Poetry and Song at the 2016 Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival

Basya Schechter claimed during Q&A that stanza D was one of her favorite passages in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poetry collection / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

As Shavuot draws to a close, so does the 2016 Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival, ending tonight with an international Middle Eastern concert followed by discussions on art and peace in Israel.

Last Tuesday I attended a unique fusion event—the screening of a documentary followed by a musical performance and Q&A session. The documentary, Every Word Has Power, features a concert given by musician Basya Schechter, who set some of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Yiddish poetry to song. Film director David Vinik and producer Debra Gonsher Vinik also interviewed Heschel’s daughter and various other scholars.

Heschel’s poetry collection, The Ineffable Name of God, was only just recently translated and published, but he penned the pieces in the 1920s and ’30s, while he was still a doctoral candidate for philosophy at the University of Berlin. What I appreciated most about the poetry, and Schechter’s soulful interpretation, was moving past the image of Herschel as a monolith of social justice in his middle age. As a young man he expressed doubts and longings; the desire for faith and romantic love.

Schechter is the leader of the band Pharaoh’s Daughter, which blends Hassidic, Sephardic, Mizrahi and other Middle Eastern musical traditions together. (I first heard them play in the summer of 2003 at dusk in the hills of Southern California, which was aaaaawesome! :P) She performed a short set on her oud after the documentary screening, along with Tamer Pinarbasi on the Turkish quanun and Mat Tonti on strings. Tonti, a fan of Schechter’s of many years, reached out to her to play together this evening. Pretty cool!

I previously blogged about Pharaoh’s Daughter on JewishDC back in 2008. Check out my past coverage of the Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival under the “Annual Events” tab.

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