Connecting with land and people of South Dakota

By Lindajoy Fenley

South Dakotans with the deepest cultural roots to the land offered Sofi and the Baladis stereotype-breaking profiles, just as the visiting musicians helped their audiences have a more realistic view of Israelis and the small Samaritan community where Sofi Tsedaka grew up.

Pierre residency began with a luncheon for several community service groups.

Tsedaka said she is not interested in putting labels on people. “Everyone is the same,” she says.

Sofi and Yashi Afterman at a local radio station.

In Israel, Sofi Tsedaka also serves as a bridge between people. Having grown up in what she refers to as the smallest ethno-religious community in the world – the Samaritans – she learned both Arabic and Hebrew languages as a child. She tells her Midwestern audiences that when she is among Arabs, they often ask her if she is Jewish and when she is among Jews, they ask her if she is Arab.

Tsedaka has also made positive connections in the Dakotas as well.

“It may have been gratifying to many of the Capital Journal’s readers to hear an Israeli music ensemble refer to the middle of America as the ‘Real America’,” Pierre’s newspaper said in its top editorial Wednesday. The previous day, Sofi and the Baladis made the front page of the paper in an article based on a phone interview with Sofi, Yonnie Dror and Yaniv Taichman plus Arts Midwest President and CEO David Fraher the week before the group drove to South Dakota.

Once in Pierre, the Native Americans Sofi and the Baladis met at South Dakota schools and a community reception showed great interest in connecting with the visitors from abroad.

At the welcoming reception organized by the Short Grass Arts Center Monday night, a group of Christian Native Americans sang two hymns in the Sioux language – including Amazing Grace –– after Sofi and the Baladis sang songs in Ancient Hebrew and Arabic.

Native Dakota Hymn Sing group, led by Mary Ashley.

The native Dakota Hymn Sing group, led by Mary Ashley, included several young people as well as octogenarian Rev. Webster Two Hawk, an Episcopal priest and former elected leader of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Ashley was thrilled to gift a Sioux hymnal to Yaniv who spoke with her following the performances.

Earlier that day, the Israeli ensemble performed for about 200 students at the Pierre Indian Learning Center, a boarding school serving elementary and middle school Native American students. As soon as we arrived, a Chippewa fourth grader and a Standing Rock fifth grader volunteered to help us unload our equipment and then enjoyed a few minutes of impromptu basketball with Yosef Bronfman, the qanun player.

Lori Bazuaye and students from the Pierre Indian Learning Center.

Lori Bazuaye, a bilingual teacher at the boarding school, accompanied enthusiastic students in greeting Sofi after the performance. The following day, second grade teacher Brandon Hinkle bumped into the Baladis in a restaurant and told them that his students were still talking about the experience of meeting the Israeli musicians after they left.

Pierre senior Raymond Roach, who has both Lakota and Navaho roots, prefaced the welcome song he offered the group at its Riggs High School workshop with a message of brotherhood Wednesday morning.

Raymond Roach offers a welcome song for the ensemble.

Following workshops on Wednesday, the Baladis had an opportunity to connect with the land and lifestyles of South Dakota thanks to a dinner invitation from a former Short Grass Arts Council board member. Day Breitag, a Rotarian and international music fan, first met the group at the Monday service club luncheon and told the group she had spent several months in Israel in the 1970s.

Sound engineer Mark Umansky riding horseback at Day Breitag’s country home on the Missouri River.

At Breitag’s rural home beyond the Oahe Dam, members of the Israeli ensemble got a chance to go horseback riding and take a dip in the Missouri River.

Sofi and the Baladis, the first of the four international musical ensembles that Arts Midwest will bring to the Dakotas, has certainly paved the way for good connections between the World Fest communities and visiting cultures.

One of the best things about the residency, according to Short Grass Arts President Barb Wood who shepherded the group to all of the events during the week, is getting to know the artists as people. “The real Israel is more than a group called Sofi and the Baladis,” she said “They are people that include a marine biologist… someone who graduated from acting school, and another with a mother who was born in Brooklyn.”

While there are cultural differences between Americans and people from other countries, there are also many similarities. “We’re interconnected,” Wood said.


Sofi and the guys are a breath of fresh wind that blew into Pierre, bringing openness, warmth, laughter, and curiosity . . . our community is richer for them having been here. They also make good honorary Westerners, as all rode a horse and/or roped a practice dummy, as well as jumping in the Missouri River on the 25th of October. There isn’t much they aren’t willing to try. When they come to your town, open your hearts and learn from them; these are special people, with important lessons to teach. God go with you, Baladis. Shalom!

I can’t say enough about Sofi and the Baladis. Sofi, Yaniv, Yosef, Yshai, Yonnie and Mark are some of the kindest, most talented & passionate humans I have gotten the pleasure to meet.

Their music and stories are beautiful, inspiring and not to be forgotten. Each artist is so unique and their dedication to sharing their talents and culture for other communities is beyond appreciated.

Sofi’s musical creations are incredible and her words are heartfelt as she shares the songs and stories of the Samaritan people.

I hope everyone gets the chance to meet and listen to these amazing artists.