Arts & Culture Not Even War Can Deter Singer from Peacenik Concerts in Israel

Neither war nor the cancellation of the WorldPride parade in Jerusalem, where she was scheduled to perform, can keep Sonia Rutstein from Israel. The award-winning American singer-songwriter, who generally uses only the name Sonia, is bringing her message of love and tolerance to a series of concerts throughout Israel during the first few weeks of August.

Sonia is scheduled to perform in a variety of locations, including on a moshav in northern Israel and at a free outdoor concert in Tel Aviv. She also is expecting to perform at events associated with the WorldPride gay pride celebration in Jerusalem.

With 10 CDs and a Grammy nomination, Sonia often is compared to singer Ani DiFranco and is firmly established in the folk music world and on the gay and lesbian cultural scene. Her lyrics range from boldly political to tender and personal; her musical style ranges from folk, bluegrass and blues to pop-rock and rap-like rhythms, all infused with rich, melodic harmonies.

On a recent, sweltering summer weekend Sonia performed in Worcester, Mass., at a peace concert organized by the Healing Light Institute.

Between talking with fans and autographing CDs, Sonia told JTA she was aware of the controversy and threats of violence around the WorldPride parade in Jerusalem. The parade ultimately was canceled because of the war with Hezbollah, but not until Israeli Jewish, Christian and Muslim clerics had lobbied aggressively to prevent the march from taking place.

“What better place” to hold a gay pride march than Jerusalem, a focal point for three major religions? Sonia asked. “The whole essence of my music is that when you disappear fear between people, you have love.”

This will be Sonia’s fourth trip to Israel.

The first time came on a United Synagogue Youth tour in 1984 when Sonia was 15. In 1999, this time toting a guitar, she returned to perform for the Folkstuff Society at clubs in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Sonia recalls an evening outdoor concert with 800 women dancing against a backdrop of splashing waves as a magical moment.

“I love being in Israel, the energy,” Sonia enthused after the Worcester concert. “There’s something hard to describe that resonates when I’m there, walking, breathing. It’s unlike anywhere else I’ve been.”

Sonia caused a controversy in the Israeli folk music world when the editor of a folk newsletter criticized her for being openly gay, according to Larry Rosenfeld, a fan who has followed Sonia’s musical career over many years.

Rosenfeld is a resident of Moshav Shorashim in northern Israel, an active member of the Folkstuff Society and director of the Carmiel Folk Club. In a phone conversation from Israel, he says that Sonia left a lasting impression on some Israeli youths during her 1999 tour.

After performing one night for 200 adults on the moshav, Sonia added a free show for moshav teens in Rosenfeld’s living room.

“She won everyone’s hearts forever,” Rosenfeld said.

She also lent a hand with musical notation to a budding 16-year-old composer who impressed Sonia with one of her own compositions, for which the teen eventually won a finalist award in a national competition.

Rosenfeld, who has arranged all of Sonia’s Israel performances this year except the WorldPride events, is eagerly anticipating her arrival.

“People in the North could use this concert” as relief from the anxiety of war, he said.

“Sonia’s music appeals to a young audience and really gives them an example that people are still out there writing political songs and being active, and living out their principles,” says Kim Harris, who, with her husband Reggie Harris, shared the stage with Sonia in Worcester.

Sonia’s 2004 CD, “No Bomb is Smart,” was nominated for a Grammy. Recorded in Nashville, the CD boasts an impressive cast of musicians, including members of the Dixie Chicks.

In the cut “I am the Enemy,” a post-Sept. 11 commentary, Sonia uses the imagery of color, weaving in verses from “Hinei Mah Tov,” a well-known Hebrew folk song.

At the Worcester concert, Sonia poured out “Won’t Let Go,” a song of encouragement and love dedicated to her father.

After the concert, asked if she’s concerned that her peace-and-love lyrics might be out of sync with an Israel at war, she laughs and shakes her head.

“I just feel as if I’m walking with the real heroes, like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach or Martin Luther King or Gandhi,” she says. “As Jews, were supposed to leave this place better than we found it, right? We’ve got a lot of work do.”

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