The Shinonome Choir Visits Louisville

A choir made up of Japanese Christian Protestants singing Hebrew and Yiddish songs: Sounds like the beginning of a joke. But it’s not. It’s real, it’s devout, it’s disarming and naively lovely. And on Thursday, November 3, thanks to the efforts of Cantor David Lipp, the Shinonome Choir, also known as Makhelat Hashachar, made Louisville one of six stops in its 10-day 2016 tour of the United States. The 25-person choir (fourteen kimono-clad women and eleven tuxedoed men) enchanted a full house at Congregation Adath Jeshurun with songs sung in Japanese, Hebrew and Yiddish.

Cantor Lipp introduced the concert and noted the importance of non-verbal communication in Japanese culture. Bowing, for instance, is a sign of gratitude. It is also, he said, a sign of apology. But on this night, there was nothing for which to apologize. The choir, which is made up of volunteers from across one hundred Protestant congregations in Japan, was disciplined, diligent and dedicated. Their beautiful voices were a testament to the power of music as a basis for cross-cultural understanding.

The choir is part of an organization called Japan Christian Friends of Israel that was founded in 1946 by the reverend Takeji Otsuki. They are Christians who view the Jewish people as their true friends and they do everything they can to support us as well as Israel. This support is central to their mission.

In 1966, during his first visit to Israel, Rev. Otsuki made his way to the Western Wall. So moved was Rev. Otsuki by the experience that he wrote a poem of devotion to Jerusalem. The poem depicts Jerusalem first as a widow and then as princess.

I found it somewhat similar in tone to the Song of Songs found in our Bible. It was put to music and presented to us, accompanied by a cello solo, entitled “Elegy: The Song of the Wailing Wall.” It was heartrending to both the audience and the choir, with several members weeping during its rendition.

The program opened with a section called “With Prayers for Peace,” two songs sung in Hebrew and a medley of Israeli folk songs familiar to many in the audience. This was followed by “Japanese Melodies,” five songs, mostly a capella, that included energetic movement and clapping. After the “Elegy,” we were treated to traditional Jewish songs, songs of prayer – with Cantor Sharon Hordes and Cantor Lipp as well as the Community Choir – and modern Israeli songs. The evening ended with to encores, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and Hatikva, the national anthem of Israel and a prayer for Israel.

Felice and I drove three of the singers back to their hotel and, as they left us, one said softly, “We pray for you.” It was clear that she meant it.

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