Exceptions: Hebrew in Millennial Israeli Rock

About a month ago, Yossi Klein Halevi published a piece in the Wall Street Journal in which he made a radical claim about Israeli society: He argued that it is getting more spiritual. How did he come to that conclusion? He did not measure kosher food sales. He did not conduct interviews in Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim. He definitely did not look at statistics provided by the Rabbinate. What he actually did might surprise you. He listened to contemporary Israeli rock.

“Musicians are defining this new Israeli spiritualism,” argued Klein Halevi in his piece. Israeli rockers are incorporating medieval piyyutim into New Wave song structures and melodies, as Berry Sakharof has pioneered. They are performing with kippot on their heads in Tel Aviv rock clubs for crowds featuring a widening spectrum of spiritual identification.  But while many Israeli popular musicians are finding ways to use their songs as a platform to explore their relation to the religious aspect of Jewish and Israeli life, others have found them to be the right venue for thinking about what it means to be Israeli in other ways.  These artists have spurned the fluff that has been the mainstay of Israeli pop charts and have really tried to convey the challenges currently facing Israel and they have been some of the most critically successful Israeli acts abroad because of it, even when their lyrics are in Hebrew.

In the past, when Israeli popular musicians have tried to find their place on the world stage, they would switch from singing in Hebrew and attempt to write their songs in a kind of universally accessible English, replacing lyrics about political and social circumstances with dance club beats.  But this is changing, and for the better. Some Israeli artists are realizing that the key to success outside of Israel can’t be found in pulling the Hebrew and Israeli-ness out of their music, but by bringing it to the front.  It’s paying off, in terms of the honesty and quality of their work as well as in terms of international success.

Tel Aviv shoegaze band Vaadat Charigim (Exceptions Committee) released their second album two months ago in the midst of an American tour that hit both coasts. HaShiyamum Shokea (The Boredom Sinks In and marketed in English as Sinking As A Stone) received airplay on indie rock stations across the country, and the band was featured on NPR’s Seattle affiliate KEXP.  I saw them play in Brooklyn right before Shavuot, and though there were plenty of Israelis in the audience, those who couldn’t understand the lyrics were just as enamored with the performance.

Vaadat Charigim’s rapid rise to relative indie rock prominence in the United States and elsewhere might be attributed to guitarist and vocalist Juval Haring’s ethereal tone, or perhaps to drummer Yuval Guttman’s driving rhythms. But the members themselves are not shy about the role the language they use has in their work as well. In a documentary put together by Daphni Leef for Vice’s Noisey last year, Haring explains that by singing in Hebrew, they keeping it “very Tel Avivian, very Israeli.” And he’s right. Vaadat Charigim’s lush, repetition-rich, and heavy sound coupled to haunting vocals is able to bring listeners the emotional condition of life as a millennial South Tel Avivian, confronted by political and social realities whose tolls take a while to fully sink in.

Released before last summer’s war in Gaza, Odisea, the lead-off track on the band’s first album, The World is Well Lost, begins with the line “When rockets fall on the streets of Tel Aviv/What will we wear and what will we listen to then?”  As the line describes, focusing on the banalities of everyday life, from style to the next hit song, can be an alluring proposition in the face of existential threats both external and internal, eroding political agency, and increasingly serious socioeconomic forecasts. The circumstances of life in Tel Aviv and Israel as whole, under the uncertainty of conflicts and challenges with roots far beyond the understanding or agency of my generation, reflect a distinctly Israeli social reality.  It is one that I know my friends in Israel attempt to cope with, in the face of frustrating elections, bureaucratic nightmares with the Army and universities, and coming to grips with spiking costs of living.

For Israelis of my generation, and even diaspora Jews like me, who feel the weight of the Conflict, of social injustice, of increasing inequality in Israel and in Jewish communities abroad, finding ways to express and comprehend the complexity of the status quo which becomes more and more evident to us each day.  However, in their music, Vaadat Charigim have given us a vocabulary that speaks to their complexity, and they have done it in a language uniquely suited to the task.

Vaadat Charigim have been able to authentically convey the angst built into Israeli life these days and also demonstrate that the Israeli condition is unique enough to be shared on its own terms. Their music is unapologetically Israeli in tone and subject matter as well as in its artful Hebrew lyrics, and it wouldn’t be able to speak to these circumstances or their frustration with them in any other way. Their success shows that as Israeli musicians continue to wear their background and circumstances on their sleeve, audiences around the world will stay interested. More artists should follow their tack and continue to produce music in Hebrew for world audiences. It makes for better music, and it might just break the spell of boredom, malaise, and cynicism that can be all too tempting as Israelis and diaspora Jews of my generation look towards the future.

Sinking As A Stone is available from Burger Records on CD, Cassette, and Vinyl, and to download from Anova Records.

About the Author
Max grew up in Boston, Massachusetts and Raanana and studies American History and Jewish Thought at Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary. A Grinspoon-Morningstar Fellow of the Israel on Campus Coalition, Max works on Israel issues with Hillel leaders. He shares his thoughts here and on Twitter at @2Fast2Finkel
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