One of the most life-altering events I experienced in Maui was going to an Uluwehi Guerrero concert. Uluwehi, or Ulu as he is known to his friends, is a beloved Hawaiian folk artist who is dedicated to preserving not only Hawaiian language and music but the entire Hawaiian culture and heritage. Leslie Granat, a fabulous Jewish philanthropist and businesswoman — a Brooklyn-bred Maui resident and one of the major sponsor s of Ulu’s concert — told me that if I could go to only one Hawaiian concert in my life, this should be it.
Indeed. Ulu, a massive man with a captivating voice and gentle presence, sits at the back of the stage surrounded by a row of ukulele players on his left, other string instruments on his right, a 40-person choir to the side, and dozens of hula dancers in front of him. He tells stories – ancient and contemporary – about every song, while dancers dressed in hula skirts, leis, and peony hairpieces fill the stage with their dances. Every bodily movement matches not only the music but also the words — with hand motions for birds, for trees, for relationships, and even for a hilarious fly-swatting song.
I had the distinct honor of sitting at Leslie Granat’s table during last week’s communal Rosh Hashanah dinner at the Jewish Congregation of Maui. (Read my previous dispatches from Maui here, here and here.
Dressed in Hawaiian regalia and emoting with warmth and hospitality, Leslie introduced me to Pono Fried, Ulu’s partner, producer and songwriter. Pono is a Jewish man with ties to the East Coast and Israel whose mother, Joyce, was also in town visiting from Riverdale, N.Y., for the concert and was bedecked in jasmine leis that were handmade by her son. Pono (born “Barry”), whose taken name means “righteous” in Hawaiian, is the musical genius responsible for much of Ulu’s success. He puts his heart and soul into the music, although he seems a bit tired. “Tell Pono what you loved about the concert,” Leslie encouraged me, intimating that Pono and Ulu can use some hizuk or encouragement.
So I told him. I said that I love the way dancers come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. I love that older women are given respect as owners of knowledge and tradition. I love Ulu’s humor and warmth — he has a knack for making you feel like you’re an old friend of his sitting in his living room — and the way his stories express Hawaiian traditions of care and connection to the earth. I absolutely loved the choir as well as the musical accompaniment. And I loved the entire spirit of Hawaiian culture that I just couldn’t get enough of.
Leslie, who has studied hula, explained that this is all much more than dance. The halau, or troupe, do meditations beforehand in order to connect with the spirits and earth and messages of the songs, they spend weeks collecting blossoms for their own leis and hairpieces, they make their own hula skirts from grass, and every single movement has meaning that connects to the music. Ulu, who teaches many groups of all levels, does not make any public appearances without the halau, as a way of acknowledging their centrality in his mission. Perhaps most poignantly, Leslie explained that the reason why body shape is not important in Hawaiian culture is that “when Hawaiians see you, they see your heart and your spirit, not your body.” Wow. So obvious yet so elusive elsewhere in the U.S and in Israel.
These descriptions have me smitten.
At Leslie’s house, I encountered the most color-infused art I’ve ever seen, including many pieces that she painted herself. Right next to her door hangs a painting of a woman laughing, a painting that I totally fell in love with. I thought to myself, “That’s the spirit that I’m seeking in life.” If I were to stare at that painting every day as I left my house, it’s possible that life would always be okay.
Hawaiian culture, in its purest form, is love. “That’s exactly what aloha means,” Pono explained as we chatted after Rosh Hashanah services, “and that’s the ideal.” Although contemporary Hawaiian culture is distanced from the ideal, the origin is ever present. Perhaps Ulu’s and Pono’s work in maintaining a heritage that’s slipping away is making them tired — a feeling that some American Jewish leaders may identify with, struggling to protect our own ancient heritage that is at risk of getting lost. I told Pono that I’m taken in by the whole concept of aloha, with its layers of meaning and expression. “You really need to move here,” he smiled.
It’s tempting, I said, adding that Maui is now permanently etched in my heart. But my real work is in Israel. That’s where my home is, and that is where the Hawaiian spirit of aloha is so desperately needed.
I believe that Judaism in its purest form resembles Hawaiian culture. Our first paragraph of the Shema starts with v’ahavta, urging us to love God with all our heart and spirit. Hillel encapsulated the Torah as “Love thy neighbor as thyself — all the rest is commentary.”
We are told 36 times to be kind to the stranger. This is the essence of Torah. As I prepare to return home, I am bringing with me the spirit of aloha and a strong desire to bring Judaism back to its core of love.