Rabbi's Son Bridges Cultures Through Music

Gabriel Meyer Halevy's album 'The Human Project' brings together Israeli, Iranian, Pakistani, Palestinian, Turkish, Indian, European and South American musicians in a spirit of peaceful creativity.

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As Cairo filled with more than a million protesters chanting to oust President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Gabriel Meyer Halevy received a group email from Egyptian families seeking support for the revolution from their Israeli friends. The two groups had met in Sinai and vacationed together on several occasions. The Argentinean-born Halevy, musician, self-described peacemaker and son of a rabbi, gathered with his friends and headed to the recording studio.

Egypt’s struggle reminded Halevy of his own childhood, during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship.

The Israeli ode to Egypt’s revolution is now featured on Halevy’s latest CD, “The Human Project,” along with songs made with Iranian and Pakistani singers in a rare musical cooperation. His first solo album also joins Israeli musicians with Palestinian, Turkish, Indian, European and South American musicians in their own languages and musical traditions.

A Hebrew-Persian song on the album is also making waves: a cover of the famed protest song "Sólo le Pido a Dios” (I only ask of God), immortalized by the late Argentinean singer Mercedes Sosa. Halevy, 47, sings in Hebrew, Spanish and English, with Iranian vocalist Aida Shahghasemi singing in Persian and English. Shagsemi also sings a verse using lyrics from the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi.

Halevy was introduced to Shahghasemi by Iranians he met in Turkey. After their rendition reached the song’s composer Leon Gieco – known as South America’s Bob Dylan - Gieco wrote to Halevy that he was very moved by the arrangement and the union of “languages from countries in the East at war.” Gieco also referenced Halevy's version in a recent interview to Argentina’s Pagina 12 newspaper focusing on Bruce Springstein’s cover of the song.

Shahghasemi recorded her vocals in New York, where she teaches. For the song, “Shir MeLibi” (Song from my Heart), Pakistani singer and tabla player Israr Hussain sent his vocals by email from Pakistan, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Halevy mixed the Urdu with his Hebrew section. The arrangement is based on an original Urdu song by the world-renowned Pakistani Sufi vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Hussain's father, Dildar Hussain, was Khan's percussionist.

The album also nods to Halevy’s love of Hebrew literature, borrowing lyrics from Psalms, Talmud and the priestly blessing of the Cohenim.

Shaped by dictatorship and rabbinic tradition

At his home in the Galilee, Halevy drinks tea from the herbs of his garden and remembers the legacy of his late father, the renowned human-rights activist Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who spent 25 years in Argentina with his family before returning to the United States in 1984. Meyer, his son says, lived the philosophy that Judaism’s followers cannot separate themselves from the suffering and joy of their neighbors. His father, says Halevy, inherited the philosophy from studying with Jewish theologians Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Buber and Heschel, says Halevy, are “my spiritual grandparents.”

At the family dinner table in Buenos Aires talk often turned to the regime's torture of political prisoners and the thousands of “disappeared” Argentinean children. Meyer protested every Thursday with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and the family regularly housed fleeing refugees. When members of Meyer’s congregation lobbied for a new ark for the Torah scrolls, his father said, “First build a clinic [for the shantytown] and then you will deserve a new ark,” Halevy recalls.

For Halevy's bar mitzvah, his father took him to meet journalist Jacobo Timerman, living under house arrest for criticizing the government.

After the Sabra and Chatila massacre in September 1982, Halevy, then 15, begged his father to join a secret interfaith vigil being organized at Mount Sinai. Meyer trekked alone from Argentina to the Sinai Desert and prayed with Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian Sufis and clerics from around the world. He calls the gathering "everything I aspired to, all these cultures coming together in nature.”

When Meyer became rabbi of New York's Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, until his death in 1993, Halevy traveled the world making music and writing poetry. In the early 1990s Halevy met Amir Paiss, Mosh Ben-Ari and the other musicians who would found Sheva, one of Israel's first Hebrew-Arabic ensembles. He recorded two albums with Amir Paiss, "Merkava" and "Hateva - Skin of God."

Halevy also launched a series of retreats aimed at infusing Israel’s religious scene with more music, dance, spirituality and connection to other religious traditions.

When the second intifada began in 2000, Halevy sought to create a safe place for Israelis, Palestinians and others who opposed the violence to meet. He and a Palestinian partner, Elias Jabbour, cofounded the Sulha Peace Project, based on the Arab mediation tradition known as sulha. The roots of the words are the same as the roots for the Hebrew word forgiveness. In 2001, more than 100 people - rabbis, sheikhs, Christian clerics, military veterans and Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones in the conflict - celebrated Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan together. The number of participants reached 600 in 2002 and exceeded 5,000 in 2008.

Halevy says he and his partners in Sulha and other interfaith activities after the intifada were pioneers of sorts, creating the first spaces in Israel that were not exclusively religious or atheist, male or female, Arab or Jew, or old or young. “A Fatah guy from Ramallah cooked with a religious Jewish woman; it’s cold and 3 A.M. and they have to meet to give each other a blanket. It’s a different activism that encompasses human rights activism with nature, art, creativity, spirit and the learning missing from [the Oslo peace process] … When you get to know each other and experience things, the focus turns mostly to [healing] and not only conflict.”

He calls "The Human Project" album a new kind of Sulha, with Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and pagans singing about equality, liberty and oneness. Such activities complement political activism, he says.

“We have always the option of where to focus our energy, strength and creativity - on the side of the massacres, violence, vengeance and triumphalism of our own family, nation, religion, etc.; or on [healing] for all that, celebrating life in community, with nature, music, humor and prayer as means for surprising reality into change, healing and awakening to a more loving and just world.”

The album was inspired by his own father and by Buber and Heschel, Halevy says. “I think [they] would like this and all its meaning.”

Gabriel Meyer Halevy at his Galilee home.Credit: Lauren Gelfond Feldinger

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