(Photo: Howie Mischel)

How Hebrew Music made me an Israeli


The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism, tells the story of a deaf man who came upon a wedding party. Watching the celebrants leap and twirl, he assumed he was observing the antics of madmen. 

The Baal Shem intended the story as a metaphor for the mystical experience. But it could also serve as a useful metaphor for trying to understand the State of Israel without knowing something of its soundtrack. 

No art form is as beloved by Israelis as Hebrew song. Perhaps this isn’t surprising: the strongest Jewish art forms have traditionally been literature and music, and that has held true in modern Israel. From the earliest days of the Zionist movement, the experience of return was chronicled and vitalized by song. The joy of rediscovery of the lost land, the struggle of building and the price of defending: Israel was sung into existence and sustained ever since by song. 

Many of the most cherished Israeli songs draw their lyrics from our great modern poets Bialik, Rachel and Leah Goldberg, and Natan Alterman. For all the trivial songs we have inevitably produced, Hebrew music has never been trivial. 

Like Israeli society, our music is constantly reinventing itself. Over the last decade, the Israeli tradition of fusing popular music with poetry has taken new form. Some of our leading rock musicians have rediscovered piyut the prayer poems of the Jews of the Middle East. The result is a new genre: rock piyut. Some musicians are breaking away from the old forms and writing a contemporary Israeli version of prayer at once celebrating faith and struggling with doubt, like the songs of the Breslover Chassid, Shuli Rand. 

For me, learning to understand to revere Israeli music was an essential step in becoming Israeli. Making this music my own allowed me to claim the Israeli experience, retroactively accessing the decades of Israeli life I had missed. One way I learned Israeli poetry was through a series of beautifully produced CD collections, each devoted to the musical interpretation of another poet. 

I discovered just how deep the relationship is between Israelis and their music when I attended my first parents-teacher meeting at my daughter’s kindergarten, early on in my life in Israel. The parents dutifully squeezed into little chairs and proceeded to sing the songs of Israeli childhood with such passion that they became transformed, restored to innocence. Many of those deceptively simple songs were written by our leading poets, codes to the Israeli personality and ethos. 

Gradually, I discovered just how our music saturates the Israeli experience. I began to recognize lines from songs in our ever-malleable slang and even in newspaper headlines. And I came to regard our great musicians with the affection we reserve for intimate friends.

Where would we be without Naomi Shemer, who turned our holiest moments into secular celebrations and our secular experience into prayer? And Arik Einstein, who brought the ’60s into Israeli music and whose tender and ironic ballads could function on their own as the great Israeli soundtrack? 

And Danny Sanderson and Kaveret offering their wacky and profound take on Israeliness? And Meir Ariel and Shalom Chanoch, the great troubadours of Israeli rock, who bridged the romantic Israel of the founders with the hard-edged Israel of the children? 

And Habreira Hativit, the Natural Gathering, heroically transforming our music in the 1970s from Ashkenazi to Israeli? And the Banais Ehud, Meir and Eviatar whose fusion of rock music and religious devotion and the vagaries of Israeliness transformed our sense of ourselves? 

And Etti Ankri and Morin Nehedar and Narkiss, the great paytaniyot, female singers of devotional song? And Berry Sakharof with his strange and beautiful and haunting rock? And Yehudah Poliker who fused Greek and Israeli music and whose classic album, Efer v’Avak, Dust and Ashes, gave voice to the Holocaust lament of the Second Generation? 

The list goes on and on, a seemingly inexhaustible profusion of the Israeli soul. So much to celebrate, so much to be grateful for.


Yossi Klein Halevi is an award-winning author and Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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