Finding Common Ground Through Song

The great Pete Seeger once said,

When strangers meet and find they like the same song, then there is one more connection made for the future world network. And when eventually we have a world of peace and justice, the songs and those who sing them will be some of the millions of reasons why.

A few days ago, I bicycled over to the Guitar Center at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn to pick up some new acoustic guitar strings. After carefully considering the merits of coated versus non-coated strings I decided to forego the $16-a-pack coated strings and settle for an $18 3-pack of plain-ol’ strings. As is my custom, I took a few minutes after making my purchase to wander around the store and check out the stock of guitars. Strolling past the rows and rows of electric guitars, I eventually made my way into the acoustic guitar room. As I closed the door behind me, I heard some unusual music coming from another smaller room that housed the high-end classical guitars. Following my ears, I peered through the glass door and, to my surprise, found two young Chasidic men dressed in traditional black and white garb singing and playing a Hebrew song together. Only in Brooklyn! I thought to myself. I immediately opened the door, pulled out my phone, and asked them if I could take a video. “Definitely,” they replied.

When they had finished the song, I put my phone away and stepped into the inner room to invite a conversation. “Do you know any Carlebach?” the larger Chasid asked me, referring to the music of Shlomo Carlebach, perhaps the most famous composer of Jewish music in the last 100 years.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Let’s sing a Carlebach song,” he suggested. “Which ones do you know?”

“I know many… How about “Hinei Kel Yeshuati, the less common version?”

“This one?” he offered:

“I was thinking of the other one,” I said.

“Ah, this one,” he said, as he proceeded to play and sing:

The younger Chasid quickly joined in with him, adding his powerful voice and stunning harmonies. Feeling quite included in the moment, I sang along with both of them.

We played the Carlebach tune for a minute or two and then I told the older Chasid that I thought the former version was the more common one. He replied that he considered the latter (the one we had just sung) to be better known. I suggested that perhaps in Chasidic circles the latter version was more common and he agreed that this was a likely explanation. He then offered me the guitar and suggested we play another song.

I took the guitar from him, tuned it up and began to play a song I had learned from my Chabad-raised (though no longer Orthodox) roommate a few months ago:

Both of the young men quickly joined in with me. If it hadn’t been completely apparent to me before, I could now determine with certainty that these two weren’t just fooling around. Their voices were powerful and soulful, breathing life and harmony into the Hebrew words of faith we sang together.

After we finished the song, the older one, who told me his name was Yoely, told me that he played gigs with his band, Tikkun Chatzos, every night and that the younger one, Velvy, was an up-and-coming wedding singer who would become hugely popular in the coming years. Based on the voice I experienced in that tiny room at Guitar Center, I couldn’t disagree with Yoely’s prediction.

We played another song together (which I had also learned from roommate), and I felt blessed to have an opportunity to hear these incredible young men sing this beautiful, powerful song. Here’s Avraham Fried’s recording of it:

After we finished singing the song, we talked a bit more about music and life and Yoely hinted that, though he dressed in Chassidic clothing, he was not such a rank-and-file member of the community. We all expressed our shared delight at having had the opportunity to meet and sing with each other, exchanged contact information, and then went on our ways.

What an incredible opportunity to connect, I reflected to myself as I biked home from the mall. By simply possessing a shared knowledge of a few Jewish songs, we were able to connect in this spontaneous, miraculous, holy way.

Folklorists have, for centuries, written about the connective potential of stories, songs, jokes, and proverbs. They have analyzed the ways that cultural vocabulary denotes borders between groups, defining who is in and who is out; and the various functions of folklore to alleviate societal tensions, express ethos, and educate younger generations. What they have struggled to fully capture in their scholarly analyses, however, is the warm, familial feeling of discovering that you can share a powerful, unifying moment with a stranger very different than yourself by finding a song to sing together.

It is my hope and prayer for the world that we can find more opportunities to discover our commonalities and that we can sing more songs together. We might have to dig deep and we might miss a few times, but when we can find that song, when we can share that moment of divine bliss, we will know that there is hope for the world!

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