Israel, Palestine, Oum Kulthum: Syncopation and Seventy

Give this a listen while you read –

I struggled to persuade my soul to make peace with you
After insomnia tears and agony by your hands

It was painful what I sustained in love, by the prolonged abandonment
I don’t know what was my punishment after I accepted deprivation.

I thought maybe time has changed you with distance?
Or in agreeing to humiliation, you’d be sweeter to me.

I was the one true in my love, faithful all my life
Time sometimes with me sometimes against
But from me your heart withholds.

I told you of all those that had hurt me,
Who will I tell about you?
How pleasing you was the light of my dreams
In the moments when time was cruel …

                                (Oum Kulthum - singer, Ahmed Rami - poet, Riyad Sunbati - composer)

Dear Friends,

There were ceremonies this week on the occasion of Israel’s 70th birthday. We held an event to mark the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and the movement into the celebration of Independence Day. I felt compelled to participate mostly to make sure that mention would be made of the hardships and occupation of the Palestinians and their continued yearning for freedom and statehood. It’s a difficult moment for all Jewish people who believe our tradition is one that holds justice and kindness in the highest regard. How do we reconcile our spirituality and our politics? The Torah does not mince words - Love thy Neighbor. But politically, people have diverse perspectives on neighbor etiquette. You could feel it in the room that night.

As the Holocaust and Israel days came over us this year, I’ve been immersed in a musical leap. Working on a new piece by the unquestioned queen of Arabic music, Oum Kulthum, I am now, for the first time in my life, feeling the rhythm of syncopated beats. Syncopation, when the melody of her phrases begins on the offbeat, quarter notes beginning on the ands, stretching over the one, two, three, four, landing with buoyancy and grace eventually back on the beat. In the suspension, with the music unresolved, the two, like lover and beloved, enemy and friend, god and soul, are near and far neighbors.

I brought my oud, this music, Oum Kulthum to the Israel gig on Wednesday night. Oum Kulthum is the greatest singer of recorded history. Her concerts were broadcast on the first Thursday of the month across the Middle East, she played for kings, and political regimes asked after her consent before taking power. She sang love songs, mighty odes stretching on for an hour or more, one poem’s lyrics repeated again and again, the wounds of love retold with increasing musical ornamentation and flashes of showmanship. When the six day war ended and the Egyptian army had been decimated by Israel, she went on a fundraising tour, playing in Morocco, Iraq, even Paris, such was her love for the cause of Palestine. Love songs crying in a political age, meaning hovering like a soul touching everywhere, self and god, place and placelessness.

Before the founding of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians, Jews had lived and thrived among their Christian and Muslim neighbors, everyone together creating the Arab culture of these great homelands, in food, art, music, and poetry. Falafel and hummus were not invented by Jews, Israelis or Palestinians, but by Arabs some of them Jewish some Palestinian. Jewish musicians, composers, and singers were among the greats of Egyptian music in the classical era, the 30’s and 40’s, just as Oum Kulthum and Israel were on the rise.

I sat in the Syrian synagogue of Jerusalem and listened to her songs, the Arabic lyrics sometimes replaced with Hebrew words, nonetheless offered up as prayers, the dearest melodies of the heart. I imagined the soldiers on the battlefields, their ancestors once collaborators and friends. There must be a few on both sides who remember Oum Kulthum. I see them in their beds at night, one headphone in Palestine another in Israel, recalling the sounds of woundedness, syncopation, and love. We will never forget, how our forefathers once sang together.

We become small, attached to self and ethnic interests when we are afraid. But don’t blind yourself to your fear, it’s ok to be afraid. The Jewish people has suffered thousands of years of persecution, and our collective psyche carries the scars of those wounds. It takes work, incredible conscious attention, to heal, as individuals and as a culture. We are the minority opinion, the singers of Oum Kulthum in the lines of Israel, those who are capable of hearing the songs of our enemies as our own prayers. Given the trauma, the divisiveness, and the stagnation there is a temptation to remain silent. We will not. There is a mighty chorus of angels who sing beside us.

Come and learn this music with me. Be not afraid to give name to Palestine, and be a champion of justice for all people. Every being created in divine imagery, my enemies, my neighbors, dancing together through the pain of love, the hardship of discord and war, the yearning for beauty and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Zach Fredman


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