Reporter's notebookIsraeli academics are 'suffering' and 'feeling very isolated'

In Israel on a solidarity tour, Yale academic premieres October 7 art song cycle

Psychiatrist Dr. David Sasso’s ‘Zakhor: A Requiem for October 7,’ has a world debut performance in Tel Aviv as the final event in a Yale faculty trip in support of Israeli academics

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

David Sasso, second from right, and musicians at the premiere of “Zakhor: A Requiem for October 7,” at the ANU Museum in Tel Aviv, on March 21, 2024. (Yoav Shapiro/courtesy)
David Sasso, second from right, and musicians at the premiere of “Zakhor: A Requiem for October 7,” at the ANU Museum in Tel Aviv, on March 21, 2024. (Yoav Shapiro/courtesy)

Like other university academics on solidarity trips over the last few months, the group of around 30 faculty members from Yale University who recently came to Israel engaged in a packed schedule of travels, presentations, meetings with other academics at various universities and tours of sites related to October 7.

But the Yale group ended their journey with a unique event: an invitation-only concert in Tel Aviv featuring world-premiere works by one of the participants.

Dr. David Sasso’s day job as a psychiatrist, psychotherapist and assistant professor of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine hasn’t prevented him from continuing his lifelong engagement with music and composition. He felt that he “had to do something” after the October 7 Hamas shock attack on southern Israel, the resulting Israel-Hamas war and the explosion of campus protests, antisemitic incidents and related turmoil in the academic world.

“I am not an activist, so my personal response was to use my inner resources to create something new. I sat down and pulled out Yehuda Halevi’s poem,” Sasso told The Times of Israel. “Here I am in the Diaspora, and that’s how it began,” he added, referring to Halevi’s famous 12th-century poem which begins, “My heart is in the east, and I in the furthest west.”

Over the past few months, Sasso has drafted an ambitious song cycle of musical compositions set to an eclectic selection of poetry entitled “Zakhor: A Requiem for October 7.” It was performed on a recent Thursday night at the ANU Museum in Tel Aviv featuring members of the Israeli Opera.

“The trip to Israel started to be discussed [among Yale faculty]… Once I realized it was happening, I asked the organizers for 30 or 45 minutes to do this,” Sasso recalled. “Then, a number of serendipitous connections occurred, and I found myself having the top talent from the Israeli Opera! None of that was expected when I started composing these works.”

The private concert was the final evening of the five-day Yale faculty solidarity visit to Israel. Included in the audience were Yale alumni who now live in Israel, Israeli recipients of Fulbright scholarships at Yale, and other locals with a professional connection to the Ivy League university.

From west to east and back again

On the evening of the performance, after a short reception in the ANU lobby where the 70 or so guests slowly gathered, chatting and enjoying light refreshments, the formal concert began in the adjacent concert hall.

Briefly addressing the audience before the music commenced, Sasso thanked the musicians and the participants on the Yale trip and noted the deep meaning the evening held for him.

Composer David Sasso addresses the audience, at the ANU Museum in Tel Aviv, on March 21, 2024. (Yoav Shapiro/courtesy)

“In mourning those who perished on and since October 7, in keeping the hostages close to our hearts, we must be worthy of them, honor their spirit, and commemorate their courage. We also acknowledge the diminution of humanity with the loss of each and every innocent person affected by the terrorist attack and its tragic, ongoing aftermath… We will continue to fervently pursue knowledge and truth and to make art more intensely than ever before,” he said.

The performance itself — rendered in three languages by expert singers from the opera accompanied by piano and violin — consisted of a series of pieces in a modern, light operatic style, sometimes with overt Jewish influences. In addition to Yehuda Halevi’s poem, which received a delicate, lyrical treatment as sung by tenor Adi Ezra, the compositions included an intriguing Yiddish translation of “Daffodils,” a William Wordsworth poem about loss, sung by soprano Daniela Skorka.

“I’d Like to Go Alone,” an English language poem written during the Holocaust by then 16-year-old Alena Synková, was set to a haunting, subtly developing theme and sung by Skorka and mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny, accompanied by pianist Daniel Chervinsky. Synková survived Terezin and lived until her late 80s in Prague.

Of special note was Sasso’s composition for “On the Walls of Be’eri,” a Hebrew poem written a decade ago by Kibbutz Be’eri resident Anadad Eldan, who is nearly 100 years of age. Since the October 7 attack, which saw Hamas terrorists sack Be’eri and other adjacent sites, the poem became known in Israeli society as a symbol of both the event and the resilience of Israel’s Gaza-adjacent communities.

Led by a striking performance by baritone Yair Polishook, “On the Walls of Be’eri” featured all four vocalists in a haunting polyphonic work that, after slowly building in complexity and emotionality, finished with a mournful, quiet resolution.

Sasso, although professionally a psychiatrist, has a deep background in both music and Judaism. Both of his parents are (now retired) Reconstructionist rabbis who met in rabbinical school — his mother was the first woman ordained by the movement.

After getting a dual BA in composition and biochemistry Sasso decided to go further into medicine as a career, but has always scheduled his life so that music was a major component. The “core techniques and abilities” for both fields are often the same, he noted.

This dual background was most apparent in the final piece of the evening, the classic Psalm 121 or “A Song of Ascents,” also performed by all the musicians. Featuring complex, multi-layered vocals and upbeat melodic lines, the work was set in an accessible ¾ time and, with the clear influences of the American synagogue choral tradition, would not be out of place if performed by a professional ensemble in a Jewish house of worship.

‘A much more hostile environment’

The Yale delegation was one of a series of faculty missions in recent months consisting of mostly Jewish academics from US universities, who have felt compelled to visit Israel because of the war and in response to campus conditions. Besides Yale, delegations have come from the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, Harvard, Dartmouth, Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley and other universities.

“It’s an independent trip. We are faculty from Yale, but it’s not a [official] Yale trip. We raised funds and paid for it, to show solidarity with academics from all fields. The primary activity of the trip is to visit Israeli universities and meet professors, who I think are feeling very isolated. They are suffering professionally, not able to be promoted, get tenure, get papers published or give talks around the world, from what I understand,” Sasso explained.

Yale faculty delegation at Tel Aviv University, on March 21, 2024. (courtesy Tel Aviv University)

“In the States, we are all struggling to understand how the world is responding to this,” Sasso said. “Do I feel personally afraid walking down the street? No. But certainly, within our departments, within the university’s response to this, it’s insidious because it is often not as overt as other discrimination. The response to what happened on October 7 was remarkably and obviously different.”

“I have certainly heard directly from Jewish students at Yale, where suddenly it feels like a much more hostile environment because there isn’t a conversation about what is going on, it’s that Israel itself, period, is bad. So no nuanced conversation is possible, which is what you would hope to have at a university,” he said.

Meet, greet and farewell

After the performance, which received a standing ovation, the group moved on to a final, goodbye dinner set up in a small ballroom.

As dishes were being passed around, The Times of Israel spoke briefly with Prof. Edward Kaplan of the Yale School of Management, one of the main organizers of the faculty trip, who noted that the mission was facilitated by the “Yale Forum for Jewish Faculty & Friends,” an organization set up several years ago by Yale faculty concerned about anti-Israel and antisemitic bias in academia.

Everyone has been “incredibly frustrated” just “sitting around,” he said, adding that “we want to call out the nonsense” and “be activists” in the face of what he termed the “crazy” situation at universities. Kaplan, along with fellow participant Prof. Evan Morris of the Yale School of Medicine, would later publish a summary of their experiences and opinions in a Newsweek article.

As dessert was being served and the delegation started to drift out, back to their hotel and then to the airport, composer Sasso was still sitting with a few friends and his wife, who had accompanied the group as a psychiatrist also on faculty at Yale.

David Sasso, left, at the ANU Museum in Tel Aviv, on March 21, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

He was very pleased with the concert, he said, and noted that he had only had one real rehearsal with the musicians before they flawlessly pulled off the complex pieces. “They are professionals,” he said, shrugging.

The project is something that is “still evolving” into “a larger song cycle,” he said. “There are other poems which I intend to set to music, and I am open to new poems. I would love to find more contemporary poetry, perhaps by young people, who have been affected directly by all this.”

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