Honoring Daniel Pearl with music

“Open your mind, and you will see the garden of the world.” Fifth- through eighth-grade students from New Horizon School, a Muslim day school in Pasadena, sang these words loudly and in unison from the stage of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, while a boy in the audience, whose head was covered in an oversized kippah, played air-guitar to the rhythm of the song.

Sixth-grade students from Saint Mark’s School, an Episcopalian school in Pasadena, recited the choral praise song “Seek Ye First” in near-perfect pitch. “Ask it and it shall be given unto you  …  seek and you shall find,” the students sang, accompanied by piano, while Ruth Pearl, mother of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, held up her iPhone from the synagogue’s front row, filming the performance.

Kindergarteners through third-graders at Weizmann Day School, a Jewish school in Pasadena, threw their hands up and down, to the right and to the left, as they sang the Hebrew words for “north,” “south,” “east” and “west” from the folksy song “Ufaratz’ta.”

Finally, students from all three schools came together. Standing in several rows on the steps of the synagogue’s bimah, they sang the words, “From a distance, God is watching us” — approximately 150 Jewish, Muslim and Christian students singing Bette Midler’s hit “From a Distance” in unison.

Held on Oct. 12, the concert paid tribute to the memory of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter and musician who was killed in 2002 by terrorists in Pakistan. Part of the Daniel Pearl World Music Days, Friday’s performance brought together Jewish, Muslim and Christian students in Pasadena, and was one of approximately 1,300 concerts honoring Pearl in 53 countries worldwide. The tributes will continue through the first week of November. Now in its 11th year, Daniel Pearl World Music Days strives to show how music can be a conduit for cross-cultural understanding, peace and tolerance. 

This interfaith concert drew nearly 300 attendees, including parents and grandparents of the performers, teachers, community leaders and Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl. The father read a poem he’d written, “Shooting Stars,” saying that, like music, shooting stars are “short-lived and leave no trace,” except in the hearts of those paying attention.

Judea Pearl pointed to the significance of having students of different faiths come together, and by doing so, how they were modeling themselves after his son, who made it his life’s work to connect with people of different faiths. “It’s very important [for the students] to think they have something in common, something culturally in common, and they have an image of a person who upheld these ideas, and they can sort of connect these ideas of mutual respect with the faith of a person,” said Pearl, a UCLA professor, president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation — a nonprofit founded by Pearl’s family and friends — and a Jewish Journal columnist. 

The performance featured all 73 of Weizmann’s students; 27 New Horizon students and 49 Saint Mark’s students. The New Horizon students took the stage first, performing two songs, including “Sing, Children of the World,” by Canadian singer-songwriter Dawud Wharnsby, and “Water Love,” written by New Horizon music teacher Daniel Gomes and Heba Alfi, New Horizon’s librarian.

The Saint Mark’s students followed with a string ensemble of cellists and violinists performing “Sahara,” by composer Richard Meyer, and a chorus of singers performing “Seek Ye First.” Afterward, the Weizmann students performed “Amen,” by Chamutal Ben-Ze’ev and Moshe Datz,  and “Ufaratz’ta,” by Noam Katz. 

Weizmann song leader and performing arts director Wendy Bat-Sarah led the Weizmann group. “Louder!” Bat-Sarah said, strumming her acoustic guitar as she stood in front of the students.

At the close of the concert, everybody, the audience included, sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” with students surrounding the audience — Weizmann students to the left; New Horizon to the right and Saint Mark’s students in the rear. 

Daniel Pearl World Music Days launched in October 2002, during the month of Pearl’s birthday, which is Oct. 10. Pearl would have turned 49 this year. Designed as an awareness-building program, the theme is “Harmony for Humanity.” 

The concert was attended by Mayor Bill Bogaard of Pasadena and Mayor Robert Harbicht of Arcadia, Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center; Cantors Ruth Berman Harris, Paul Buch and Richard Schwartz; Jason Moss, executive director of The Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valley; and Narda Zacchino, executive director of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

The concert marked the ninth consecutive year the three Pasadena faith-based schools have united in remembrance of Pearl. According to Judea Pearl, it is the only Daniel Pearl World Music Days concert in the Los Angeles area that features children from different religious groups coming together. 

To prepare for the show, the students work with their respective school’s music instructors, and each school rehearses separately. Before the concert, the students learn about Pearl in age-appropriate ways — who he was, what he stood for and why he was murdered by terrorists. 

Interaction between the students is limited for the concert, but it has led to outgrowth programs, including a pen-pal program between New Horizon and Weizmann — with students from the schools also sharing learning activities and field trips, said Weizmann Day School head Lisa Feldman. The students often end up at the same high school and through this have gotten a head start on becoming friends. 

“This one concert — this annual concert— is a ripple effect all through the lives of some of these kids as they grow into adulthood and form their own opinions and own friendships,” Feldman said.

 The students may be too young to truly grasp what happened to Daniel Pearl, said Ron Shatzmiller, whose son, Jonatan, is a first-grade student at Weizmann. 

“I think at the age he’s at,” said Shatzmiller, “he can just get out of it that we have Muslim friends and we have Christian friends.”

A Playwright Returns to His Roots

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry, 61, is a Southern Jew who defines himelf as someone who grew up in a community of genteel Southern Jews who wished they were Episcopalian.

It is a wry, almost mocking description that perhaps befits the author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won the Tony and the Pulitzer. That play was based on the friendship between Uhry’s Jewish grandmother and her black chauffeur, two outsiders in the deep South. Uhry won the Oscar for the 1989 film version of the play, starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman and in the process became one of the more prominent Jewish playwrights on Broadway. Ironically, Uhry had been known earlier as someone who wrote the book for Broadway musicals.

Now comes “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” which won the Tony last year and opens Oct. 11 at the Canon Theatre. The piece focuses on two cousins who are preparing for the German-Jewish ball, Ballyhoo, as “Gone With the Wind” is premiering in Atlanta and Hitler is invading Poland.

The characters have names like Lala and Boo and are proud to live in the same neighborhood as members of the Junior League. They are German Jews who condescend to the newer émigrés, the Jews from Eastern Europe. A lavish Christmas tree decorates the family living room.

The Southerners are shaken, however, by the arrival of Joe, a Russian-Polish Jew from Brooklyn who is shocked by the Jewish Yuletide and by the fact that no one can pronounce a single word of Yiddish. “

“Are you people really Jewish?” he finally asks one of the Southern cousins, who admits she feels “A big hole where the Judaism is supposed to be.” The sentiment expresses a longing that Uhry feels. “I was a deprived child,” says the playwright, who has intense, soulful eyes and a slim mustache. “I was deprived of my Jewish heritage.”

Uhry, who now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said his forbears arrived in Georgia and Louisiana in the early 19th century. A great-uncle was a blockade runner during the Civil War, “like Rhett Butler,” Uhry says.

The Uhrys regarded themselves as “Southerners first,” but “we were uncomfortable with our Jewish faces,” the playwright says. “The attitude about being Jewish was that you were stuck with it; that it was something you had to bear.”