I spread the word on streets of Europe with my harp

SHALEV BEN YAAKOV: Have harp, will travel

SHALEV BEN YAAKOV is known as Israel's busking roving ambassador. Born John William Wicks on Long Island, New York, to Irish-Catholic immigrants, he graduated in European History/Judaic Studies at the State University of Stony Brook. He converted to Judaism and emigrated to Israel where he studied Judaism in the academies associated with Rav Kook, but also took a peculiar interest in Breslav Chassidism. In 1991, he married a new immigrant from the former Soviet Union and moved to Hebron where they raised eight children.

In 1995, after the death of singer and rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, whose music had greatly contributed to his desire to convert, Shalev began to perform his songs and stories. In 2000, he miraculously escaped virtually unscathed, a barrage of bullets which riddled his car and this profound event caused him to want to share his immense joy - with the soldiers who were protecting him in Hebron to whom he performed for the next ten years.

During that period, inspired by Rabbi Carlebach's music, Shalev began to compose and sing his own music as well, eventually building a repertoire of many original compositions, some of which can be heard on the two discs he has released. Shalev lives today in Tekoa with his wife Yehudit, and regularly performs music all over Israel, and also raises his own goats and sheep

For the last 20 years or so, I've spent my life cheering up people in the streets. I'm a street musician.

I began on guitar, but three years ago, after a whole week of not sleeping because of thoroughly stirring dreams in which I was woken up as I strummed the harp, I bought one and began to perform in the streets on harp as well.

For 20 years I haven't set foot outside Israel. I love this land.

But I always dreamed of playing around the world as well. To bring the light of Israel everywhere. Finally, this dream too, has become reality.

Four months ago my soulmate and I began travelling, she learning and teaching drawing, painting and calligraphy, and me, playing the harp in hospitals, night-clubs, synagogues, and on the streets.

This took us to Tbilisi, Dilijan/Yerevan (Armenia), Moscow, St Petersburg, Minsk, and to Prague.

I went with my tzitzit hanging out and a large Na-Nach from Uman sticker pasted on my harp.

I never once, in these four months on the road, concealed my religion.

In these four months of performing before hundreds of thousands of people, and conversing, often very intimately, with hundreds of them; I never once encountered anyone in the former Soviet Union who didn't respond positively to my bold and unabashed reply to their query, "otkuda? (where are you from?)" - "Israel".

In St Petersburg, Russia, for example, I performed in children's hospitals.

The new public relations officer, Anya, was an incredibly dedicated, deep, and delightful personality.

She took a liking to me and also saw how much my music lifted the spirits of the patients and their relatives.

Unfortunately, hospitals in Russia are often quite dreary and cold.

But I decided nevertheless not to succumb to this seemingly impassable barrier.

Once, a mother, who sat smothering her physically handicapped son with warm and loving embraces and hugs, almost never letting go of him for a second, got up and danced with him for nearly an hour.

Another time, a Jewish man's two grandchildren got up on their feet and danced for nearly an hour.

He eventually asked for my guitar and played several songs himself.

Once, after finishing an event, I was surprised to see one of the patients crying.

I asked Anya why. She responded: "Shalev, Russia can be a very closed place.

"She doesn't quite know how to react to the light and joy you've brought here. It was overwhelming for her."

Anya, eventually, confided in me: "I'm a believer. I have faith in God. When I first began to work here quite recently, after leaving my law career, a young boy was brought here with a severe head injury.

"He was unconscious. The doctors concluded that he would die in several days. I couldn't bring myself to accept their verdict. I went to church and cried for hours over this boy.

"He's not only alive, he's more or less healthy. Although I'm Christian, my first husband was a Hebrew, like yourself.

"I know that your nation is closest to God. I have two children from him, and one of them, my 14-year-old daughter, is learning Hebrew and going to synagogue.

"Perhaps you can help her learn Hebrew."

Another time, on Nyevski, the main drag in St Petersburg, an Armenian couple sat beside me to listen to me sing and play harp.

Much to my surprise, he spoke to me in Hebrew. He began singing to me the well known Hebrew melody from the Psalms, Shabchi Yerushalayim.

He proclaimed, with tears in his eyes: "There's no place like Yerushalayim. You have no idea how much I miss Yerushalayim. I lived there for five years, in the old city. I miss her so, so much. So much."

In Prague, just across Karlov Most, and under the Hradny castle, a Czech woman approached us to hear me play the harp.

I played her a few songs, and saw that she wore a necklace with the Star of David.

She hardly spoke English, nor Russian, but announced to us in very broken English: "I believe in the Hebrew God."

From what I could understand, she was Czech, and hadn't converted.

She raised her hands high several times, proclaiming in great joy, although at the same time, paradoxically, somewhat restrained and subdued: "I love God, I love God."

Nearly everywhere I felt welcomed. I felt a basic goodness in people, most often a really genuine desire to be of help - often, even to the point of what may be considered an exaggeration.

For example, one night I was locked out of the building where my soulmate and I were staying.

I buzzed and buzzed the bell but she didn't wake up. After an hour or so (It was about 2am) two neighbours came along and tried for hours to force open the door which was locked by a very powerful magnet.

They didn't succeed. Then, one of them actually began to climb over the entrance on to a small roof and somehow made his way to the apartment windows - all in all a dangerous manoeuvre to knock on windows, to ask neighbours to open the entrance.

Nobody heard, they all slept, or nobody was at home.

They invited me for beer, and we returned, where they kept at it, trying to get me in.

Finally Liyah heard me and came to let me in, really, really late.

Apparently amazed by my cool, and calm reaction to being locked out for so long, and taking it all in stride, the three (another joined in) all applauded.

Another time, when I was somewhat lost in Moscow, a woman in her late fifties or early sixties, escorted me, out of her way, for some 45 minutes to my destination, close to midnight.

While playing my harp in the streets people would often go and buy me something to eat and drink and sit down with me.

The welcome in Armenia was especially warm. I felt like a king there.

I was filmed by a TV crew and appeared the following day on Armenian television, becoming a celebrity almost overnight.

The first night I played in St Petersburg, with guitar and harp, a woman sat down next to me.

She took out a hat and began collecting money for me as I was busking. She suggested we go to the centre of the city.

We boarded a bus and the conductor asked me to play music. I performed for the whole bus while the woman went from person to person, collecting money for me.

This was my welcome in St Petersburg.

I won't say that there weren't any negative events. There were a few, but by and large I felt people were open, encouraging, kind, and interested in what I had to say.

In Yerevan, Armenia, I went to play in a cancer ward. The department was, at first, somewhat surprised and baffled at my arrival with a huge harp, but within minutes they brought me all the children of the ward, and arranged a concert, then insisted I go from room to room to cheer up the adults as well.

In Moscow, once, the Metro ticket-seller suggested that I play the harp. I began, but before I knew it, all the clerks stood before me applauding.

In Tiblisi, Georgia, we stayed in a hippy house. An Iranian woman had discovered my autobiography in English, about my journey to Judaism, which I had apparently left on a table next to my bag.

She said that she had read a great deal of it and begged me to leave it there so that she could finish. I left it, without asking for payment, because I saw her soul was desperate for the book.

In Moscow, while I played in a public park, a woman in tears came running up to me. She said to me in Russian that her son had just died.

She took out 50 rubles and handed them to me, asking me to pray for his soul.

I could fill volumes relating all the acts of kindness and love I saw.

In Minsk, Belarus, the government is extremely oppressive. Groups of more than five are not allowed to assemble.

I was very hesitant to play there and was warned to be cautious.

A woman in the Central Synagogue of Minsk told me that her sister played the flute in the city and that there were places where it was permitted, including the area around the synagogue.

So I did. I played in a quiet area. I saw the population was very responsive to my music. Nearly everyone gave me money, but I think they feared stopping to sit and talk with me.

Perhaps they didn't want to endanger me. One young boy, ran over to give me money. Then 10 minutes later did it again. He gave me a big smile.

In Minsk, the first person in the street with whom I spoke, promptly responded: "Walk with me, I'm headed in your direction."

I told him I was from Israel. "Oh," he said, "we say in Belarus that more Israeli Prime Ministers have come from Belarus than Belarus Prime Ministers."

And he began to list them: Shimon Peres, Golda Meir, etc.

Then he added: "I've been to Israel twice, my wife is Jewish, and so are our two children. Also my grandfather.

"There is a lot of Jewish blood here in Belarus. Eight hundred thousand Jews lived here before the Second World War. One third, a quarter of the population.

I found the same thing in Moscow. I played in Mayakovskaya Square. A young woman asked to film me. After she finished, she added: "My parents are Jewish."

Minutes later, a young man who was collecting money for some cause said to me: "My father's Jewish."

One after another. Jews have been assimilating in these large cities for the past 100 years, so there is a considerable amount of Jewish blood in these places.

Not far from the Kremlin, a young man took a genuine interest in me and invited me to play at a party in a nearby restaurant.

It turned out to be a celebration-meal for two newlyweds. They paid fairly well.

But the more we travelled west, the less warmth I felt. Even in Prague, I felt a little as if I was in Berlin, where I experienced coldness. Maybe I'm wrong, but I felt a lot of genuine care and love in Moscow, and St Petersburg.

The problem seems more to come from repressive regimes, not the people themselves.

To end on a good note, within my first minutes in Germany, I met a schoolteacher with her students in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying.

Seeing my harp, she immediately asked me to play it. Soon her students came.

Seeing the sticker of "Na-Nach-Nachma-Nachman from Uman" on my harp and a picture of Ba'al Hapetek, the German schoolteacher asked me to explain to the class what it meant.

I spoke in English for an hour about Breslav, the Petek of Rabbi Nachman, and about God.

The teacher told me she had been to Israel and that she'd like to go again.

A young French girl sat next to me and listened with all her soul to every word I said, as translated into German by her teacher.

It seemed as if her life depended on my words. Like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, my mentor, would say: "You never know... you never know..."

People don't like to hear it, but it appears that even in Germany there may be hope.

Every step of the way, I went with a feeling of shlichut, of mission, that I was representing the Israeli nation.

Russian officers passed me in uniform, and I passed them with my harp - the harp was my uniform, with huge Hebrew letters on it.

(I intentionally didn't put it in a bag or covering in order that everyone should see it.)

We are no longer a helpless, scattered, unarmed, and impoverished nation living in shtetls in the Pale of Settlement, like we were less than 100 years ago.

Today we have an air force with which even Putin must contend. True, we still have a long way to go, but we've come a long way.

I represent a serious force in the world, a nation whose health services, hi-tech, agriculture, and military are among the best.

I bought in Moscow and in St Petersburg avocado and celery grown in Israel.

When I was interviewed on Armenian television, I was very conscious of every word I said, because I knew I was representing Israel.

All in all, it was something I had planned on doing for a long time.

I'm happy I've done it. And I'm certainly not the same person I was before I left.

I think that I'm much more aware of the mission my nation has as the People of the Covenant.

I'm also much more aware of my own personal talents and abilities - and how they can be used to fulfill my nation's mission. The world needs us desperately.

I was asked by the public relations officer at Mary Magdalena Children's Hospital in St Petersburg, after I left the city, if I know anybody like myself who can lift the spirits of the patients.

Sadly, I don't have any friends to take my place. It appears I'll have to do it again.

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