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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?

My Ukulele

 

The one present I specifically asked for this year for my birthday was a ukulele, and my aunt, a musician, did the careful shopping for me. I was thinking of getting one of the 1-2-3 sets from Amazon, where the ukulele probably falls apart on the third use, but she made sure to get me a real one. I’ve had it on my wish list for years, but I couldn’t convince myself that it wasn’t frivolous and silly, especially because I have a guitar that I never use, but when Mom asked me what I wanted it was the first thing I could think of, well, second, behind a pony. I’ve always wanted a pony.

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“There will be no ponies in my house.”

The ukulele is very light and small and has a beautiful tone, so I’m hoping I’ll have some luck sticking to a practice schedule. The danger of feeling like a ne’er-do-well is still very high, but as long as I don’t watch videos of ukulele masters I can try to hold onto the idea that it’s a toy to play with, instead of a serious musical instrument that I have to master or give up immediately.

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Platypus is guarding my ukulele

I found a few YouTube videos for beginners, and I’m learning the chord charts and trying not to be too impatient with my clumsy fingers. I took piano lessons as a kid, so the transition to stringed instruments has been a little bit confusing for me. I had an electric keyboard for a while, trying to revisit my pianos lessons, but when it died I didn’t replace it, because it kept reminding me that I was not a musical genius, and that hurt my feelings.

I just want music to be fun, and a ukulele looks like fun to me. I also thought about a bongo drum for some reason, or maybe a harmonica. But not a tambourine. I hate tambourines. I’d love a Melodica, like the one Jon Batiste has on the Late Show with Steven Colbert. My grandmother had two when I was little, these tiny keyboards that you could pick up and blow into, and pretend you were making real music. But she kept telling me that I was playing it wrong, so maybe that’s a bad example.

melodica

This is a Melodica, and not my picture

I’m not sure if the dogs will be interested in the ukulele or not. Cricket tried to play my guitar years back, but it scared the crap out of her when she strummed the strings with her paw. Wikipedia says that the word Ukulele roughly translates to “jumping flea” in Hawaiian, so hopefully that will keep the dogs away from it.

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“It has fleas?!!!”

I’m still hearing some muted and buzzing strings while I learn how to place my fingers for the chords, but it’s getting better. It’s not music yet, but it’s a step or two closer. I use a keyboard app on my phone to tune the strings at the beginning of each session, because I’ve been warned that the nylon strings of the ukulele go out of tune pretty quickly. I’ll need to buy an instrument case eventually, because I keep returning the ukulele to its original box, and that seems insensitive.

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my phone/tiny keyboard

I don’t have plans to join a ukulele band, if such a thing exists, but I wouldn’t mind playing it around the apartment and having the dogs follow me, like the pied piper. In which case I should probably have just re-learned how to play the recorder, much simpler and less painful for the fingers.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl.

yeshiva girl with dogs.jpeg

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, 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.

Tai Chi

I have tried Tai Chi in the past and found it frustratingly slow and complicated and rage-inducing. But I’ve found that yoga encourages too much flexibility for my injury prone body of late, and I need to work on my balance and managing stress better, so I am trying Tai Chi again. It helps that I found five minute lessons on YouTube, with a very clear instructor (Leia Cohen). I like that she wears loose clothing instead of skin tight body suits like other exercise instructors, who seem to feel the need to advertise the effectiveness of their exercise routines, along with their clear genetic gifts.

Tai Chi is one of the only forms of exercise I’ve found that does not interest Cricket. Yoga inspired her to stretch and paw at me and bring me her toys. Sit ups and leg lifts were a clear signal that I wanted to scratch her back for twenty minutes at a time. But Tai Chi puts her to sleep.

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“I could use another blanket, Mommy.”

I had to stop the Tai Chi experiment for a couple of weeks while the two dogs (and the bird) were visiting. I was getting so much exercise from walking the dogs, and picking them up, and breaking up fights, but also it wasn’t safe to try to do Tai Chi in the living room with three small dogs weaving between my feet.

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There really wasn’t any room for me on that floor.

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Izzy did her version of Tai Chi with a banana chip.

But, a few days after they left, I started back up again, from the beginning, five minutes a day.

I’m not sure why it feels so difficult, or why five minutes seems like my limit. I’m not even sure if the limit is physical or emotional or spiritual. There’s physical pain involved in doing such slow movements, and being aware of each movement and how it feels in my body. There’s discomfort. Maybe that’s the more appropriate word for it. Tai Chi is supposed to be moving meditation, an attempt to center in the body and breath and find some calm. And maybe calm is uncomfortable for me, and attention to the body is uncomfortable.

All of my different aches and pains seem to get air time when I do Tai Chi, like a room full of senior citizens grumbling and groaning. I try to keep them on mute the rest of the time, with medication and distraction techniques, but Tai Chi seems to take me off mute.

My hope is that five minutes a day will lead me to ten minutes and eventually I will feel stronger and more centered, but I don’t know if this will work for me. All I can do is try.

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“You go ahead, Mommy. I’ll wait here.”