Miri Ben-Ari, the Grammy-winning hip-hop classical, and gospel Israeli-American violinist from Bergen County, has spent her life putting together things that might seem antithetical to each other but are not. (See, for example, hip-hop, classical, and gospel music, even before you’ve added violin to that mixture.)
Last Sunday, Ms. Ben-Ari used the power of the music she makes and the music by which she’s surrounded herself, as well as the power of the often-overlooked but still potent strength of the bond between African Americans and Jews, to present her “Symphony of Brotherhood.”
After October 7, Ms. Ben-Ari “found myself in a new state of anxiety that I’ve never felt before in my life,” she said. She is impassioned when she talks about Israel, about her love for it, about what Hamas did in Israel, how Hamas pushed the war on Israel, and how the war seems to have unleashed antisemitism around the world.
She’d been working on music for the Super Bowl, she said, “and I had to keep doing it, because I gave them my promise, but I felt completely dysfunctional.”
Anxiety may be new to Ms. Ben-Ari, but its antidote is not.
She found “two young Israeli producers, who had just finished in the military after covid,” she said. “Omri Dehan and Guy Manor Lander. I signed them, and then Guy went to Gaza” as a reservist.
“I started worrying more and more about him in Gaza. And he said, ‘Miri, the only thing that is keeping my morale up is knowing that I can get back to music when I come home for the weekend. I am asking you not to stop making music, because I need it.’”
That reminded her of a basic truth of her life. “Music is healing,” she said. “When I make music, that’s the only thing I do in this crazy time when I have no bad thoughts. When I can feel some type of good agency.”
Her Sunday night performance at Temple Beth El in Jersey City commemorated Martin Luther King Day; it was hosted by the New Jersey-Israel Commission.
“We fight hate, racism, and antisemitism with the power of music in ‘Symphony of Brotherhood,’” she said. Although he could not be on stage that evening, “this project features my dear friend Minister Derek Starks, who is a renowned figure in the gospel world. He leads choirs in many concerts all over the world.
“The concert shows unity between communities, starting with who’s on stage. We’re Jews and Black Christians. We’re Israelis and a gospel choir.
“The sound is a combination of my sounds and their sounds. The violin is the most Jewish instrument on the planet. It’s the instrument of the Jewish ghetto. And I have been playing Black music my entire career — I was the first and only violinist to win a Grammy in hip-hop, and I’ve created a lot of music with Black artists. I’m continuing to do that with the gospel choir, combining the sound of the Holy Land with gospel and hip-hop. And it’s very interactive — the audience sings with us.
“It’s very entertaining, but it’s not only entertainment,” she said. “Its purpose is healing.”
She also dedicated a prayer for Agam Berger, a 19-year-old hostage of Hamas. Agam is one of the three teenage girls and among the 136 hostages Hamas still holds, although it is impossible to know how many of them still are alive. A photo of Agam that Hamas said is recent showed her with blood running down her face.
Agam is a violinist. Ms. Ben-Ari invited the teenager to play with her after she is released. “This is haunting me,” Ms. Ben-Ari said. “I keep thinking, where is she? What is she going through?
“We’re at a time when hateful trends are the new narrative. I hope to create a safer environment, not defined by social media trends, to influence the current young generation, and the future leaders of tomorrow, and to reshape the narrative surrounding Jewish identity in America. I hope to actively combat hate and promote unity through the transformative power of music.”
In 2020, Ms. Ben-Ari released a video of “Symphony of Brotherhood,” shot in noir-ish black-and-white, that puts together images of Dr. King, jazz musicians, and her, dressed in an outfit that would have been at home in the 1960s — and looked great then and now, as she played. It’s a moody, gripping, powerful paean to the relationship between Blacks and Jews. (It’s online and easy to find.)
On Sunday, state officials and other dignitaries showed up to honor that relationship. New Jersey’s lieutenant governor, Tahesha Way; Israel’s acting consul general in New York, Aviv Ezra, and state senators Angela McKnight (D-Dist. 31) and Robert Singer (R-Dist. 30) all were there.
“Now, after the concert, I’m taking this project to the public schools in New York City for Black History Month. This is very exciting.
“I’m doing it from my heart,” Ms. Ben-Ari said. “I’m fighting hate with the only weapon I have — my violin.”
Ms. Ben-Ari’s website is miribenari.com.