Music, Food And Erasing Borders


If music be the food of love,” Duke Orsino says in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” “play on.” For one man’s unrequited love, music was the elixir.

The healing powers of music — and food — in an age of growing political and ethnic divisions were on display in powerful ways this week. The tragic news of the suicide of CNN journalist Anthony Bourdain, and the joyous news Sunday of the multiple Tony-winning success of the musical “The Band’s Visit,” were reminders that some shared meals and some shared music can be more effective tools in building bridges among interfaith and interethnic groups, and in breaking mutual stereotypes, than formal dialogue discussions and academic conferences.

Bourdain, who explored cultures through their food on the Food Network and on the Travel Channel before moving to CNN, visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2013 as part of his “Parts Unknown” show, visiting Jews and Arabs in their homes, talking to them about what they eat. And about how they feel; he got a Jewish father, who had lost a daughter to a missile attack from Gaza, and the director of a children’s theater in a West Bank refugee camp, whose scripts extolled terrorists, to condemn the uselessness of hate.

While beginning the conversations with food, Bourdain, who revealed something of his own Jewish journey on the episode, got men of both sides of the political divide to reveal their shared humanity.

“The Band’s Visit,” based on a 2007 movie of the same name, tells the story of a group of Egyptian musicians, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, who mistakenly end up stranded in an Israeli desert town, get invited into Israelis’ homes and form unexpected friendships.

Through music — on the screen, on the stage, and in the audiences where people watch barriers being broken — political divisions seem irrelevant.

“Music,” said producer Orin Wolf, in his Tony acceptance speech for best musical Sunday night, “gives people hope and makes borders disappear.”

This is dramatized hauntingly and romantically in the show when Katrina Lenk, as the Sabra-tough-but-tender Israeli café owner Dina, sings of her childhood memories of the Egyptian movies and music she and her mother would watch and listen to in their dusty desert town. “Uum Kulthum and Omar Sharif came floating on the jasmine wind / … Honey in my ears / Spice in my mouth / Dark and thrilling / Strange and sweet / Cleopatra and the handsome thief / And they floated in on a jasmine wind.”

(Lenk won for best actress in a leading role, Tony Shalhoub for best actor and Ari’el Stachel for best featured actor; Itamar Moses won for best book and David Yazbek for best original score.)

The common message of Bourdain’s work and of “The Band’s Visit”: food and music can go where hatred fears to tread.

To Sheryl Olitzky, founder and executive director of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS), the bridge-building and stereotype-shattering efficacy of shared meals and shared music is no surprise.

SOSS, an independent, interfaith collaboration organization that has grown in eight years to more than 100 chapters in this country, centers many of its meetings around food, the Jewish and Muslim women eating and preparing meals together, and exchanging recipes, Olitzky said.

She encouraged out-of-town SOSS members to watch the movie, and members in the Greater New York area to attend a performance of the Broadway play.

“Music,” Olitzky said, “speaks louder than words. You can feel things through music that you can’t through words.”

Ditto for food. “When you break bread together … it creates a very relaxed and informal atmosphere.”

That’s the lesson of Syria Supper Club, an interfaith, food-sharing initiative that began at Bnai Keshet synagogue in Montclair, N.J.; and of New York City’s Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, which coordinates a series of interfaith suppers “as a springboard for stories.”

A recent study, Olitzky said, indicated that women who participated in SOSS events are much more likely to speak out against hate or to judge members of other ethnic groups as individuals, not as identical members of a collective.

“It changes attitudes,” she said.

Olitzky tells of a recent, week-long civil rights visit that 50 SOSS members took in the South. During one program, an African-American woman taught the Muslim and Jewish visitors the words to “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” a Negro spiritual that became an anthem of the civil rights movement.

When, during their visit, the women symbolically crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., scene of a bloody police attack on civil rights marchers in 1965, they automatically started singing the song’s verses: “Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’ / Gonna build a brand new world.”

“That has become our song,” Olitzky said.

Shakespeare would understand.