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Ray Walker, inspirational new immigrant to Jerusalem
by Judy Lash Balint
November 12, 2006


By Judy Lash Balint

One thing is certain about life in Israel�there are countless fascinating people and uplifting events that have the ability to restore the spirit.

One might think it would be hard to counteract the fearful reality of Kassams that still rain down on Sderot and now Ashkelon, fired by Arabs using residential buildings full of women and children in Beit Hanoun as launching pads; the overarching threat of Iran's burgeoning nuclear capability; Haredim who torch public property and stone police to protest the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem while the Israeli Foreign Ministry promotes Gay Israel as part of its campaign to break the negative stereotypes about Israel held by many liberal Americans and Europeans.

But a couple of visits this week with my friend Ray Walker, 87, as well as a few recent musical interludes, provided some blessed inspiration and relief.

Ray, whom I met when I interviewed her as she stepped off the Nefesh B'Nefesh plane at Ben Gurion airport two years ago, ended up in the hospital this week. It wasn't a planned event�she had called me one morning to ask for recommendations for a 3-4 day spa vacation. That night, she called again from the cardiac unit of Bikur Cholim Hospital to joke that she hadn't even needed to book anything. She'd got her wish to spend a couple of days away from home.

The next morning, my son and I went to visit her and arrived just in time to greet her as she returned from the first of two angioplasty procedures. Ray was in fine spirits and engaged us in a lively conversation about a book she was reading. Instead of focusing on her own discomfort, she praised the medical personnel who were treating her and asked for an update of the news.

Each day I stopped by to see her accompanied by different friends of hers, Ray was increasingly getting back to her old self. By the third day of her stay, despite her limited Hebrew, Ray had befriended many of the other patients in the unit, and recounted to us the interesting details of their life stories. On Friday, she jauntily escorted us to the door of the hospital and bade us a warm "Shabbat shalom." This morning, Ray is on her way for a few days R & R at a convalescent home just outside Jerusalem where she's looking forward to resuming writing her poetry and journal. "I have so much new material," she marveled.

Bikur Cholim Hospital is located just a few hundred yards away from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim, scene of the worst of the anti-Gay Parade riots last week. As garbage cans burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the air; overturned cars jammed the main intersection and Haredi youth hurled stones at police, a musical event featuring a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox chazan and two secular Israeli pop icons reflected a different reality.

The concert, "Piyut, Rock and Ethnic," was part of the annual Festival of the Oud. The oud is an 11-stringed lute that occupies a place in Middle-Eastern music very similar to that of the piano in Western music: it's a required introduction for all music students and the universal instrument for teaching music theory. An essential part of nearly any Middle-eastern ensemble, the oud is also an exceptionally expressive solo instrument.

It's harder to describe the piyut. Essentially a lyrical composition intended to embellish an obligatory prayer, the piyut is Hebrew liturgical poetry.

Prof. Haviva Pedaya, the musical director of last week's concert describes it this way: "The piyut is a textual creation, poetry that is meant to be sung out loud, it holds the possibility to contain within it all of the dimensions of conversation directed towards God or about Him. Therefore, the piyut is also a prayer that expresses the array of emotions towards God: praise glory joy sadness lamentation and crying out, longing and yearning."

Avigdor Shinan elaborates: "The piyut decorates the prayers, the life cycle and the yearly cycle, every place where the sigh of the heart overpowers the mind. When words do not suffice and the melody is called for; and where that which is fixed yields its place to that which is renewed."

The piyuttim rendered by Yehuda Ovadia Fetaya together with his Yona Ensemble, were in fact beautiful, uplifting, soulful and entertaining.

Fetaya appears on stage in a grey suit, white shirt and black velvet kippa. With his beard and wire-rimmed glasses, the 30-something chazan at a Jerusalem synagogue is not exactly star material. But the minute he lifts the microphone and his rich tenor begins to voice the ancient words and compelling Sephardic melodies of Jews who were expressing the innermost feelings of their souls, it's easy to see how he's become one of the most popular of the paytanim and why piyuttim have become the latest revival trend in Israeli music.

The audience that packed the Jerusalem Theater on the night before the divisive Gay Parade was a fascinating m�lange of contemporary Jerusalem. Older, traditional Sephardic couples mingled with younger baal teshuva types in their large, colorful, crocheted kipot and Indian-style clothing. Hip, secular Jerusalemites in their later 30s and 40s with shaved heads and smartly dressed female partners clapped enthusiastically in time to the music.

The talented Yona Ensemble comprised of two amazingly energetic and creative percussionists; a fabulous nai wind instrument player; two outstanding oud and yelitambour string instrumentalists and another back-up vocalist were a pleasure to watch as well as to listen to. They had an easy rapport and pleasant way of allowing each other to shine in various numbers. No ego grand-standing here.

Interspersed throughout the two and a half hour concert were explanations of the pieces from the knowledgeable Prof. Pedaya, scion of a dynasty of respected Torah and Kabbalah scholars, with origins in Iraq.

The popularity of the piyut genre has drawn in several of Israel's leading popular singers, and the appearance on stage of Meir Banai and Barry Sacharof together with Yehuda Fataya was fascinating and encouraging. Fataya, Banai and Sacharof all seemed equally at home as they sang the ancient texts together. Banai and Sacharof have both embraced the piyut as part of their musical heritage and the rock versions of some 16th century Hebrew poetry were a stunning affirmation of the vibrancy and continuity of Israeli culture.

A few days later, in a completely different atmosphere, a large crowd gathered for another musical event that was uplifting in its own way. To commemorate the 12th Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the roving troubadour whose tunes are now used in hundreds of shuls worldwide, the Carlebach Foundation sponsored its annual memorial concert at Binyanei Hauma. While the musicians and attendees here were a less diverse lot than at the Jerusalem Theater, the enthusiasm and love for music based on authentic Jewish text was the same.

No question that the inspirational events and people in Jerusalem help us deal with the often less than inspirational daily reality.