In honor of Israel’s 64th birthday, I decided to create a new genre – musical stream of consciousness.  As Hebrew University philosophy professor Meir Buzaglo recently noted, music is “the soul of the nation.”  He believes that without jazz, Barack Obama would not have become president of the United States.  Music is both a messenger and an agent of change says Buzaglo, whose father Rabbi David Buzaglo was a paitan (singer of traditional and sacred poetry) from Morocco. So let’s get into a time machine and take a magical musical mystery tour.

On Israel’s 12th anniversary in April 1960, I was on Kibbutz Shoval in the Negev, a little north of Be’ersheva, across the road from Sheik Suleiman Huzeil’s Bedouin encampment.   The occasion was the second half of a year-long youth leadership training program for members of Zionist movements from Europe, North America and North Africa (yes, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia).

After the kibbutz Independence Day celebrations were over, I made sure to sit next to a radio for the historic live broadcast of the first Israel Song Festival.   The moment I heard Erev Ba(Evening Comes), sung by Shimon Bar and Aliza Kashi, I knew that it would be the winning song.

ערב בא  ערב בא‎ – YouTube .The song, in the tradition of the shepherd and dance songs created in the 40s and 50, reflected a simpler, more naïve time, and became a very popular dance at Israeli folk dance evenings.

The neighboring kibbutz was Mishmar Hanegev, and one of my friends from the same program, David Rosenthal from France, was based there.   Before coming to the kibbutz I had a typical New York upbringing, which meant eight years of weekly piano lessons – and my rebellion was to study the guitar.  Thus I was in position to give David Rosenthal his first guitar lesson. David soon hitched up with Hedva from the famed Amrani Yemenite musical family to form the popular duo Hedva and David. They became big in Japan in 1970, where their upbeat song Ani Cholem al Naomi (I Dream about Naomi) won first prize. דוד קריבושי-אני חולם על נעמי-חדווה ודוד‎

Inspired by Sadat

Fast forwarding to the Israel Song Festival of 1978, Hedva Amrani sang B’Lev Echad (With One Heart, also known as Salam Aleicum), clearly inspired by Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem

חדווה עמרני ופלפל לבן -‎  The song tied for first place, but due to some manipulations, lost out as Israel’s representative to the Eurovision Song Contest to the eventual winner, A-Ba-Ni-Bi by another Yemenite singer Yizhar Cohen, based on a children’s word game. A-ba-ni-bi by Izhar Cohen & Alpha Beta – YouTube

One of Hedva’s backup singers in the performance was Pnina Brick, the short blond with the winning smile who later joined the Sexta singing group, which performed another well-known peace song in the 1979 Israel Song Festival, נולדתי לשלום (Noladeti Lashalom), להקת סקסטה , השיר והמילים‎   I knew Pnina well – saw her every day for that matter, since she was the secretary at New Outlook magazine, the Tel Aviv-based English-language monthly that dealt with Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs, and promoted dialogue and initiatives for peace in the spirit of Martin Buber’s philosophy of “I & Thou”.  Pnina was in the office as Abba Eban was speaking at the opening of New Outlook’s 20th anniversary conference, and she was asked by the organizers if any telegram greetings had arrived for the opening session.   Yes, she said.  Tell us who it’s from.  Well, she tried her best to decipher it with her poor English, and finally figured out that it was from…President Sadat, the first ever greeting from an Arab leader to an Israeli civil society organization – just a few days before his historic visit.

Shir Lashalom – Song for Peace

Taking a u-turn back to the summer of 1970, in the midst of the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, the most popular song that year was Shir Lashalom (Song for Peace), lyrics by Ya’acov Rotblitt who lost a leg in 1967 during the Six Day War, and music by Ya’ir Rosenbloom. להקת הנחל – שיר לשלום‎ – YouTube   The most powerful anti-war song ever written in Israel, it was sung by Lehakat Hanachal (singing troupe of the army’s Fighting Pioneering Youth unit associated with the kibbutz movement).  “He whose candle has gone out/and has been buried in the dust/bitter tears won’t waken him/or bring him back again/ so sing a song of peace/don’t whisper a prayer/sing a song of peace/with a great loud shout!…. The song infuriated another former member of Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev.   General Rahavam Ze’evi, nicknamed Ghandi because of his dark complexion and not because of his politics, was one of the Israelis who turned right after the Six Day War, becoming a supporter of Greater Israel and no territorial compromises with the Palestinians.  Ze’evi was Head of the Central Command, the West Bank, and forbade the singing of the song in the area under his command. That was the year that I did my basic training, partly in Gush Etzion and partly in Hebron, both in the West Bank.

We were 27 year old recruits, and our officers were 19 years old, fresh out of officers’ training school.  The traditional technique of “break them down and then build them up into soldiers” didn’t work with us.  We were too experienced and worldly, with families, etc.  So the lieutenant had to use other techniques.  He ordered me to help raise the morale of the unit whenever we had long marches or other challenging training maneuvers by leading them in song.  So I took special pleasure in singing the forbidden “subversive” lyrics of Shir Lashalom (Song for Peace), and all the other soldiers joined me in the chorus – including our commander.

Shir Lashalom, led by the original soloist Miri Aloni, was the song that concluded the rally in Tel Aviv against violence and for peace on November 4th, 1995, a few minutes before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot by right-wing Jewish terrorist Yigal Amir, in an attempt to stop the peace process with the Palestinians.

The Summer Protest of 2011

Fast-forwarding once again to the magical summer of 2011, the mass social protest erupted in Tel Aviv, the Israeli summer echo of the Arab Spring, and spread throughout the country.  As Emma Goldman once said – “If you can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.” Well, there was much music, in the tent encampments, and at the mass demonstrations.   But to my mind, the song that most typifies the protest movement, which will soon be renewed as the summer of 2012 approaches, is a song that wasn’t sung by its author and original performer.   The stage shy Arik Einstein hasn’t performed in public for decades, but he wrote the song, music by Micky Gabrielov, that typifies the spirit – Ani V’atah Neshaneh Et Haolam (You and I will change the world). אריק אינשטייןאני ואתה

When I’m 64

So here we are, celebrating Israel’s 64th birthday.

It’s also the 50th anniversary of the Beatles, so it’s natural to think about “Will you still need me/will you still feed me/when I’m 64?” The Beatles When I’m 64 – YouTube

That’s the question that Peter Beinart is asking in his new book “The Crisis of Zionism”. It’s the same question that many Israelis are asking as well.

Hopefully the renewal of the mass protest movement this summer will help to provide answers.

It’s hard to do an Israeli musical odyssey without recalling the late Abie Nathan and his Voice of Peace radio station, broadcasting from “somewhere in the Mediterranean”, who provided so many uplifting musical moments even in the darkest hours.   He used to play an hour of peace songs every afternoon, and there are many I could choose from to remember him by.  The one I choose here is by the O’Jays.   No, not “Back Stabbers”, which might be so fitting for Middle Eastern politics, but rather “Love Train”, which urges all of us to not miss the train of peace, before it’s too late, including “all the folks in Egypt and Israel too.” Love Train – The O’ JaysYouTube  And probably a bit of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” wouldn’t hurt as well.  Abie himself is mentioned in the lyrics.  John LennonGive Peace A ChanceYouTube

Tel Aviv, City of Poets, Writers and Song

Today, I live in Tel Aviv, in a neighborhood filled with streets named after writers and poets.   I look out the window and see a street named after Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man behind the extraordinary rebirth of Hebrew as a modern, spoken language, who was immortalized in the song by Yaron London and Matti Caspi that bears his name.אליעזר בן יהודה 

The other way leads to Bialik Street, named after the national poet. Next block is a street named after his contemporary and literary rival, Shaul Tchernichovsky. Although the latter was also the doctor for all of the Tel Aviv schools, it is said that one of the reasons that he was less accepted than Bialik is that he was married to a non-Jewish woman.

A while ago there was a controversy over the non-singing of a song – Hatikva (The Hope), the Israeli national anthem. At the swearing in ceremony of the new Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court Asher Gronis, the only Arab member of the Supreme Court, Salim Joubran, stood silently at attention, and did not sing the words.   And how could he, along with the other Palestinian-Israeli citizens who make up 20% of the Israeli population, possibly sing an anthem which has lines which talk about “The soul of a Jew yearning/ looking forward to the East/To Zion….”

In 2004 an Arab member of Knesset Mohammad Baraka suggested that a well-known poem/song by Shaul Tchernichovsky could become an anthem representing all of the citizens of Israel.  He was referring to Ani Ma’amim (I Believe or Credo), also known as Sachki, Sachki. The beautiful, humanistic love song to both woman and/or country was featured in English translation in “The People’s Songbook”, the American folk and protest music bible during the McCarthy period.  It’s unforgettable first verse goes as follows: “Laugh at all my dreams my dearest/Laugh and I shall state anew/That I still believe in mankind/As I still believe in you.” שחקי שחקי : אני מאמין -איה כורם‎

Yes, as we celebrate the country’s 64th birthday, it’s still possible to dream in Israel, 2012.

Hillel Schenker is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal (www.pij.org).