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Israeli music strikes chord in U.S.

Israel singer-songwriter Din Din Aviv performs at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage on March 19, 2008. (Uriel Heilman)

Israel singer-songwriter Din Din Aviv performs at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage on March 19, 2008. (Uriel Heilman)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Singing in unintelligible gibberish as her hands strike the darbuka drum with frantic intensity, the short, pretty brunette at center stage holds the audience transfixed as she reaches the song’s crescendo.

When she sounds her final note, the audience rises for a standing ovation.

Though it is her New York debut concert, Israeli singer-songwriter Din Din Aviv is no stranger here. The performance hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage is packed with Israeli fans of Aviv who live in New York and American Jews clutching her CD.

After the show, they jabber in a mix of Israeli-accented English and American-accented Hebrew while standing in line to pose for pictures with Aviv.

It’s the kind of scene that brings a smile to the face of David Borowich, the founder of the American-Israeli group that organized the concert, Dor Chadash.

The point of staging Israeli musical performances like these, he says, is to bring Israelis and American Jews in New York closer together – and closer to Israel.

“Music is a natural bridge,” Borowich says. “People are looking for ways to connect to Israel. If you can’t bring them to Israel, then bring pieces of Israel to them.”

That’s the idea behind his group’s sponsorship of a growing number of Israeli cultural events around New York, including Wednesday night’s scheduled gala concert at Radio City Music Hall for Israel’s 60th Independence Day. More than 6,000 tickets have been sold for the event, and VIP seats are selling for $360.

The concert will feature Israeli world music star Idan Raichel; the French-Israeli singing sensation from the MacBook TV ad, Yael Naim; and Israeli singers David Broza and Rami Kleinstein. American musicians Paul Shaffer, John Zorn and the American-Jewish Chasidic reggae phenom Matisyahu also will perform.

Natalie Portman, the Israeli-born Hollywood actress, will emcee the event, which will include speeches and a memorial service for Israel’s fallen soldiers.

Whether out of hunger for a connection to Israel or mere interest in the music, increasing numbers of Jews in America – both Americans and Israelis – are turning out for Israeli music performances.

“I see on a regular basis Israeli artists come and break records here,” says Moishe Rosenfeld, one of the producers behind the Radio City concert and a booking agent for Israeli artists in the United States.

For Israel, cultural events like concerts are a way to showcase a “softer” side of the Jewish state beyond the political, religious and ideological conflicts many American Jews – and Israelis – find alienating. It’s also a gateway that brings unaffiliated Israelis and American Jews into greater engagement with Israel, each other and Jewish life.

“There’s a reason that people are doing this and supporting this kind of music,” says Rosenfeld, the president of Golden Land Concerts and Connections. “There’s a really active synergy between their lives and Israel. In this day and age, we’re much more able to live with the two cultures simultaneously.”

It’s not just music. In March, the 92nd Street Y’s Harkness Dance Festival featured several Israeli dance shows. At the Israeli film festival in New York over the winter, queues stretched around the block as freezing moviegoers lined up for sold-out screenings. Even Israeli authors such as the enigmatic Etgar Keret are filling the seats at readings in New York.

“These types of events appeal to people who might otherwise not be drawn to other Jewish community events,” Borowich says. “In a non-threatening, apolitical way, it’s a great way to connect to Israel. There is a hunger to connect to Israel, and the challenge is to satisfy that and give people a meaningful way to connect.”

The universalism of music, which transcends language barriers and culture gaps, makes Israeli musical performances particularly effective at tapping into that connection. This may be one reason Israeli music is gaining a growing audience in the United States.

Two years ago the Idan Raichel Project, whose fusion of Ethiopian-, Moroccan- and even Arab-Israeli music catapulted band leader Raichel into stardom in the world music scene, even played the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Raichel says his music draws on the rich and diverse cultural heritage of Israelis, from Caribbean salsa music to Ethiopian drumbeats to oriental Yemenite religious tunes.

“It’s the music of the streets of Israel,” Raichel tells JTA in an interview in Tel Aviv a month after his Harlem concert. “We have a small melting pot onstage. What I’m doing is Israeli music, even if for you it may be world music.”

Aviv, who played in New York, Florida and Tulsa, Okla., on her recent U.S. tour, began her career with the Idan Raichel Project. She has released one CD since striking out on her own, and has another slated for the fall.

“I think Israeli music is still in the process of revelation because it’s a young country that is so diverse and colorful, and we are still asking each other what tribe we’re from,” she tells JTA. “It’s still hard to identify the one characteristic that makes music Israeli. Israeli music is very diverse and rich, perhaps because of this ingathering of the Diasporas.”

Veteran Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, whose dispatches in The New Republic and elsewhere provide a steady stream about depressing political news from Israel, gushes when it comes to Israeli music.

“There’s so much vitality. There’s so much creativity,” Halevi says. “The music is fantastic.”

More than anything else, Rosenfeld says, people in America are turning out to hear Israeli music because it’s good.

“Israel has developed a sophisticated and beautiful musical style and synthesis with world culture that is just beautiful,” he says. “And the artists themselves put on great performances.”

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