The February 15 sold out performance by Israeli singer, songwriter and activist Achinoam Nini Noa at Temple-Emanuel’s Skirball Center presented by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation was a double-header feast — a bravura concert by Noa accompanied by guitarist Gil Dor followed by a post-concert dialogue with Forward editor Jane Eisner .
Seasoning her vocal pyrotechnic performance—during which she accompanied herself on drums—Noa disclosed: “I was born in Israel to a family of Yemenite immigrants, came to another promised land — America — lived in the Bronx, made aliyah to Israel at 16, went into the army, married the”[guy” [of her dreams] had three kids. Still married she also noted her debt to “a strong Yemenite grandmother.”
Among her “amazing” landmarks was “being invited to the Vatican twenty years ago with Dor — the first Jews ever — to perform for Pope John Paul II [Karol Wojtyla]—whose first love had been a Jewish woman and who also helped a woman escapee from a concentration camp….We performed there eight times — for three Popes… later for Pope Benedict and most recently Pope Francis.”
Post concert — Eisner, chic in a black dress, faced Noa sporting a luminescent white outfit — led off with: “I feel like your body and soul, your voice and heart were all pouring out in front of us. Thank you. It’s clear why you choose some songs in some languages — especially ‘Shalom/Salaam.’ What prompts you as a songwriter and performer to choose to sing some songs in English and some in Hebrew. What parts of your soul are coming through here?
NOA: Having grown up in this country, my English is still better than my Hebrew…my original songwriting is in English…Not every beautiful poem needs music. I look for those poems that are asking ‘please write music’ [to me] so if I feel needed — I write.”
EISNER: Could you elaborate more on how does your music connect to your politics and your politics to your music?
NOA: I don’t write political songs. I don’t even write peace songs. I’ve written only one…the rest is very subliminal. I let people figure these things out for themselves. If you want to write things clearly, you would write in a newspaper, a blog, on Facebook…. The hardest thing to write is a good ‘Peace” song. Maybe John Lennon did it once — we’re still singing [“Give Peace a Chance”]. My songwriting is a journey into mysteries of the soul. When I was younger it was my own. As I grew, it was other peoples’ souls… I sing the songs I love, that move me…I am not interested in being an artist pleasing people…. I love it when you are happy…art and entertainment can be one and the same…you’re praying in the Temple of the God of Music…I don’t call it a political activity. It’s my involvement in humanity, human rights are important to me…social issues are important to me…artists have this soaring quality to make things fly.”
EISNER: Yes, because of your outspokenness you come up against ugly words…from other Jews. How do you maintain that sense of soaring and keeping your focus?
NOA: Some of the people who say harsh words are also Jews-some are not. The good guys are never paid attention to. People have strong emotions about what is going on [in Israel]…there is so much misinformation…I think the reason — all these harsh words are spoken — is because their identity is at stake.
EISNER: [citing a 2013 Pews study that noted that 94% of American Jews are proud of being Jews.]…Yes we are thought to be the most Hebrew illiterate Jews in society ever… How do you create this bond over language?
NOA: I don’t think all the Jews have to speak Hebrew fluently. There is no such thing as the Jewish people without the essence of the Hebrew language…We have our bible, our tefillot. It was an ancient forgotten language and was revived…became this modern incredible thing…and now it’s alive and let’s help it live.
EISNER: What’s next for you?
NOA: I’m going home tomorrow, making music, and keep fighting for what I believe in….I will not be deterred, be frightened by anyone.”