SONGS TO BUILD A NATION
By Yossi Klein Halevi
as told to Nadine Epstein
My first visit to Israel was in the summer of 1967, right after the Six-Day War, which was the happy-ever-after of Jewish history.
“That’s it. It’s over. We won. The Arabs are going to realize it’s futile to try to destroy us.” Israelis really believed that in the summer of 1967. And the soundtrack of my falling in love with Israel was made up of the songs that emerged in the weeks just before the war. It starts with “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”), still the most haunting Israeli song ever written. It’s by Naomi Shemer, who shaped Israeli music more than any other figure.
There’s an extraordinary story about that song. When it first came out, no one knew there would be a crisis three weeks later that would lead to Israel reuniting Jerusalem. Shemer wrote it for the Israeli Song Festival and performed it there on May 15, 1967, the day after Independence Day and the day Gamal Abdel Nasser started moving troops into Sinai. The song took the country by storm just as the lead-up to the Six-Day War began. “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” became the anthem for the metaphysical, the mythic story of Israel in that war. It became the catalyst for all those emotions of the Israeli story that are beyond the rational.
Another song that came out in May 1967 is “Natzer Mechake LeRabin” (“Nasser Is Waiting for Rabin”). It was a response to Nasser’s boast that he was waiting for Yitzchak Rabin, who was then the commander of the IDF, to come get him. So the Israeli response to Nasser was a song, “Oh, Nasser’s waiting for Rabin, aye aye aye. Nasser, don’t move, don’t move. We’re on our way.” The country was in the grip of existential fear. And the way that it responded, the way that it coped with its fear, was through a song. Those songs of May 1967 gave me a connection to the spirit of the country, its defiance and its humor, and I just loved it all.
Then there were the victory songs of June 1967, just a month later. They’re emotionally complicated. One of my favorites is another Naomi Shemer song called “Machar” (“Tomorrow”). The words are: “Tomorrow a thousand housing projects will arise, and if not tomorrow, then the day after.” What I love about that song is how touching it is in its modest expectations. This is the great song of victory—that Israel’s going to build 1,000 housing projects. It’s a rousing song, and it expresses the sense of can-do Israel at the peak moment of the Israeli success story. Yet in retrospect it’s such a small aspiration. It’s not an arrogant, boastful, militaristic empire. It’s this small and battered country saying, wow, now we can really start building all those housing projects and start moving immigrants out of the slums and out of Jaffa. There’s something very touching about that.
Another important song from the summer of 1967 is “Yerushalayim Shel Barzel” (“Jerusalem of Iron”) by an Israeli paratrooper named Meir Ariel, who fought in the battle of Jerusalem and revolted against the sweetness of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” He said, no, for those of us who fought in Jerusalem, this is the city of iron, the city of blood and wounds. It’s not a shimmering city of gold. But he ends on an affirming note, singing about how the paratroopers have come to cry out freedom and liberation to Jerusalem’s walls. Ariel went on to become one of Israel’s most important singers and composers.
These were the formative songs that introduced me to Israel. And to this day, I can’t hear any of them without feeling awe and gratitude for having been there and been introduced to Israel at that moment.
Throughout Israel’s history, its music has responded to the changing tides of politics. Pre-state Zionist music captured the pioneer ethos with a combination of determination and melancholy. You hear an awareness of the enormous human price that the pioneers were paying personally and of the wider context in which the Zionist return home was happening, that is, the destruction of the diaspora in Europe. A song about the Yishuv period that really expressed this sentiment is “Ruach Stav” (“Autumn Breeze”) sung by Arik Einstein. Autumn, of course, is the most melancholy season, and even if you’re a cynical person, there’s a pinch in the heart. The song tells the story of a young man who goes to a party, and he’s shy, and he asks someone to dance. The song is a metaphor for the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Israel, which is aware that it’s heading toward a major confrontation with the Arab world. And meanwhile, the communities the pioneers left behind in Europe are being erased, and all of those hundreds of thousands of young Zionists who are supposed to join them in building the country are never going to come. You can feel all that in the music.
Another of the most famous pre-state Zionist songs was “Hafinjan” (“The Coffee Pot”). That one is about the camaraderie of the Palmach fighters, the pre-state military defense force, and the excitement of youth. It’s nighttime, the fighters are sitting around the campfire and they’re singing. After the War of Independence, another stanza was added to the song, about the fighters sitting around the campfire who don’t come back from battle. There’s often this mixture in the music of the Yishuv, the exuberance of youth and the sense of imminent tragedy.
There’s a beautiful song from 1948, “Hu Lo Yada Et Shema” (“He Didn’t Know Her Name”) made popular by Esther Ofarim. It’s about a chance encounter: A soldier is on his way to battle, and he meets a nurse. It’s an instant romance in a parking lot; they don’t even know each other’s names, and he is mortally wounded in battle. The song is about youth, and war, and thwarted expectations, and courage, and melancholy. Those are themes running through all these 1948 songs. You can see from these songs about 1948 and 1967 that there’s a very developed tradition of Israeli singers and composers responding in real time to the latest crisis. Israeli musicians tend to be intuitively connected to what the country is going through. I don’t know of other countries quite like that, where the music so deeply and immediately reflects what’s happening in the country. We’re seeing that beginning to happen with the political situation now.
Interestingly, while the first intifada didn’t produce much music, the second intifada changed Israeli music.
It brought in God and the spiritual quest in an overt way. Classical Zionist music was the carrier of the secular ethos; it promoted the vision of the new Hebrew man. To use the old terminology, it was very much a rejection of diaspora culture. The second intifada brought prayer and diaspora Judaism back into the heart of Israeli music. And it did so through piyyutim, medieval prayer poems, some from the Golden Age of Spain and Spanish Jewry, many from Morocco and Iraq. Some of Israel’s leading rock musicians rediscovered the beauty of these medieval poems, and you then had an extraordinary and totally unpredicted turn in Israeli music, from being the expression of Tel Aviv bohemian culture to being the instrument for the re-Judaization of Israeli culture.
I think this happened in the second intifada because during the years of the suicide bombings we experienced the total breakdown of any pretense of Israeli personal security. Before that, there was always a sense that there was a distance, however minimal, between the home front and the battlefront. The second intifada was the final undoing of that sense. The home front became the battlefront.
And perhaps in response, you saw among Israelis the beginnings of a serious spiritual search. It’s taken many forms. Many people have adopted Orthodox Judaism to one extent or another, others went in a New Age direction—Israel is one of the world capitals of New Age culture—and Indian spirituality became part of Israeli culture. Much of this was triggered by the second intifada. And the Israelis who were the first to intuit this were the musicians, the troubadours.
At this time, in the mid 2000s, several albums were seminal. One was called Shema Koli (Hear My Voice) by Meir Banai, one of our great rock musicians, who did contemporary versions of the Yom Kippur liturgy that combined traditional melodies with some of his own. One of the songs from that album, “Lecha Eli” (“To You, My God”), won the Israeli equivalent of a Grammy. The words are from a famous piyyut (liturgical poem) written by Avraham Ibn Ezra, the medieval biblical commentator and poet: “Lecha eli teshukati,” “To you, my God, I give all my longing.”
One of the most beloved Israeli songs of all time was inspired by economic change—the transition of the Israeli economy from socialism to capitalism. It’s called “Mehakim LeMashiach” (“Waiting for the Messiah”) by Shalom Hanoch and came out in 1985, just before Israel started to be known as the Start-up Nation. In 1983, the Israeli stock market had collapsed. The lyrics include “Mashiach lo ba, mashiach gam lo mitalfen,” “Mashiach isn’t coming, Mashiach also isn’t phoning.” And who is Mashiach? In the song, Mashiach, Hebrew for “Messiah,” is just the name of a wheeling and dealing businessman. It’s a Mizrahi name, not one that Mizrahi parents give their children anymore, but in the immigrant and post-immigrant generations, there were a number of Israelis whose first name was Mashiach.
The drama takes place in an investment office where people are sitting nervously smoking cigarettes, one after another, drinking one cup of coffee after another, waiting for Mashiach to come to tell them how their investments are doing in the stock crisis. And instead of Mashiach coming, there’s a knock on the door and it’s a policeman, who says there’s been a terrible tragedy: The Borsa [Stock Exchange] has collapsed. People are jumping off the roofs, and one of those people is Mashiach. The atmosphere in the room turns black. Mashiach isn’t coming, he’s never coming.
Mashiach is never going to call. This song became the anthem of the coarsening of Israeli ideals—that from a society that at least paid lip service to communal self-sacrifice, we’ve now become a society of quick investors and easy money. Shalom Hanoch grew up on a kibbutz and left it when he was young, so this is really a kibbutznik’s lament for the dark side of what we celebrate as a start-up nation.
One other song from the 1980s was very important to me: “Esther,” by Ehud Banai, who brought a kind of synthesis of Western rock and Mizrahi music and wrote songs that are just beautiful. “Esther” tells us a story about his trip to the Galilee. He’s in love with a woman there who is slightly mad, and she lives off the land, out in the country, and is waiting for the Messiah: “One day a man will come and he will illuminate the streets. One day everything will flower, the heart of the world will open.” And he realizes that she doesn’t really care for him, certainly not in the way he cares for her. It’s a song about loneliness. He leaves, and he sings, “Your life is like a star that’s alone in the sky.” And at the same time, almost in passing, he mentions that the army is on the move.
It’s the mid-1980s, the time of Lebanon, and the army is on the move in the north. This is a song about the Galilee, messianism and madness. The army is moving into Lebanon, and he’s looking for love.
This song became my personal anthem. I moved to Israel permanently at the beginning of the first Lebanon war. I got very involved with mystical circles both in Jerusalem and the Galilee. Banai was singing about my Israel of the 1980s—this mixture of mysticism, madness and security threat. I went on a pilgrimage to Banai and told him that his song had helped make me an Israeli. And he was very touched. I think he didn’t quite expect that. And I think of that song in relation to Israel today, because it’s a song about the madness that’s just under the surface of Israeli society, in that things are not holding together, and what seems to be a rational start-up nation has deep undercurrents of the irrational. For me, this song is almost the anthem of the collapse of rational Israel.
Israeli music is the carrier of the romantic spirit of Hebrew poetry, which had mostly been suppressed for 2,000 years of exile.
It resurfaced in Spain in the Middle Ages with the great Hebrew poets. In the Ashkenazi tradition, you don’t have that romantic sensibility; it was considered to be immodest, a violation of religious norms. And so Zionism, in its sly, subversive way, resurrects this Hebrew romantic tradition through Israeli music. Modern Israeli music has restored the tradition of Shir Hashirim, of the Song of Songs with its endless, exquisite Hebrew love songs. This includes early songs such as “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Roses”) from the 1950s through Arik Einstein’s “Yesh Bi Ahava” (“There Is Love in Me”) of the 1990s.
Another crucial theme of Israeli music is the meeting point of all the different Jewish communities. Israeli music treats that meeting point with a mixture of humor, gentle mockery, anxiety and celebration. For example, the classic Israeli song about the ingathering of the exiles is “Shir Hashayara” (“The Convoy Song”), also by Arik Einstein, which, to this day, is one of the most popular Israeli songs. There are constant covers being done and it’s what the kids grow up with in school. The anxiety in the song is, “How’s this going to work out?” As we can see from what’s happening in Israel today, that’s still an open question.
There are also many songs with a feminist theme, like one by Corinne Allal called “Al Tikra Li Motek” (“Don’t Call Me Sweetheart”), an angry pushback against macho Israeli culture. Etti Ankri had a fantastic song in 1990 called “Roa Lekha Baenayim” (“I See It in Your Eyes”), about a man who wants to make her his prisoner for life. When I think of the great female vocalists, though, the singers I most appreciate are those who are working in the genre of spiritual music today. Ankri, for instance, began in the 1990s as a great female rock vocalist. She became observant and in the last 20 years has been producing beautiful piyyutim. She did a very powerful album based on the prayer poems of Judah Halevi and was part of the redirection of Israeli music in a spiritual way.
There’s a terrific singer today called Narkis, who goes only by her first name, and who is just coming into her own. Narkis has one song that I just find exquisite, called “Aneni” (“Answer Me”). It’s a prayer, and it’s also a piyyut which she puts to very haunting music. You can see how those Israeli musicians who are interested in the spiritual quest and in the search for God and meaning have moved from simply writing the music for traditional prayers to creating their own prayers, their own poems, and setting those to music. So a whole new body of work is emerging based on what I would call Israeli piyyut. And women are taking an important role in that process.
Biblical themes, of course, are a constant. There’s a song by Hanan Ben Ari, “Cholem Kmo Yosef” (“Dreaming Like Joseph”), in which he takes biblical stories and uses them as psychological archetypes to explain how each of us is really all of these biblical characters. “Just like Abraham, every father sacrifices his son. Just like Joseph, we’re all dreamers.” He goes on like that. And he begins the song with the theme music from a TV feature that only Israelis of my generation would recognize. Israel TV in the 1970s and 1980s used to end with a biblical verse for the day, with a little snippet of someone chanting the verse. When I heard it on the album, I just couldn’t stop laughing. The song is about how the Torah holds up a mirror to human behavior and invites us to see ourselves in the biblical characters. It’s a great song that also shows how naturally Jewish tradition becomes part of popular Israeli music.
During the pandemic, a lot of songs came out with Israeli musicians trying to capture the surreal nature of the moment and find meaning in it. Hanan Ben Ari wrote another song called “Ga’aguim Livnei Adam” (“The Longing for Other People”) about how COVID-19 shut down the modern world and gave us an opportunity to do a reset. He uses biblical images of the Tower of Babel, which he compares to the skyscrapers in Tel Aviv that are standing empty during the lockdowns, and he compares the emptied streets to the biblical flood. He ends by addressing the virus, saying, “When you leave, please make sure that we’re not the same as before you came.”
True to form, the political crisis we’re living through now has already begun to produce its own music. One very beautiful song just came out by Shlomo Artzi together with Idan Amedi. The song is called “Achim” (“Brothers”), and it says, “We were brothers,” using the past tense, and asks, “Will we be brothers again?” It’s appropriately accompanied by melancholy music. It brings together an Ashkenazi singer and a very popular Mizrahi singer. That’s important, because Likud has been working very hard to revive the division between those groups.
Nothing in Israel is ever really lost. Consider the song “Yihyeh Tov” (“Things Will Be Better”), written by David Broza and Yonatan Geffen in 1977 after Anwar Sadat’s visit, when the euphoria of that visit had died down. Nobody really sings it anymore, but it’s part of the consciousness of the country. The refrain is, “yihyeh tov,” “It’ll be okay,” but the music and the voice aren’t so sure. Or if it does turn out okay, we’re really going to pay a high price. You feel that tension. It’s not a sweet song. Israeli talent has an extraordinary range, but the best people don’t do sweet.
Another song that wasn’t sweet was “Shir LaShalom” (A Song of Peace”), sung by Miri Aloni in 1969, which became popular again after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination on November 4, 1995. Rabin had a copy of the lyrics to that song in his coat pocket when he was shot, and famously, his blood was on them. “Shir LaShalom” is not a paean to peace. It’s a protest against the Israeli tendency to just accept the status quo. The speaker is a soldier who fell in battle and is turning to Israelis and basically saying, “How many more have to fall before you finally start taking peace seriously?” It’s a very angry song, but it doesn’t sound angry. That’s one of the interesting ways in which Israeli music navigates protest. It sounds sweet, but it isn’t. There’s an edge to it.
One of my favorite examples of that is a song from the late 1960s by Arik Einstein called “Eretz Israel” (“Land of Israel”) and the refrain is: “How much I love you, land of Israel. So why am I so sad, land of Israel?” A person who’s in love isn’t supposed to be sad. So for me, in some way, that is the song of this moment. If I needed an anthem for this moment, it’s that.