Freedom Songs/Passover Concert

Annette John-Hall, Inquirer Staff Writer, 5/16/2005

Music that transcends race, religion
Black folksingers and a rabbi celebrate a deep bond on their CD.

Black people and white people, Christians, Jews, and even a few Muslims were dancing the hora at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown last week as songs of liberation rang throughout the sanctuary.

Venomar lefanav shira chadasha! Halleluya! went one song, which also translated the Hebrew words: "Sing before God a new song! Hallelujah!"

The free concert last Wednesday was a small version of the nirvana Kim and Reggie Harris and Rabbi Jonathan Kligler envision: a world in which all people come together in peace and harmony.

But then again, this was Mount Airy, a community noted for co-ops, coalitions and peace signs. Small wonder the Harrises and the rabbi chose FUMCOG, a haven for social activism, to celebrate their new CD, Let My People Go! A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom.

Produced for West Chester's Appleseed Recordings, the disc comprises 18 tracks, including African American spirituals, traditional Jewish Passover songs, and protest music. It draws its inspiration from the common story of enslavement and freedom shared by blacks and Jews.

Jews commemorate their freedom this week during Passover by holding seders, where they retell the ancient story of how they became a people. African Africans, through the civil rights movement, connected with the Jewish story, told in the Old Testament book of Exodus, in which Moses leads the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery into the promised land.

Longtime activists contribute to the record, which features spoken introductions to several songs. Folk pioneer Pete Seeger explains the genesis of the civil rights standard "We Shall Overcome," and Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Mount Airy recounts his experience helping Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Party in their struggle for inclusion at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Appleseed founder Jim Musselman, who dedicates his label to "sowing the seeds of justice through music," says Let My People Go! is important from a historical standpoint. "African Americans and Jews had such a strong connection in the 1960s, we thought it would be a good idea to celebrate."

If not for the connection between the Harrises and Kligler, the CD might not have been made.

Their friendship goes back to the mid-'80s, when Reggie Harris and Kligler met at a basketball clinic in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

The two discovered they both lived in Mount Airy. Kligler, who was studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, lived on McCallum Street. Harris, a singer and songwriter who had already released his first CD with his wife, Kim, Music and the Underground Railroad (1986), was a few blocks away on Emlen Street.

They reconnected when all three, by coincidence, moved to Upstate New York a few years later. Kligler became the rabbi at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in Woodstock. The Harrises, seeking a quieter place to live and create, moved to Middleburgh, a rural community two hours north of there. They all still live in that area.

The idea for Let My People Go! was hatched over the years at Kligler's seder table, where the Harrises, along with about 25 other guests, have long gathered annually.

"I just love it," says Kim, 48, a Temple University alumna who will graduate next month from Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan with a master's degree in divinity, "because we do my three favorite things - eat, pray and sing. We sing and talk long, long into the the night."

"We came up with 13 or 14 songs around the seder table that we could show musically the cultural connection," adds Reggie, 52, a Temple graduate who grew up in Olney and met Kim at a youth camp in Horsham in 1974. "Sometimes choosing the songs was a difficult conversation to have ... but the CD became what it was because we felt safe enough to trust each other."

Protest evergreens such as "Let My People Go," and "I Won't Turn Back" were naturals. But when Kligler suggested including "The New Colossus," based on Emma Lazarus' famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, Kim pointed out that the Ellis Island immigrant experience was not that of African Americans brought over in slave ships.

The result? A medley titled "The New Colossus/Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor/Motherless Child."

Kligler, 49, whose authoritative bass is a soothing complement to the Harrises' soulful harmonies, says "what Kim and Reggie and I want to do with our presence together is remind blacks and Jews that it's possible to pursue justice together. It's complicated, because the big problem in this country is racism, as far as I'm concerned. Anti-Semitism is real, but it is not a giant problem for Jews in the United States."

The rabbi, who lives with his wife, Zoe B. Zak, and two daughters, says the Harrises "have been a real blessing in my life because they allow me to cross boundaries. ... I love my people, but you have to press through your comfort zone."

At the church, the trio's 90-minute performance was highlighted by a song with words by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and music by Jewish cantor Linda Hirschhorn. "I Have a Million Nightingales" is hauntingly beautiful in its melody, achingly profound in its lyrical simplicity:

"I have a million nightingales, from the branches of my heart, singing freedom, freedom. ..."


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: