Like most people marking a milestone, Udi Bar-David wanted to do something special to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the organization he co-founded to promote peace, understanding and dialogue through the arts.
So the co-founder of Intercultural Journeys went for the best: He enlisted Mandy Patinkin to headline the celebration.
The concert, featuring the Grammy- and Emmy-winning star of song, stage and screens large and small — where he is currently receiving some of the best reviews of his career for his role on the Showtime series, Homeland — will take place at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia on March 17.
For as long as he can remember, Bar-David says, “I had this attraction to cross-cultural musical exchanges. I was intrigued by meeting artists from other cultures, religions, cultural groups, etc.” After an interchange he had with an African-American jazz musician at the turn of this century, Bar-David, who began his classical training as a cellist in Tel Aviv at age 7, realized that he wanted to delve deeper into the power of music as a way to build bridges between peoples.
Gathering a group of like-minded musicians from the Philadelphia area in 2000-2001, Bar-David organized trips to Neve Shalom, a village in Israel, and to visit with Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk/peace activist in the Dordogne region of France.
At Neve Shalom, Bar-David and his traveling companions discovered a community of Jews and Arabs living side by side. “All the kids were bilingual, and the groups of Arab and Jewish writers and poets we met with really planted the seeds for Intercultural Journeys,” he says.
The desire to create something concrete was intensified by the time the group spent with Thích Nhất Hạnh. “We spent a week with him, and he taught us about interconnectedness, how we are all connected no matter our background. When we returned to the U.S., we had a strong desire to bring people together through the arts.”
Although Intercultural Journeys didn’t officially incorporate until 2003, Bar-David says the group was functioning two years before that. “After 9/11, the urge and the need to formalize it became real, and we started taking steps,” he recalls.
Since then, Intercultural Journeys has presented thousands of events in the hopes of creating cross-cultural communication and understanding around the world. From cozy living room conversations in California to classroom outreach in Philadelphia schools to performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra (where he is a cellist) in China in June, Bar-David is determined to make every encounter a transformative one.
“We are using the arts to bring people together,” he emphasizes. “It’s how people can get closer to one another.”
Bar-David’s relationship with Hanna Khoury illustrates his point. Khoury is the director of the music program at Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that has as its mission the teaching of Arabic language, arts and culture to all who want to learn. He is also a world-class violinist who has performed with, among others, his cousin, the legendary oud player, Simon Shaheen, as well as with Shakira and Beyoncé.
Khoury, who moved to Philadelphia to be the legal guardian of his brother, who was attending the Curtis Institute of Music, met Bar-David in 2006 through his cousin. “Udi had performed with my cousin, Simon,” Khoury recalls. “Udi was looking for a musician,” so Shaheen put the two together. And their path was established almost immediately: “The first time we performed together, it was an event for peace,” Khoury says.
Today, Khoury sits on the board of Intercultural Journeys and the two perform together regularly. In fact, not only will Khoury be onstage during the March 17 event, but he was instrumental in securing Patinkin’s participation.
“Hanna has performed with Mandy Patinkin a number of times for the Arava Institute, an environmental institute near the Dead Sea that Patinkin is involved with,” Bar-David explains. “Hanna told him about Intercultural Journeys and the events we have done, and Mandy showed interest in getting together and maybe trying out some material in Hebrew and Arabic.”
Khoury says that Patinkin was hesitant at first. He had never sung in Arabic before and despite being a strongly identified Jew, had never sung in Hebrew in public.
To facilitate his rehearsal process, Patinkin had Khoury record every lyric, word by word, with accompanying explanations and definitions. Khoury still sounds amazed at how well the method worked. When the three got together at Patinkin’s place in New York recently to rehearse, “Patinkin came in and he had everything memorized, with authentic accents!”
While the concert will feature many of the Hebrew and Arabic songs that epitomize the cross-cultural thrust of Intercultural Journeys’ mission, Patinkin will also be performing some of his signature hits from musicals like Evita and Sunday in the Park with George, as well as from albums like Mamaloshen and Experiment, according to Bar-David.
Looking to the future, Bar-David says he will be using the concert, which is a fundraiser for the group as a springboard to grow Intercultural Journeys. “We are growing the organization in terms of both business model and structure to be able to expand our activities. There are just so many more opportunities now in the U.S. and abroad to present our events.”