white people's guilt feelings, such as the Penguin Classics series and free-range chicken farms, but all of them pale alongside classical music. White people don't really listen to classical music, according to him, but they very much want people to think they enjoy it. They go to concerts and afterward say how much they enjoyed the performance and how they plan to go more often. This is funny, and perhaps there is something to it. After all, one well-known definition of classical music is white men playing music composed by other white men in front of a white audience. And if "white" means members of the ruling hegemonic European culture, then in Israel this can be translated into "Ashkenazi."

The first time a comparison of this sort occurred to me was a few years ago, at a concert at which the conductor addressed the audience and spiced his remarks with quite a successful joke, whose punch line was "a goyishe kop!" - "a gentile mind" in Yiddish. The audience dissolved in laughter - but how did the conductor know the audience was comprised of people from the Ashkenazi Jewish communities of Eastern and Central Europe? And how did it happen that he was right? Does this incident reinforce the claim that classical music is elitist and can be understood only by a middle-class European audience?

Millions of Chinese and Korean pianists and violinists, a million children from Venezuela, children from the West Bank cities of Jenin and Ramallah, and young Israelis from all classes and ethnic backgrounds who play in classical orchestras and sing in classical choirs prove that the belief that classical music is by and for middle- and upper-class white people is nothing more than a myth.

Understanding and identifying with classical music do not depend on ethnic origin, class or genetics; they depend on accessibility. In today's world, everyone is a product of mixed cultures, and everyone's ears are open. If schools were to teach a range of music, from Vivaldi to Andalusian - moreover, if they were to open channels of sound to all the cultures of this country and this earth - we would see society changing its face. It is not too late to begin