It was the concert we all needed. A musical event to reaffirm our solidarity as a people and mark that moment in song. Iconic American vocalist Shulem Lemmer has gained widespread attention in the Chasidic community and beyond, but tickets for his performance at the Bishnat 2021 event held last week were in demand and could have sold three times over because of how we are all feeling and have been feeling since 7 October.
And with a new and rising wave of antisemitism, UK Jewry has never felt more vulnerable, so coming together was appreciated and with ‘Support for Israel’ as the theme of the night, the audience rose enthusiastically to the occasion.
The event was initiated by philanthropist Hilton Nathanson as the latest project of Bishnat, a charity he established last year in memory of his father Brian. Bishnat is the first word of parshat Yitro, the portion they both read for their barmitzvahs. It also became their nickname for each other.
With every seat occupied, by people of all affiliations, Holocaust survivors and even parents of soldiers in the IDF, the sense of unity and pride was immediate. Bishnat2021 sprang into action the moment war broke out and decided to host a concert that “related to the situation in Israel”.
Shulem Lemmer was a natural fit and to add to the power of the message, he was joined on stage by renowned chazans Avromi Freilich and Alby Chait. I’d risk saying that the sound had never been so sweet at St John’s Wood Synagogue.
I was accompanied by my mum – a longstanding Lemmer fan – and like us all she is saddened by what is happening in the world, so it was nice to see her smile.
I was there for what my generation describes as ‘the feels’, and by that I mean the emotional moments, and there were plenty of them.
We waved our phone flashlights when instructed, and some girls in front of me instinctively wrapped their arms around each other while singing along softly to the Friday Night medley. There was no hesitation when it came to dancing as we all got up irrespective of age and moved to the rousing tunes.
Many of the songs performed were familiar to me and others, among them Sound of Silence sung by the versatile Shulem. Sharm El Sheikh was new to me, but struck a chord literally because it was penned by Ran Eliran to entertain the troops in the Sinai Desert at the start of the Six Day War. According to chazan Avromi, “the melody is often used here in London shuls to accompany Adon Olam”.
Tears sprung to my eyes at Shulem’s piercing tribute to the October 7 victims, Av Harachamim, and there were more when his cover of the Les Miserables anthem Bring Them Home was accompanied by a slideshow of the hostages in Gaza. Beautiful and devastating; others around me were similarly moved.
The overwhelming feeling was one of pride and continuance. To not cower in the face of hatred. As Avromi put it in his introduction of Vehi SheAmda, which is often sung on Seder night: “In every generation they have tried to get rid of us but God has saved us every time.”
Songbird Shulem echoed this sentiment, saying: “Even though it’s scary out there, we have to have hope. Together. Song by song. Note by note. Smile by smile. It’s ok to cry but we have to live / laugh. And celebrate who we are.”
He then swept straight into Gesher Tsar Meod with the memorable lyrics: “The whole world is a narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid at all.”
The searing pain was still there of course. We were addressed by Adi, a survivor of the Kibbutz Be’eri massacre, who said that she stood before us “as a witness to atrocities and barbarism that you did not watch on TV or online”. She then vividly described her fear at being “dragged around the streets by the terrorists who used me as a human shield for an hour and a half until the IDF managed to neutralise them and save me”.
We also heard from Alby about a boy called Ariel who lost his entire family and is about to be bar mitzvahed. As a gift, chief Rabb Mirvis’ siddur is being sent to him and we, the London community, were urged to write individual messages of love, hope and solidarity within it. The queue to do this was so long I almost missed my lift home. But everyone waited, as much for themselves as for Ariel.
Nathanson summed it up: “Although we feel the pain, suffering, heartache and trauma, all the pain that we’ve suffered to be Jewish is to come together. I think that’s the closest I can imagine to touching the face of God. It is the most special thing and I’ll take all the pain and heartache to share and feel that, because that’s what it means to be Jewish.”
Where there is loss there is life. Am Yisrael Chai. Our nation lives. It’s as simple as that and all it took to remind us was a concert.
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