Marking Israel’s Birthday in Music

By Max Gross

Published May 02, 2003, issue of May 02, 2003.
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Five years ago, singer Noa marked Israeli Independence Day by appearing at a concert in Philadelphia’s CoreState Stadium. Performing with Tony Bennett and opera singer Kathleen Battle, and backed up by the Philadelphia Symphony, she stood before 20,000 cheering guests in tuxedoes and evening gowns. For Noa, it was a night to remember.

The optimism of that celebration of Israel’s 50th anniversary now seems like a distant memory. Noa — nee Achinoam Nini, a 33-year-old singer and musician who was born in Israel and grew up in New York — has done a great deal of touring in Europe and has seen firsthand the scorn Israel has garnered over the past five years. Two years ago, at a concert in London, a pair of Palestinian activists jumped on stage, seized the microphone from her and called for a boycott of Israel.

“I try to keep as positive an outlook as I can,” Noa told the Forward. To that end, Noa will mark Israel’s 55th birthday by putting on another show. On May 19, she will take the stage when the Spirit of Israel Concert gala comes to Washington’s MCI Center, including performances by Jerry Seinfeld, Tovah Feldshuh, Norah Jones, Ben Stein and — once again sharing a stage with Noa — Tony Bennett. President Bush has announced plans to attend and Prime Minister Sharon endorsed the event.

The concert kicks off Israel@55, a yearlong series of events intended to show Israel in all its multicolored splendor. A series of tours, lectures and exhibits around the country will focus on the cultural and scientific advances of the young state. “The purpose is to show people that Israel is not about stones and tanks,” said Jeanne Ellinport, a former liaison in the Clinton White House and current executive director of the Israel Forever Foundation, which is sponsoring Israel@55.

The Spirit of Israel Concert is being spun as deliberately nonpartisan. Feldshuh, who will attend dressed as Golda Meir and will perform a scene from her current off-Broadway play, “Golda’s Balcony,” has been outspoken in her criticism of the American invasion of Iraq. Stein, the comedian who will emcee the evening, is a former Nixon aide with decidedly more conservative opinions. But political disagreements will be put aside for the event. “America is my country,” Stein told reporters during a conference call, “but I love Israel, and I would do anything to strengthen the bonds.”

Noa has always been up-front about her own political views, which she incorporates into her gentle, folksy music. “I feel sorry for those who have lost their compassion,” reads a line in her song “Hawk and Sparrow,” which she will play on May 19.

Despite her yearning for peace, she said that she doesn’t always agree with the strains of peace activism she has witnessed on her tours of Europe. “Everybody [in Europe] is on a ’60s trip,” said Noa. “It’s become a fashionable thing to be pro-peace without thinking of the true ramifications. The only thing I am is pro-better-future-for-Iraqis-and-Palestinians.”

Noa said that believing in peace doesn’t mean being uncritical. “It’s like being close to someone,” she said of some of her criticisms of Israel. “I want to achieve peace. I want Israel to have peaceful relations with its neighbors. At the same time, I’m very critical of the way things have unfolded. Things could have been different. I continue making statements all the time that we should approach any dialogue more compassionately.” In her own work, she has collaborated with Palestinian and Arab musicians.

Noa told the Forward that participating in the May 19 concert would be an honor — but also something of a duty. “Maybe, as opposed to Jews who live in the United States, [I have an] obligation to support the Jewish state,” she said. “Israel is my own.”

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