Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Grammy-award-winning Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari have sounded messages of peace in different melodies. Martin Luther King Jr. projected his "I Have a Dream" and other voiced messages from the pulpit and in the streets. Gandhi had a silent song, protesting injustice through non-violence. Mother Theresa spread peace through her years of community service, while giving us footnotes of wisdom in her poetic words. Ben-Ari plays her violin across dividing lines of sworn enemies, in the process, bridging our collective humanity.
At the age of 12, the Israeli-born and raised Ben-Ari asked her grandmother about the family tree. "My usually strong grandma began to cry," Ben-Ari recalls. "For the first time in decades, she told the family story." After the Holocaust, Ben-Ari explains, survivors attempted to shut out their traumatic past by shutting up about it. "In order to keep their sanity, they had to keep their silence," she says.
The story was a heavy burden for a child's heart to absorb, and it stayed with Ben-Ari for years -- ultimately motivating her to found Gedenk, a non-profit organization teaching non-Jewish youth about the Holocaust. Gedenk is Yiddish for "remember." It is important to remember our roots and allow them to carry us throughout our lives, Ben-Ari believes, because doing so uplifts humanity, from generation to generation. "We need to remember, so that we don't commit the same mistakes of the past," she says.
Ben-Ari focuses on teaching non-Jewish youth not only because Jewish youth "already know" but also because "in the U.S., you don't study the Holocaust, just like in Israel, we don't study Martin Luther King Jr, with more than a page or so in a textbook." Struggle is struggle, Ben-Ari emphasizes, and racism is racism, no matter what form it takes. It was, in fact, through watching Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, while at a museum shortly after coming to America, that Ben-Ari was inspired to create not only Gedenk but also her Billboard-chart-topping hit, "Symphony of Brotherhood" -- the first instrumental piece to make the Top Twenty on Billboard's Hot Singles chart.
A child prodigy in violin, Ben-Ari has long had a drive to expand beyond customary limits. In her early 20s, she stepped outside the bounds of her small Israeli town and her strict classical music training, embarking into the unfamiliar territory of American jazz, hip hop, and New York City. In doing so, Ben-Ari was drawn to the African-American community, which in turn embraced her music, heart, and soul and has since become her family away from home.
While Ben-Ari's sound of bridge-building primarily comes through her violin, she has meaningful words to share as well -- reflecting that peace is both an inner state of being and a political expression. "Peace occurs when the things that divide us don't matter," she says, listing language, sex, age, and race as examples. "There is a void where everything is possible and where there is communication between people. Then you can cross any bridge." Inner peace, she continues, is similar: "You as a person disappear. There is no ego, just a void. In that calm void, everything can emerge." We have to find inner peace, Ben-Ari advises, in order to be genuine.
Ben-Ari's authenticity and soulfulness have opened doors to celebrities and heads of states the world over, including those who currently do not have diplomatic relationships with Israel. "Music is able to communicate an experience that unifies," Ben-Ari says. "Words become unimportant." In 2011, Ben-Ari was hand-picked by First Lady Michelle Obama as one of the few "remarkable women" honored during the White House's celebration of Women's History Month, and in 2012, Ben-Ari performed for President Barack Obama. More recently, Ben-Ari was appointed as a "Goodwill Ambassador of Music" at the United Nations Association in Brazil, and she was selected as the brand ambassador for Harmon Kardon's Beautiful Sound message.
Still, Ben-Ari describes herself as "a simple girl from Israel, blessed to be part of something bigger than I am," and she humbly gives her family credit for setting the foundation that enabled her to take flight. "My mom helped me explore imagination," Ben-Ari recalls. "Imagination gives me the vision to take me anywhere -- like across an ocean, reinventing myself every step along the way."
Meanwhile, Ben-Ari stays peaceful despite her hectic schedule, by regularly practicing yoga and meditation. Even through these practices, she sees an opportunity for building bridges: "The conflict in the Middle East saddens me deeply," she says. "I wish that yoga and meditation were mandatory for everyone, because these practices are transformational - fostering a state of inner peace."
Living is a blessing that should not be taken for granted, Ben-Ari concludes, "and we should do everything we can to be happy while we are alive."
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