Tiny Book Club: My new newsletter

I’ve started a newsletter on Substack, called Tiny Book Club.

Every month, I pick a good essay or article, invite in a special guest for a dialogue, and then host a discussion with all of the subscribers. It’s a book club for readings much much shorter than a book.

We kicked off in August with John Ahern’s essay “Contrapuntal Order” from First Things. The special guest is Micah Hendler, the founder of the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, and my conversation with him drops tomorrow.

You can sign up here to receive our full conversation tomorrow, but here’s a preview for now:

Micah: The piece that instantly came to my mind upon finishing the article is a mashup I arranged for the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an Israeli-Palestinian music and dialogue project which I founded and artistically direct. The piece is a mashup of two different songs from different musical traditions in different languages that share similar themes—birds, singing, and freedom.  

One song is by Marcel Khalife, “Asfour Tal Min Al-Shubbak,” an iconic protest song in Arabic that tells the story of a bird who escapes from a cage and flies to the house next door, coming in through the window and asking for shelter. The chorus itself is a dialogue between the bird and “Nunu,” the young child who ultimately brings the bird back to health, freedom, and song. This song was suggested to me by one of my singers, Sofia, who thought it would be a good fit for the Jerusalem Youth Chorus.  She was right.  

As I was learning the song, another song came to mind—a round written by Linda Hirschhorn, a Jewish composer from the Bay Area, who set a translation of some of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry to music absolutely brilliantly: “I have a million nightingales on the branches of my heart, singing freedom.” The thematic resonance was stunning, and the intersections of identities involved in the different origins of the songs to arrive at the same point just made things more fascinating. So I began to see whether these songs could actually work together, musically, and how they could comment on, amplify, and enrich one another in the process. The result is the Jerusalem Youth Chorus arrangement of which I am most proud.  

There’s lots I could say to guide you through the arrangement—different musical elements, textual elements, etc.—but for now, I’ll just say, take a listen!  And enjoy the gorgeous ‘oud accompaniment by my Arabic music teacher in Damascus, who literally recorded that oud track in one take in between bombing raids near his home, where he still lives, in Damascus.  Talk about birds, song, and freedom.

Leah: Thank you so much for sharing that song (and pointing me to your chorus’s spotify album, which I’ve been listening to). I’m glad you unpacked both songs for me a little, so I wouldn’t lose the resonances. 

There’s something very fruitfully unsettling about finding an image you love being admired in a similar way by your enemy. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis talks about friendship as a love that’s ignited by discovering a shared love. When he contrasts eros and philia, he says that lovers of the former type face inward, looking at each other. Friends look outward, at their shared object. So there must be a little grain of friendship sprouting, even amid enmity when we discover a shared love.

We have more to say, including on songs from Sondheim to Moana, and you can read the whole thing tomorrow if you sign up here.