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Jewish Journal

Interfaith and intercultural festival to benefit Darfur

by Robert David Jaffee

March 1, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Basya Schechter of Pharoah's Daughter

Basya Schechter of Pharoah's Daughter

Craig Taubman hoped to draw maybe 5,000 people to last year's inaugural "Let My People Sing," a festival that featured basketball games, musical acts, stand-up comedy and a seder to benefit those living in Darfur. Much to his surprise, it attracted roughly 15,000 attendees and raised $150,000 for Darfur.

Taubman says that there are three differences between last year's festival and this year's "Let My People Sing," which runs March 7-11. "I don't know if there are really three, but I'll say there are three," the festival's creator added with deadpan humor.

The differences are: fewer events for the festival, which has been scaled back from eight days to five; more "interfaith, intercultural outreach," such as "FaithJam 07" on March 8 at the Japanese Cultural Center; and a festival-wide connection to Darfur, signaled by the sponsorship of Jewish World Watch, an organization founded to combat genocide.

"We have a very specific agenda," Taubman said, which is to provide Sudanese women with solar cookers so that they will not have to hike for miles in search of firewood, a journey fraught with peril and often leading to rape and murder.

The "goal is to use the entire event, not just a seder" to raise awareness and funds for Darfur, Jewish World Watch Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug said.

She points out that member synagogues will conduct readings and prayers tied to the genocide in the Sudan region. Last year, Temple Isaiah distributed unique haggadot updated to address the atrocities in Darfur. This year, Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine will provide a Passover kit of wristbands, potholders, kippot and other items linked thematically to Darfur.

Schwartz-Getzug heralds the March 10 "Voices of Hope" concert at Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which will feature such performers as Theodore Bikel, Jason Alexander, Pharaoh's Daughter and The Afro-Semitic Experience, as a "primary fundraising event" that is not limited to the Jewish community. Unlike many fundraisers, notorious for their deadening speeches, this one at Brandeis-Bardin Institute will emphasize music, "the universal language," appealing to those who might otherwise be suffering from "burn-out" over talk about world crises.

Basya Schechter of Pharaoh's Daughter, a group that melds her Chasidic background with psychedelic and world music, echoed that notion. She said that "music has the power to cross physical borders, and more importantly, emotional borders, the way that words alone cannot accomplish."

Schechter plans to sing two songs during "Voices of Hope": "Run," which advocates running away from constraint; and "Don't Walk in Front of Me," a song influenced by Albert Camus, which she says she "learned along with yeshiva kids all over the world." Despite her Jewish pedigree, she has eliminated the term Hashem from her rendition and added some new words "to express my own desire for love and equality."

"Faith Jam 07," which will take place on Thursday night, represents another effort to broaden the scope of "Let My People Sing" beyond Jews and Passover. After the success of last year's events, which included such diverse singers as Ani, a Malaysian Muslim, and Joshua Nelson, an African American who claims to hail from the ancient Jews of Senegal, Taubman said that Muslims and Christians have "invited me to their churches and houses of worship" this past year. For instance, Taubman, who plays acoustic guitar, sang and performed with the Christ Our Redeemer AME Gospel choir during Thanksgiving.

Making "an effort to reach out to 'the other,'" Taubman has secured the talents of Salman Ahmad, front man for Junoon, one of the top-selling Muslim bands in Asia.

Junoon will perform at "Faith Jam 07." Taubman calls Ahmad "one of the most generous and kind people in the world."

Ahmad, who has sold more than 25 million albums, says that his song, "'Ghoom Tana' is a metaphor for coexistence. It's a song I want to dedicate to the people of Darfur because politicians and leaders who spread fear, hate and violence can be defeated only if the people choose to live in harmony with each other."

To honor the heritage of the Japanese Cultural Center during "Faith Jam 07," Hermia Shegog Whitlock, conductor and founder of the Christ Our Redeemer AME Gospel Choir and wife of the Rev. Mark Whitlock, will have her singers learn some Japanese when they perform "You Are Good," a tune by Israel Houghton and New Breed.

"God doesn't come in a half-note or a quarter-note. He comes in God's note," the Rev. Whitlock said.

Hermia Shegog Whitlock notes that while her choir is predominantly African American there are also Caucasians, Latinos and Japanese in the group. Given this ethnic mix, it is not surprising that the Rev. Whitlock cites a gamut of figures as his heroes -- Hegel, Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the last of whom marched with and inspired King.

Taubman also has a gamut of influences. His Jewish fusion music mixes Middle Eastern and Eastern European idioms. He says that "Let My People Sing" is necessary because increasingly "faiths are becoming more and more isolated.... We're living in the best of times and the worst of times."

www.letmypeoplesing.com.

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