Folksinger, storyteller and all-around funny guy Rabbi David Shneyer gave a coffeehouse performance Monday evening at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. Fingerpicking his Guild guitar, accompanying his tunes on harmonica too, donning different hats — literally a cowboy hat or yarmulke or Greek sailor’s cap as the song demanded — the rabbi demonstrated for Islanders just how he has drawn a following within and well beyond the Jewish community.
The rabbi sang klezmer music, folk tunes that owe their history to Eastern Europe. He sang songs with lyrics in Yiddish and Hebrew — tunes well-known to the many in the audience, so there was no shortage of singers. He complimented the audience on their singing. And, so those not familiar with the language weren’t left out, Rabbi Shneyer often translated the lyrics to English as he sang.
“Is there a violin player in the audience?” he would ask several times through the evening. Then he would pause and reflect on past gatherings when musicians jammed together with him and filled rooms with melody. “The next time I come here, if you play an instrument, bring it,” he said.
The two-and-a-half-hour evening of song and good spirits covered a lot of ground, as it was a fundraiser for a serious nonprofit organization called Rabbis for Human Rights.
Rabbi Shneyer spoke of Jews in a changing, struggling world, and about the role of Rabbis for Human Rights. He spoke of his own trips to Israel and efforts to plant trees as a symbol of hope. And he told the gathering that music can play a role in drawing connections between people.
During intermission Rabbi Brian Walt spoke further about Rabbis for Human Rights, about the 20th anniversary of the nonprofit group and how it is juxtaposed with Israel’s 60th anniversary.
Rabbi Walt said: “One of the reasons I work for Rabbis for Human Rights is that I believe the rabbis formed the [organization] ... because they saw their own country doing things that they felt as rabbis they needed to say: ‘No, that is not a good legitimate expression of our religion.’”
He said that Palestinians and Jews must not lose sight of respecting the lives of others.
“The core commitment of our tradition is that every human being is created in an image of God,” he said. And from that starting point there is an opportunity. “Yes we have lots of differences of opinion about what is appropriate behavior, but we are going to be serious that our religious values say that even our enemies have human rights.”
Rabbi Walt said that was mandate to oppose torture, slavery and racism.
When Rabbi Shneyer returned to the microphones, he led the group in more songs. The audience joined in the chorus of Dona Dona, an ever-popular Jewish tune written by Sholom Secunda and sung during World War II by persecuted Jews.
To much amusement, Rabbi Shneyer put on a cowboy hat and talked about Jewish cowboy songs. There was hilarity among the crowd as he spoke of Kinky Friedman, the Texas Jewish songster, writer and politician.
The evening ended with a tune called Shir LaShalom, a song of peace. The program didn’t close like a door, it finished with a lengthy exchange of greetings between the musician and those in the audience. The coffeehouse ended as it began, as a social celebrating the fellowship of those who want a more kindly future.