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Israeli Music

(Note: I was originally planning to post this essay back in the spring but decided to pull it when the violence broke out in Gaza and Israel, because it felt like the wrong time to share my lighthearted adventures in Israeli music. Since then I have had a lot of time to think about my silence, and the value of silence and expression at different times. I still don’t have a clear mathematical equation to tell me what to say when, so I have to trust that my readers will take this essay for the love letter it was meant to be, with the understanding that love doesn’t mean perfect acceptance of the loved one’s behavior.

Israel is imperfect and Israeli governments have made problematic decisions that are at odds with world opinion. Israel is also the ancient homeland of my people and the modern miracle that gave many Jews a place to thrive after the Holocaust. Should that miracle have come at the cost of Palestinian peoplehood? No. Were there ways to allow for both peoples to live peacefully in their homelands? Possibly, possibly not. Can things change going forward? I hope so.

Israel is a complicated place, with conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Jews of Ashkenazi and Mizrachi or Sephardi descent, and between secular and religious Jews. It’s a place where emotions run high and violence and spirituality and hope are all deeply ingrained. Sometimes the only thing that can make it all bearable, for me, is to listen to the music and sing along – expressing all of the hope and bitterness and love and anger at full voice.)

My Israeli Music Mixtape

            My best friend in Seventh Grade was Israeli. She had come to the States with her family a year or so earlier, and we became friends because I was new to our orthodox Jewish school and willing to help her with her English homework. I also understood more Hebrew than most of my classmates, and we shared a love of music. She made me a mix tape of the Israeli songs she thought I should know, to fill out the list of Israeli songs I’d learned in school and camp (she was also a big Billy Joel fan, so I learned his songs too). Eventually she switched to public school and we drifted apart, but I heard years later that she’d become a DJ in Israel, which seemed appropriate.

            Last summer, the Cantor at my synagogue did a Zoom session on Jewish music (of the Non-liturgical kind), and one of the songs he played was an Israeli song, and it was like a time capsule, sending me back to junior high and afternoons singing along with my mix tape. As soon as the Zoom was over I went searching for that old mix tape, and found it. When I tried to play it in my old tape deck from college, though, the tape crumbled in the machine. Not to be deterred, I went to YouTube to re-find some of those songs, and found a bunch of other familiar Israeli songs as well. I made a short playlist, and searched out the lyrics, in Hebrew and English, thinking I could use them in synagogue school in some way, and then filed them away.

            Then, a few months later, I came across an American podcast called Israel Hour Radio: one hour a week filled with Israeli music, both the classics and the modern stuff. I started listening to the archives, with theme episodes on classic songs of the seventies and eighties, and Eurovision hits, and countdowns of the best songs of each year.

On Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) this past year, I played some of the Israeli music videos for my synagogue school students. Unfortunately, the sound from my computer diffused quickly in the cavernous social hall that we’d been using as a classroom during Covid, and, more importantly, most of the songs were in Hebrew, which turned out to be the real deal breaker.

            But I’d had such high hopes! I wanted the kids to love the music as much as I did at their age! I wanted them to hear Ofra Haza singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and be knocked out by the clarity of her voice and the way it soared and how her technique seemed so transparent that you could hear her soul right through it.

Ofra Haza

And I wanted them to know that Israel has won the Eurovision song contest a bunch of times, with Hebrew songs, on a world stage! Most of all, I wanted them to know that Hebrew is more than just a language to pray in; that you can even dance to it!

“I can dance!”

            Growing up, so much of my education about Israel was focused on politics and religion, and not on the daily lives of the people who live there. It didn’t even occur to me that they had their own radio stations, let alone that they’d gone way beyond folk music and Israeli dancing into Rap and Hip Hop and Rock and Techno and Pop and Reggae. There’s also a deep strain of humor, silliness, and protest music, as well as a lot of love songs.

            My favorites are still mostly in the category of Shirei Eretz Yisrael (Songs of the Land of Israel), because they are like love songs, filled with longing for a better world, acknowledgement of the bitter and the sweet, and hope for the future. My dream is that, with time, my synagogue school students will like these songs as much as they like Netta (the Israeli Eurovision winner from 2018 who became famous singing a song in English, with lots of clucking noises and chicken-like dance moves – no, really).

Netta

            There was always a strong tradition of public singalongs in pre-State and Modern Israel, as a way to build a national identity from the patchwork of Jews from Eastern Europe and America and Asia and the Middle East. That tradition landed in my American life, in summer camp and synagogue and school, so that I could sing more in Hebrew than I could speak. In my endless YouTube searches this past year, I discovered a relatively recent phenomenon called Koolulam, an Israeli group that creates public sing along videos. They choose a song and prepare the lyrics in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and then they bring together people from all across the country – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, single and with families, young and old – and they teach them the song and make a video of the final version. They call themselves a “social musical initiative” dedicated to bringing disparate groups together. In a way, Koolulam is an extension of the original Israeli imperative of nation building through singalongs – but now the goal is to bring everyone in the country together, not just the Jews. And the resulting videos really are inspiring.

            So, maybe next year, when we can sing together again, I’ll be able to teach my students some of my favorite Israeli songs, even if they are in Hebrew, and no one is clucking. Though I’m sure we could find an excuse to add in the clucking.

“Really?”

            In case you’re interested, I’m adding links to a few of the songs on my Israeli music playlist, but for a deeper education I recommend listening to back episodes of podcast.

NettaToy (the chicken song) - https://youtu.be/CziHrYYSyPc

Ofra HazaYerushalayim shel zahavwith English subtitles https://youtu.be/72QC8EGnxTw

David Broza Yihieh Tov with English subtitles https://youtu.be/qtI7h5A9eEQ

Nina Simone - Eretz Zavat Chalav (A land flowing with milk and honey) - https://youtu.be/YBAAkJyEhlA

Koolulam – Al Kol Eleh for Israel Independence Day https://youtu.be/oxzR9Z-kG6Q

Koolulam One Day (3000 people Muslim, Christian, Jewish) https://youtu.be/RjPpMXMjIj0

Ishay Ribo and Nathan Goshen - Nechakeh Lecha https://youtu.be/ryTO71_eMO4

English translation for Nechakeh Lecha https://lyricstranslate.com/en/%D7%A0%D7%97%D7%9B%D7%94-%D7%9C%D7%9A-nechake-lecha-we-shall-await-thee.html

Amir Dadon and Shuli Rand – Bein Kodesh lechol https://youtu.be/sCJh9YcrL3k

English translation for Bein Kodesh lechol https://lyricstranslate.com/en/%D7%91%D7%99%D7%9F-%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%93%D7%A9-%D7%9C%D7%97%D7%95%D7%9C-bein-kodesh-lechol-between-sacred-and-profane.html)

“We need more music, Mommy.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

65 responses »

  1. We love a mix tape!
    When you say ‘crumbled’…?
    x

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  2. I’ll check out these songs!

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  3. Thank you for this post, Rachel. I appreciate your sensitive approach to a complex political topic, implying if not saying what I wish more public figures could bring themselves to say, that people can wish for a peaceful solution for Palestinians without being anti-Semitic or anti Israel. But mostly I love your full discussion of music of all genres within this context. Music has so much power to bring people together.

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  4. Again, an excellent, clear, heartfelt narrative essay. (Sorry, if that’s too English-teachery.) I’ve learned a great deal about the tradition of Israeli music as well as contemporary expressions. Thanks for sending the links, too. I’ve heard chanting and songs for special, seasonal occasions. I’m glad to know that all forms are followed and performed.

    I hope you and the pups are really well!

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  5. I think your dogs would prefer barking over clucking.

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  6. I do a mean Hava Nagila. Does that count?

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  7. Wonderful post. Music is so powerful. It can give people from various cultures a chance to relate to each other, if only for moments. Personally, the Klezmatics get me going…Brother Moses and Oh Mary…
    Cheers,
    Julie

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  8. Your dogs are ready to go! Strike up the band.

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  9. Thanks for including music! I just listened to some of them and really enjoyed them! I have to ask, have you ever heard of Balkan Beat Box? I believed them to be an Israeli group but double checked, and they are. I haven’t heard a lot of their music but have enjoyed the few that I have. I’d be curious to know what you think. Thanks again! This was a lovely post altogether.

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  10. The chicken song is funny. I wonder how she keeps a straight face.

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  11. It was nice in church today to sing an old favourite hymn, “How great thou art.” I now attend an Anglican Church and the songs are different to the hymns I sang in the Reformed Baptist fellowship when I was a young man. The occasional hymn brings me great joy.

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  12. Thanks for the links. I love “World Music” and will add these to my choices.

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  13. Rachel, thanks for sharing these artists. Keith

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  14. Wow that One Day sing along with 3000 people of all Faith’s was incredible

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  15. Thank you for sharing, Rachel.
    You remind me of growing up on Long Island, the rich mix of religions and cultures.
    My friend Ronald invited me to his bar mitvah, and at age 12, 7th grade, this Catholic boy went to the synagogue, wore the yarmaka, soaked in the readings in Hebrew, a strange language to my ears indeed.
    Onto the celebration at Ronald’s house, with traditional music and dancing and foods.
    I learned. I liked it. Well, not any of the fish.
    Afterward all the boys went to Ronald’s room and listened to Simon and Garfunkel to celebrate together as we were one in our other life in school and out.
    Throughout my life I also have attended weddings and other moments that have included Jewish traditions and have admired much.

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  16. Rachel, this post is a wonderful gift to your readers!! The music is amazing and, except for Nina Simone, the talent was entirely new to me. I can’t say which song I loved most! It’s still early in the morning and you’ve already made my day wonderful. Thank you for your sensitivity about difficult issues. As an American, I can say that I love my country but I do not love everything we do and have done.

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  17. Thank you for the beautiful music. Even when I don’t understand the words, the emotion comes through. (I recognize what is sure to be the most important word, Shalom.) My country, too, is imperfect, and its government has made problematic decisions that are at odds with world opinion.

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  18. Outstanding post, Rachael. Enjoyed the musical heart of it and loved your feelings on the political turmoil.

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  19. Great post, thanks for sharing these picks with us, I love world music. Also have such nostalgic mixtape memories from my youth 🙂

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  20. What a wonderful post! You have reminded us that our cultures and heritages grow up just like we do. I know for sure Italy (my heritage) has modern TV and radio programming, yet when I think Italian music it’s the old folk songs and wedding dances that come to mind. You’ve inspired me now to go find what else I’ve been missing in southern Italy.

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  21. So interesting. Thank you! 💗

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  22. After reading this article I went and dug up the cassette my dad made for me. He has a copy of Celebration with Shimon & Ilana. I loved listening to that album. Unfortunately it isn’t available in digital version. I love their arrangement of Sisu et Y’rushalayim.

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  23. I find your writing very interesting and agree with all that you have said, and hopefully from what I understand in your writing. I have long ago visited Israel, and Gaza in my work, and feel that it is a very sad situation that shows no real end to that sadness, due to governmental problems on all sides including the US, much like we have here in America~!

    I strongly believe that Government and all religion should not be mixed, except to do good through cooperation, not bad. I also know that both Israelis and Palestinians are of the same root and Christians, Jews, and Muslims are also based on the same basic belief, so I feel that no matter which belief in God, if left alone, they would all be good neighbors. Again the same is true right here in America, where distrust in belief becomes an awful way of politics and lies.

    There is a new series on TV that I have just started following. This week was only the second installment. It is called: “Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury” and can be seen on CNN 200, Sundays from 9:00 to 10:00 and the first episode was “A Clash of Empires” with the second being yesterday called “The Kingdom”. I have not yet seen the second one because I was out of the house last night. But I record such things so will watch it tonight. So Far I have found it enlightening. I am sure you are much more versed on such, that you can fill me in, if you find it drifting from reality. Back viewings can be called up, but something it takes a while before they are posted.

    Tami sends a great Hello to Cricket, they look to be the same size and equally spoiled~! She weighs a little over 10 pounds and seems to like to run in front of the camera as does Cricket~! If you find me, you will find her no farther than four feet away.

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    • I’ll have to take a look at the CNN series. It sounded like a great idea, especially now, but I was worried it would be too CNN-y with the melodramatic voice overs. Cricket sends her regards to Tami as well!

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      • Actually we also think alike on CNN, I more to to MSNBC, if they would just get rid of those KILL, DEAD, Rape late night things. Sunday is a slow day for me online and this seems not to be the usual “Talking Heads” things. At least not so far. Tami and I just had a bowl of ice cream, I had most of the ice cream and she had the bowl lickings. She stays very quiet just keeping her eyes on me, and when the spoon hits the bottom of the bowl, she comes to life.

  24. Rachel, one of the things I love most about your blog is the things I learn about Judaism. I can’t wait to listen to the music!
    I have been so sad that with all of the politics and anger, we seem to have lost the sheer joy of learning about different cultures and ways of life. Being exposed to new music, particularly those that reflect a culture with which I’m unfamiliar, is a wonderful window into the lives of people who are from a different tradition then mine. Many of those cultures are thriving right here in the United States.

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    • Thank you so much! I remember a food network show that went to immigrant communities in the US to discover their food and their culture and their stories. There are so many powerful stories out there!

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  25. Your intense interest into Israeli culture will make you a favorite weel-rounded teacher among your students. Stay with it, Rachel.
    Art

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  26. I so enjoyed this post, Rachel. My youngest granddaughter who is 3 years old just spent the past year at a Jewish preschool and one of the things she enjoyed most was learning some of the songs that were sung in Hebrew. It took us a while to understand the words and then have them translated by the teachers but it was a wonderful and enriching experience.

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  27. Lovely piece, with an appropriate and thoughtful forward. I intend to listen to everything you suggested. I love Netta! She’s an artist often referred to as a “looper,” and she’s very good at what she does. Her energy and joy are contagious! I first heard her song “Cuckoo,” and then found out about her Eurovision win (well deserved!). May i suggest if you’re feeling low you check out the concert she did from home during COVID called “Goody Bag.” She lifts me right up!

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  28. Yes, music is a universal language. I hope that through the power of songs, we can have the world unite as one.

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  29. I loved the song ‘one day’ a lot. Let’s hope everyone gets fed up with wars and lays down their weapons including the Taliban and all the terrorist organisations.

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  30. ⭐️🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶⭐️

    Reply

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