The great drummer Art Blakey once said, “Music washes away the dust of everyday life,” and ever since the darkness of October 7th, this statement has, for me, never rang more true. As a Jew, I have never felt more “other” than I do now, and as I pray for the day when everyone’s humanity and mutual desire to be happy and loved is what brings us most together, never in my life have I been so excited for those first few notes on the stage, which has truly become a treasured refuge away from a troubled world.
It’s in times like these that I’m drawn to the piano, feeling deeply what Leonard Bernstein wrote: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” I often see firsthand the magical capacity music has to bring polarized people together, and it’s times like this that I’m grateful for the existence of music, the arts, and my role as a musician. I’m reminded of what philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said: “Without music, life would be a mistake,” which I’ve always interpreted this as “Music is proof that life is not a mistake.” These days, I appreciate that reminder.
In my work at Neranenah, I often discuss the question “What Is Jewish Music?,” and while many think Jewish Music is music in a minor key, to me, the “Jewish move” is music that starts in a minor key and ends in a major key (think Gershwin’s “Summertime,” for example); it goes from sad to happy or, as some say, “from oy to joy.” There’s an unfathomable amount of sadness in Jewish history and music, but there’s always hope alongside it too.
To me, the beautiful melody of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah” – which actually translates to “The Hope” – is a great example of this. It captures the intricate dance of darkness and hope, and resonates deeply with many, especially in times of strife. “Hatikvah” predates the state of Israel and was sung in the darkest corners of concentration camps, yet its message of hope remains unwavering.
Hanukkah is the holiday of light, and while I don’t have answers, solutions or news to offer, music is my light and I want to encourage you to find yours and lean more into it. We need more light these days!
Joe Alterman is the executive director of Neranenah Concert and Culture Series, formerly known as the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival.