Last month, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, left, marked his 60th birthday in Israel in the company of a choir of British schoolchildren who performed for victims of terror in Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon.
This month, he is celebrating another 60th birthday – the State of Israel’s – in a way that is also music-related.
The chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks – to use his proper title – is launching a two-CD set that takes listeners through Israel’s millennia-old history, with 24 tracks of music by Israeli, American and British artists interspersed with narrative by the rabbi.
Three tracks were produced by award-winning British music producer Trevor Horn, who wrote, performed and produced Video Killed the Radio Star in 1979 and went on to work with several internationally known artists, including Cher, Paul McCartney and Seal.
The project is the chief rabbi’s gift to Israel on behalf of British Jewry a month in advance of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
His hope is that listeners will be “lifted by [Israel’s] story, because it’s an incredible story,” said the rabbi in a phone interview from his office in London. “Somehow a project, the State of Israel, which is so implausible, happened.
“I find it remarkable,” he said in a soft, compelling voice familiar to many in Britain through his frequent radio and television appearances, “that a mere three years after standing eyeball to eyeball with the Angel of Death at Auschwitz, the Jewish people got up and made its most powerful collective affirmation of life in 2,000 years of history.”
Of the initial 200,000 copies of the CD set, 30,000 are being distributed in Canada through selected synagogues in Montreal and Jewish schools in Toronto free of charge. Likewise, 30,000 will be distributed in South Africa; 20,000 in Australia; and 30,000 in Israel.
The double CD was funded by individual donors and the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA). Most of it can be downloaded at www.homeofhope.co.uk.
It is aimed at “all Jews, but not least young Jews,” said Rabbi Sacks, who has been chief rabbi since 1991 and was in Canada most recently in October, when he spoke at Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim.
The project, which was nine months in the making, resulted from the rabbi’s concern about negative media coverage of Israel over the past half-dozen years, he said.
“Obviously, I wanted to redress that – not as hasbarah, but as a spiritual act. I wanted to tell the story again in words and music in a way that tried to lift people’s sights and spirits.
“A lot of this music was written by secular people, but it is so spiritual – so religious, deep down – it’s extraordinary,” said the rabbi.
On the opening track of the first CD, Rabbi Sacks – who picked all the music as well as the cover artwork by Israeli artist Shraga Weil – says, “I’ve chosen some music that moves me. I hope some of it speaks to you.”
The track also features the voice of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, proclaiming the State of Israel, over an orchestral version of Hatikvah.
But in an attempt to reach out to younger generations, the selections – particularly on the second CD, which encompasses post-1948 history – lean more to Israeli pop than traditional or liturgical pieces, “a bit of a new departure” for the rabbi, whose personal tastes run to classical music.
Listening to modern Israeli pop music was an eye-opener for Rabbi Sacks, a former philosophy professor who was educated at Cambridge and Oxford universities.
“What I discovered was extraordinary,” he said. “There are some singers in Israel right now, and some music in Israel produced over the last few years, that have come out of much pain and much grief, that is so profound and so moving, I found myself astonished by it.”
Although he had considered producing a film instead of a CD, the rabbi’s recent involvement with two holiday-related CDs, also produced by his office, made him realize that the music CD “is a very powerful medium” because of “the one-to-one relationship between you and somebody who’s using a car stereo or an iPod.”
Rabbi Sacks said he has many favourite pieces on the CD set, including “an Im Eshkachech that will blow you away” and the Oscar-winning When You Believe from the Prince of Egypt, which he first heard as a consultant for the 1998 movie.
He said he tried to keep the narrative tracks “as short as possible.”