Omer Friedlander — Jewish Renaissance


Our series of ‘Urgent Voices’ continues with New York-based Israeli author Omer Friedlander, who reflects on the current crisis

The most familiar sound during wartime in Israel is the blaring of sirens warning of incoming rockets. When I moved to New York City, I heard ambulance sirens and they made me think of Israel. Strange how such a frightening sound can feel nostalgic. Sirens remind me of home.

My friend Tom, an Israeli pianist, tells me that playing music makes him forget, for a moment, the war and the dead. One night he went to play at a bar in Brooklyn. For an hour or so, he thought only about the music. It was his salvation, his temporary escape. Then someone turned on the news.

My grandmother suffers from a rare form of tinnitus. She hears entire choirs in her head, songs she swears she has never heard before. These days it is Soviet marches and German requiems. The oppressive songs in her head are getting louder and louder. On the phone with her, she begins complaining about the muzak being played at the lobby of the old folks home in Jerusalem where she lives. The steady beat of the military march in her head is interrupted by the schmaltz of elevator music. She forgets the intrusive music in her head and listens instead to the dreadful music that everyone can hear, and she is relieved.

My twin brother, Elam, recently replaced his upright bass. His new bass looks like an ancient pirate ship. The wood is dark and the instrument is over 100 years old. The sound is deep and sonorous, but there is a slight ringing sound, some small internal problem in the bowels of the giant. He went to see a specialist, who builds and fixes upright basses, a man who lives in a cabin in Upstate New York, three hours by train and another taxi ride deep into the woods. Inside, there are half-constructed instruments everywhere. Row upon row of the curling snail-shells of their necks. Gleaming lacquered wooden bodies.

By the time my brother returns to the city, it is almost nighttime. Wheeling his double bass down the street, he passes the posters of those kidnapped on 7 October. The images are taped to lampposts, construction site walls and the sides of buildings, some are torn and ripped, others defaced with graffiti. At home, he thinks of their faces as he tunes the great instrument.

My mother was contacted by a friend whose father was murdered by Hamas on 7 October. He lived in the village of Kfar Aza. My mother’s friend wanted to play the song ‘Nueva’ by Shlomo Gronich at her father’s funeral and she was looking for a singer. She asked my mother – a musicologist – for a recommendation. My mother reached out to another friend, who contacted Gronich directly. The 74-year-old musician went to the funeral of a stranger and played ‘Nueva’ for the mourners.

My friend Tamir, a well-known pop singer in Israel, performs in hotels for the survivors of the massacres in the south of Israel. He tells me about the children dancing, the piles of clothes donated and collected by volunteers from around the country. A man comes up to Tamir at the end of the show and tells him: “This is the first time I can breathe in weeks.”

Between trips to the neighbourhood bomb shelter, my father is reading Walter Benjamin’s autobiographical work, Berlin Childhood Around 1900. A passage sticks in his mind: “Like a mollusk in its shell, I had my abode in the 19th century, which now lies hollow before me like an empty shell. I hold it to my ear. What do I hear?” My father tells me that it is the sound of the past that is heard like an echo in the empty shell. It is a lonely sound, surrounded by space and silence. The massacres of 7 October have a particular horrific resonance for Jews, they evoke traumatic historical memories, centuries of persecution. Hold the shell to your ear now, listen.

By Omer Friedlander

The Man who Sold Air in the Holy Land, Omer Friedlander’s debut short story collection, is out now. He grew up in Israel and now lives in New York. His grandfather is the Pulitzer-winning historian Saul Friedlander. Read a conversation between them in the Autumn 2022 issue of JR.

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