“The Band’s Visit” has won a 2019 Grammy Award. It deserved it. The music, like the show, is hypnotizing, in its blurring of Arab and Middle Eastern Jewish modes.
But, as I have often reflected upon, it is not only a musical. It is a dream.
To review: “The Band’s Visit” is the multi-Tony Award-winning musical version of the Israeli film of the same name.
It is the story of an Egyptian police band. They are booked to sing in the Israeli city of Petach Tikvah (“with a p”).
Through a simple linguistic error, the band winds up in a small desert town — Beit Hatikva (“with a b”).
There, a café owner, Dina, invites them to stay the night, as an unresolved romantic tension between her and the captain of the band grows.
“The Band’s Visit” is total hiney ma-tov u-mah nayim. “How good it is for people to dwell together!” Pushed together by accident and circumstance, Israeli Jews and Egyptian Muslims dwell together for a single night.
Once upon a time (OK, a little more than 45 years ago), Israel and Egypt fought a war against each other.
“The Band’s Visit” is oblivious to that historical reality. In fact, no one seems to remember. Their individual cultures flow imperceptibly between them. In one memorable number, “Omar Sharif,” Dina remembers her childhood, watching Egyptian television and listening to Egyptian radio — with its stars, the singer Umm Kulthum and actor Omar Sharif.
It is an entrancing journey back into childhood. Here is the unspoken sadness: Israelis could tune into Egyptian television. Israelis were free to engage in Egyptian culture, even to the point of idealizing and romanticizing its iconic figures. Egyptians had no similar opportunities.
Why did I love “The Band’s Visit?”
First, “The Band’s Visit” presents us with a slice of Israeli-Jewish life that we don’t often see.
I am talking about the experience of the mizrachi Jews, the Jews of Middle Eastern origin. The residents of the fictional-and-all-too-real city of Beit Hatikva were those Jews. The music that we heard was their music — and it would have been the mode of music that the Egyptians and other Arabs would have known and understood. In truth, that was part of the cultural bridge between those two peoples.
This was not “Fiddler On The Roof.” This was not your usual excursion to eastern European Ashkenazic culture. This was an encounter with what is quickly becoming the “real” Israel.
Political point alert. Beit Hatikva is a down on its luck kind of place. It sits on the edge of poverty.
There is a reason for that. One of the most cogent arguments against the program of settlement expansion is that it diverts money from the development towns of the Galilee and the Negev (the home of Beit Hatikva).
As a result, many of those places languish. You don’t have to be a leftist to oppose the settlements. You might be a Zionist who believes in the reclamation and nurturing of those communities that are indisputably Israel.
Second, “The Band’s Visit” has a deep theology, albeit invisible.
Israeli Jews provide hachnasat orchim, hospitality, for Egyptian strangers — just as our common father Abraham did for sojourners in the same desert that now houses Beit Hatikva.
People are no longer their nationalities, no longer their political allegiances, no longer their historical hatreds.
They see themselves as merely people – with secrets, longings, and love. Those secrets — the intimate places within the soul — know no boundaries. They are simply, gloriously, forgivably human.
Perhaps this is why “The Band’s Visit” has claimed so many awards.
It is not just a show.
It is a messianic dream.