Over an hour into his set at Palo Alto’s Oshman Jewish Community Center, David Broza paid a compliment to the international crew that joined him on stage. The Israeli guitarist was flanked by a Syrian percussionist and Ali Paris, a Palestinian qanun player.
“We are at the eye of the hurricane here,” Broza said while spinning his right hand slowly in the air. “The world spins, but it spins around us.”
For a bit of time Thursday, his audience allowed itself to agree with him.
But they had to know it was not true.
The JCC received a bomb threat Feb. 26, and in January a vandal drew swastikas throughout downtown Palo Alto. In a hurricane, the eye can move unpredictably.
Zach Bodner, the JCC’s CEO, introduced Broza to an audience of more than 100 people that seemed to be mostly Israeli and intimately familiar with both Broza and with enjoying life under the shadow of violence. Bodner, a Los Altos resident, urged the audience to relinquish their anger.
“Say no to divisiveness and hate, and yes to coming together,” he said.
Broza’s visit may have been planned long in advance, but he was a great symbol of the stance against hate. The 61-year-old singer/songwriter was born in Haifa. He was a boy when Jews of Middle Eastern descent marched through the streets, protesting against what they saw as the Eurocentrism of their fellow Jews.
Broza spent his teenage years in Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s Spain – a literal fascist state. He learned to love Spanish music and Spanish wine. Both were important catalysts in a musical career that led him to collaborate with such luminaries as Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, as well as Ali Paris who joined him in Palo Alto equipped with a 72-string qanun, a trapezoidal instrument that looks a bit like the inside of a piano. The young Palestinian played it masterfully last week, plucking at strings with both hands to create a sound that at times was an ethereal backdrop to Broza’s flamenco-influenced guitar and at times was a soprano stealing the spotlight for itself.
Paris attended Berklee College of Music – only after he spent his final year of high school conspiring with the famous Boston school to cajole the Israeli government into permitting him to travel from Ramallah to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to apply for a student visa. Paris and Broza referred to each other as friends, but it was clear that a cultural border separated them during the performance. This may seem shocking when it’s clear they grew up in cities 28 miles apart – or less than the distance between Los Altos and San Francisco International Airport.
Broza began the concert with a set of his classic songs, interspersed with a running monologue on the stories behind them. The audience laughed at his jokes, sang along in Hebrew and applauded his masterful guitar work. For me, it was the music I half-remembered from summer camps, performed in the style I remembered from the seedy Istanbul bars I frequented in my 20s – bars that would pay any kid with an acoustic guitar and a patchy beard to do what was, I now know, a David Broza impersonation to draw in dreamers willing to pay too much for bad beer.
It was no surprise the audience loved him. What was incredible was how much they fell for Paris. Hiding behind his qanun and a fedora, he belted out Arabic classics or makam riffs in a way that sometimes complemented and sometimes stunned Broza’s guitar. If Paris were invited as a favor, or as a sort of sop to peace-and-love talk, his talent stood up and demanded attention. As well as applause.
After the show, the coordinators distributed #IStandWithTheJCC stickers. The idea of standing with the JCC would have seemed absurd to me a decade ago. Stand for what? Clean workout rooms and programs my parents would be half-interested in? But the time for the Jewish community to pay only lip service and charity to the Jewish Community Centers has clearly passed.
A decade ago, the idea of seeing Broza – whose songs graced my Jewish upbringing – dance a dabke with a Palestinian kid to a round of applause would have been just as absurd.
The dabke, a sort of rhythmic line dance Palestinians share with many Arab communities, is one of those untranslatable and un-co-optable signifiers of Arabness.
For a 61-year-old Israeli to join arms with the 26-year-old Ali Paris and dabke at a JCC is simply joyful. For them to do it less than a week after a bomb threat and in a spirit of unity – a dabke against hate – is louder than any music.