Boston Gay Men’s Chorus a big hit in Israel
Members of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC) were received like rock stars when they performed at Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall in Jerusalem on June 22. The concert was the official kick-off to a new initiative by the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance ( JOH), the city’s center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, to provide cultural activities for the LGBT community.
“We’ve been so busy in trying to meet the basic needs of LGBT people in Jerusalem, but we haven’t been able to bring people together under cultural events,” said John Canning, JOH’s director of development. “The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus [is] coming at a perfect time to kick off this initiative to bring LGBT culture to Jerusalem. We see it as the next phase of the struggle.”
As Jerusalem’s only LGBT community center, JOH serves a variety of diverse constituent needs, from programs for LGBT youth and Orthodox Jewish gay men, to running the city’s first LGBT health clinic, and organizing the annual Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance— which remains more of a protest event rather than the corporatesponsored LGBT Pride celebrations common in the U.S. “Having the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus here is a visibility thing,” said one concert attendee as she stood outside Golden Hall prior to the performance. “I mean, it’s good for Jerusalem Open House; it’s good to know there’s a gay presence in Jerusalem … because it’s not always easy here.”
The event was part of BGMC’s Middle East Tour during which it staged five concerts over 10 days from June 18-29, becoming the first gay choral group to perform in the region. In between performances in Ein Gedi, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv in Israel, and in Istanbul, Turkey, the Chorus met with local Jewish, Muslim, and Palestinian groups. Any proceeds generated from performances were donated to local LGBT organizations.
The full house at Golden Hall was wildly receptive to BGMC’s repertoire of show tunes from musicals like “Wicked” and “How to Succeed in Business” as well as recent pop hits by Madonna and Imagine Dragons. The Chorus also debuted “Peace,” a song commissioned especially for the tour written by Joshua Shank with lyrics written by BGMC members who provided memories to Shank of when they felt most at peace. By the end of the show, the crowd was clapping and on its feet, dancing in the aisles.
“Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is exactly what we set out to do,” said BGMC Musical Director Reuben Reynolds III. “By sharing stories of our lives through music, particularly in places such as Jerusalem, where it’s relatively unusual to see artistic expressions of the LGBT experience—we are planting seeds of change, not only in our audience but in ourselves.”
Indeed, BGMC members, particularly those who are Jewish, were deeply moved by the experience of the tour. Tenor Jay Baer, who was raised in what he calls a “relatively Orthodox” family, recalled how difficult it was to come out. “Being gay is an abomination if you’re Orthodox,” he said. “So you have a certain amount of … feeling ostracized and feeling angry [while growing up].”
Baer said that his father, who had a difficult time when Baer came out, “would have been thrilled” knowing that Baer had performed in Israel. “It would have been incredibly important to him,” Baer said, adding that as he travelled throughout the country, he was thinking of his father.
The BGMC Middle East tour began with a performance at Avni Auditorium at the Ein Gedi kibbutz on June 20. About 220 people live at the kibbutz, which is located in the Judaean Desert near the Dead Sea, not far from Masada National Park.
“It wasn’t what I expected at all. I just loved every minute of it,” said one resident of the kibbutz after the show. “What struck me the most was that they were having so much fun onstage and I loved that. If they’re having fun, we’re all having fun.”
After Ein Gedi and Jerusalem, BGMC traveled to the cosmopolitan seaside city of Tel Aviv where it performed twice; first an informal show at the Gay and Lesbian Center consisting of a few songs, and then a full concert at the Suzanne Dellal Center as part of the city’s annual celebration of the arts called the White Nights festival. The second concert drew 3,000 spectators— far outstripping the 50 seats that had been set up for the show. Concertgoers filled the courtyard and stood through the entire 90-minute show, clapping and dancing along to Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free,” and listening attentively to “Peace.”
“The performance in Tel Aviv was incredible,” said composer Shank. “Outdoor concerts can sometimes seem more informal and therefore become a bit noisier, but I swear you could have heard a pin drop during ‘Peace.’ The audience was so incredibly focused on what was being performed for them.”
It was a fitting end to the Israel portion of the tour, which served as a homecoming for BGMC member and baritone Michael Appell, whose husband is a native of Israel. “The first time I came to Israel as a Jew, I felt I could just be who I am. For the first time in my life I was not a stranger—I was in the majority, and what an amazing feeling that was,” Appell said. “And then the first time I went to Provincetown as a gay man, I was like, ‘Wow—I’m in the majority for the first time.’ Coming back here as a Jewish gay man with the Gay Men’s Chorus, it’s doubly impressive, and doubly energizing. I feel like I’m at home twice over.”
Kilian Melloy is a member of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.