How traveling makes us Israeli: 11 Hebrew songs in honor of a domestic summer

“How shall we sing… in a foreign land?”

This Yom Haatzmaut, Yossi Klein Halevi shared with us a remarkable Shir Hamaalot of his own making: a tapestry of Israel through its music. In the spirit of his hero Meir Ariel (and of all Facebook challenges), I would like to present an Al Naharot Bavel to that hymn: 11 seminal Israeli songs that, through lyrics and melody, touch on the complicated relationship between Israelis and chul.

How does one even begin to explain “chul”? Technically, it’s just the acronym for chutz la’aretz, which means “outside of Israel.” But emotionally it represents so much more.

We Israelis are a travel-obsessed people, arguably existing in two binary modes: the default ba’aretz (in Israel) and the aspirational be’chul (abroad). We go on bar mitzvah trips and babymoons; the “big tiyul” and numerous gichot le’chul (short trips abroad); post-army, pre-semester and while-job-hunting trips. Every year we export thousands of shlichim (emissaries), relocationers, and plain-old émigrés. (I myself currently live in New York.) This is quite a surprising development for a nation endowed with a promised land and an ethos of shlilat hagolah (the negation of exile).

The first half of 2020, however, has put our intense romance with chul on hold. Early in the pandemic, El Al airlifted hundreds of Israeli backpackers out of Lima and Melbourne. Now, as the summer approaches, far-flung destinations must be substituted for domestic locales. In the absence of Greek tavernas, Teverya will have to do. Derech Burma will cover for treks to Dharamshala.

This forced grounding is an opportunity for retrospection. How did we become such restless globetrotters in the first place? What attracts us to Natbag (Ben Gurion Airport) in droves, over and over again?

Our popular music, unsurprisingly, has lots to say about the modern-day Rivers of Babylon. In its ever-evolving forms and styles – from the accordion at the kumzitz, through Shalom Hanoch’s electric guitar, to Static & Ben El’s reggaeton – Israeli music has always been a blend of local and foreign influences. Listen closely and you’ll find that the lyrics, too, carry a taste of chul and bear its psychological imprint.

In our music, chul is the measuring stick for Israeli reality, and its irresistible forbidden fruit; it’s where spiritual quests are undertaken and emotional refuge is sought; it conjures awe and guilt, freedom and loneliness. Yossi Klein Halevi suggested that music is “where the Israeli soul is most fully expressed.” Our souls dwell, no doubt, in the land of Israel, but chutz la’aretz is never too far from our minds.

Before we dive in, a disclaimer is due. I’m not a music or travel expert. My musical preferences are woefully mainstream (record-store proprietors terrified me), and my travel experiences are limited. Accordingly, this list is nothing but a collection of musical mementos and lyrical earworms gathered over years of living to the Israeli soundtrack: Galgalatz, the youth movement campfire, the wedding dance floor. Nevertheless, I believe that together the songs I selected track a cultural phenomenon worthy of exploration. And as Israelis, explore we must.

If physical travel is restricted, let us embark on a musical voyage. Along the way, we’re bound to learn something new about our country and, perhaps, ourselves. Shall we?

Songs 1 – 4: Here vs. There

1.  Shalom Lach Eretz Nehederet (Hello Wonderful Country), Yehoram Gaon

[Click here for an English translation of the lyrics.]

The journey begins (how could it not?) with Yehoram Gaon’s Shalom Lach Eretz Nehederet.

We’re sitting in a sweaty auditorium somewhere near Yeruham. It’s the second week of Kurs Makim (IDF commanders’ course), and we’ve gathered for a sidrat chinuch (education session). The mashakit (instructor) is projecting images of exotic landscapes onto the screen ahead: snow-capped mountains, sandy beaches, vast open plains. Guess where they were taken, she prompts us: Switzerland? The Seychelles?

Then comes the big reveal. As a matter of fact, they were all taken here, in Israel! We re-watch the slides, this time captioned – Hermon, Ashkelon, Emek Izrael – and to Yehoram Gaon’s serenade. “Hayiti be’Pariz vegam be’Roma… aval ein makom kmo Eretz Israel,” his tenor voice crackled over the ancient sound system (“I’ve been all around the world, but there’s no place like Israel”). Trust me, I’ve been there and seen it all; little Israel has it all and better.

Those of us paying attention are probably thinking: “Thank you Ms. Mashakit, Mr. Gaon. We’d like to first see it for ourselves.”

* * *

2.  San Francisco al Hamayim (San Francisco by the Water), Arik Einstein

[Click here for an English translation of the lyrics.]

From the dusty Negev we hop halfway across the world to the glimmering blue of the San Francisco Bay, where we find Arik Einstein deep in contemplation. We sit quietly by his side and listen. Funny, he’s also preoccupied by a “here vs. there” dilemma, and lands – like Yehoram Gaon before him – in the no-place-like-home camp. But where Gaon came off dogmatic and naïve, in Einstein we trust and believe. Why is that?

We obviously can’t resist Arik’s intimate voice, the vocal embodiment of Israel itself. But it’s also his sincere attitude: he’s confiding in us while “in the act,” still far away and enamored by foreign beauty and pop culture.

In Einstein’s case, the home team’s victory is by points, not a knockout. Israel doesn’t win the beauty pageant; no convincing ideological argument settles the debate. The upset is carried from left field. Arik is homesick, he misses the provincial coziness of Tel Aviv. (I walk through Times Square and miss the low-tech ­billboards of Jerusalem.)

Homesickness is something we can all relate to.

* * *

3.  Haselah Ha’adom (The Red Rock), Arik Lavi

[Click here for an English translation of the lyrics.]

Why all the side glances in the first place? Instinctively, it has something to do with size, or geography. Tiny Israel is surrounded by countries that are *understatement warning* hostile vacation environments. The only outlet is overseas.

The onset of this distinctly Israeli claustrophobia is discernible in Haim Guri’s ballad Hasela Haadom (recorded by Arik Lavi in 1958). The Red Rock ballad mythologizes a perilous journey to Petra, Jordan, a wondrous place “beyond the mountains and the desert.” Earlier in the 20th century, before the disintegration of Britain’s Middle Eastern presence, nearby Petra would have hardly counted as chutz la’aretz. But by the 1950s, sovereign-state borders presented inconvenient obstacles to the boundless ethos of Dor Tashach (Israel’s founding generation). The sabras instinctively responded with suicide missions to Petra, incredibly dangerous all-or-nothing protests against the new independent-yet-cramped reality.

The ballad ends with a hiker’s death, a literary sacrifice on the altar of free-spirited travel, soon to be joined by many real-life casualties. The message: this too is something worth dying for.

The establishment of the State of Israel should have sounded the death knell of the wandering Jew. The Petra adventurers responded, “Long live the restless Israeli!”

* * *

4.  London, Chava Alberstein

[Click here for an English translation of the lyrics.]

If Hasela Haadom was about resisting physical confines, Chava Alberstein’s London reminds us that entrapment need not spatial. Sometimes what we’re after is emotional wiggle room.

It can be suffocating to live in place where kol Israel chaverim (we’re all friends) and kulanu mishpacha (we’re all family). Why schlep to Eilat or the Dead Sea if you’ll end up bumping into colleagues and neighbors? Might as well fly someplace cheap and off the Israeli beaten path.

“Don’t escort me,” Alberstein’s London-bound heroine exclaims theatrically, “I have no illusions… gam sham eheye levad” – there too I will be alone. But at least there’ll be good TV and the strangers will be polite. Most importantly, they’ll be strangers.

On a deeper level, Chava Alberstein’s despondent “levad” echoes another 80s cry for loneliness: Yehudah Poliker’s “chofshi ze legamrei levad” – to be free is to be absolutely alone. A spoonful of cold British loneliness is precisely what they’re after.

* * *

Songs 5 – 7: There, in three acts

5.  Baladah Leozev Kibbutz (Ballad for a Kibbutz Leaver), Keif Hatikvah Hatovah

Act I: A Lifetime Away.

A young man leaves the kibbutz. At first he flails in the outside world; everyone’s sure he’ll return in no time. Eventually he finds success and lays roots in the city. The early days’ shame-filled visits to his parents make way for nouveau riche flaunting of his shiny car and glamorous wife. He’s gone for good.

Superficially this tale has nothing to do with chul. Fundamentally, though, the archetypes of the ozev (kibbutz leaver/defector) and the yored (émigré from Israel) share much in common. After all, the tight-knit, ideological kibbutz is a microcosm of Israel. One is abandoned for Tel Aviv, the other for Berlin, but either way, pride, guilt, and – with time – nostalgia feature prominently.

In the song’s finale, the chorus’s smug mantra is reformulated by a harsh realization: actually, “he will not return.” The truth, of course, is more complicated. When paid a visit by an off-the-derech kibbutznik (much like he once was), all the ozev has to offer is hollow reminiscing about the good old days in the refet (cow shed). One wonders, the ozev/yored will not return, but did he ever fully leave?

* * *

6.  Hatikvah, Synonyms

[Click here to watch to the scene from Synonyms (2019; directed by Nadav Lapid).]

Act II: A Moment on the Paris Metro.

Two young men ride the Paris Metro. To the left, by the car’s doors, is Yoav, the film’s protagonist. Yoav is a self-proclaimed emotional fugitive. He fled Israel (i.e., military trauma, overbearing family legacy) in pursuit of a romanticized Parisian life. Next to him stands Yaron, Yoav’s alter ego. Yaron, a security guard at the Israeli embassy, is all that Yoav is not: brash, confident, proudly Jewish and Israeli.

Suddenly Yaron is overcome by an impulse. He bursts into a mad mechanical humming of Hatikvah, first quietly, then with growing passion and energy. A vocal vandalism of the silent evening commute, performed with the explosive energy of an alien anthem.

Phew, what was that all about?

Continuing the alter ego theme, one might argue that the scene is a representation of Yoav’s troubled soul. The manic intensity reflects his helpless – wordless – bashing against an inescapable Israeli identity.

But from Yaron’s conscious perspective, it’s all much simpler. He’s no fugitive – he’s a representative. He’s a new Jew whose presence in chul is on behalf of, or at least empowered by, the State of Israel. He’s the Mossad assassin and the IDF field doctor, flexing Israel’s global reach. He’s the F-16 pilot over Auschwitz and my friend letting the faucet run in a Warsaw hotel, “showing them we’re still here.” He’s the educating shalichim and the disrupting techies, each in their own way advancing the national cause. And he’s the post-army trekkers in Nepal who relish in Hebrew signage and hummus joints, and travel the world like they own it.

Oftentimes when traveling abroad, we’re part Yoav, part Yaron. We want to get away, but can’t resist engaging when we hear Hebrew or catch a whiff of Middle East politics. It’s just who we are.

7.  Brooklyn, Ehud Banai

[Click here for an English translation of the lyrics.]

Act III: A Day in Brooklyn.

Ehud Banai, the ever-observant seeker-storyteller, wanders the streets of Brooklyn. He’s searching, for what it’s unclear. Inspiration? Connection? Does he even know? Along the way, he takes in the borough’s signature cocktail of kodesh (holy) and chol (ordinary/profane), its sizzling river of humanity (Sue who became Sarah, Reed who was once Rabinowitz) and language (English–Hebrew–Yiddish–Spanish). He also captures with nonchalant profoundness the uncanny experience of an Israeli Jew transplanted to the diaspora. “I’m not from here, but not really a stranger either,” he sings/psychoanalyzes.

For me, Brooklyn the song represents Israeli spiritual quests abroad. Obviously, Brooklyn the place is not the category’s front-runner; far ahead of it are the (living) gurus of the Far East and the (deceased) rabbis of Eastern Europe and North Africa, with Uman, Ukraine leading the pack. Then again, these days so many Jewish trips abroad pay pilgrimage to outposts of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, courtesy of the Rebbe and his shluchim. So maybe it’s not such a bad choice after all? And Brooklyn certainly speaks to my journey, which in the past few years has led me to New York time and time again.

The pursuit of self-knowledge through tiyul (hiking/journey) is second nature for Israelis, and it’s no surprise that some expeditions have spilled overseas. Yet the roots of Jewish chul’s particular appeal as a site for spiritual experimentation seems to lie deeper. (Consider, for example, the ascetic practice of self-imposed galut.)

In Banai’s account, the attraction is the diaspora’s funky fusion of novel and familiar: his Brooklyn is a surreal counterlife, a Jewish existence just a few notches off from his own. It’s feels authentic and, at the same time, morphed to the degree of unrecognizable. It’s disorienting, and therefore disarming. Somehow it opens Israeli hearts and minds in ways that the holy land could not.

* * *

Songs 8 – 11: Back Here

8.  Shir Ahava Indiani (Miguel) (Indian Love Song (Miguel)), Alma Zohar

[Click here for an English translation of the lyrics.]

Returning from chul can feel like a slap to the face. The morning after, you wake up to a pile of unpaid bills and nagging existential questions: Where will I live? What will I do? What will I do with my life? It’s tempting to immediately embark on the next trip, or at least start saving for it. Even if you don’t, the spirit of chul is guaranteed to linger longer after the jet lag passes.

For new-age singer Alma Zohar, that spirit has a name and a voice. “It’s Miguel,” and the mere sound of his accented English sends her back to an impossible romance in a distant land. “I’m coming,” she fantasizes in dreamy spoken word. (Fun fact: Zohar’s step-father, Yankele Rotblit, wrote the lyrics of Ballad for a Kibbutz Leaver.)

Inside, however, she knows very well that she’s not going anywhere. Did what happened in chul get wiped away the moment her El Al carrier hit the tarmac? Clearly not, but it’s hard to see how it all fits in back home.

Moshe, the poet-speaker’s Israeli partner, poses an ultimatum: “o’ she, o’ she” – either, or. You had your fun, now it’s time to grow up. There’s no in-between, you must decide: It’s either me or him, here or there, reality or fantasy.

* * *

9.  Bucharest, Omer Adam

[Click here for an English translation of the lyrics.]

Until recently it seemed like the binary decision between “here” and “there” could actually be punted indefinitely.

Pre-COVID-19, air travel was more accessible than ever thanks, in part, to the Open Skies Agreement. The lucky among us could indulge in numerous escapes a year, with ever-shortening intervals. A shopping spree in Barcelona could be promptly followed by a long weekend in Greece. The countdown would restart as soon as the arrivals hall’s sliding doors ejected us into the Gush Dan humidity.

Thus we danced to the seductive beats of songs like Terminal 3 (by Dudu Aharon) and Bucharest (by the one and only Omer Adam). Adam and Co. promise nothing but humble destinations. (Bucharest, really??? There’s clearly some subtle irony there.) But Bucharest is undeniably chul – you need a plane to get there, don’t you? – and that was enough to make the dark magic happen. Stress valves were released, responsibilities alleviated. You could forget yourself, let loose and party hard. Bucharest, it was the time of our lives!

(When listening to the song, note the eye-popping sacrilegious conclusion: “On the way back la’aretz, everyone is depressed.” We’ve certainly come a long way since Yehoram Gaon’s wholesome “tov yoter lachzor” – it’s even better to return.)

* * *

10.  Galshan (Surfboard), Danny Sanderson

[Click here for an English translation of the lyrics.]

* * *

11.  Kvish Hachof (The Beach Road), Static & Ben El

[English translation is embedded in the video.]

Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus we’re all grounded, and the withdrawal symptoms are starting to show. What will we do without a periodic fix of chul?

I’ll leave alternative itineraries to other forums. But if there’s something I learned from this musical journey, it’s that chul is not just a place; for Israelis, it’s a frame of mind. While easier to achieve abroad, it is attainable even within the four corners of the land.

Many local roads lead to that coveted nirvana, one of which was paved by rocker Dani Sanderson (whose biography contains a healthy dose of chul) and recently updated by the teenage heartthrobs Static & Ben El.

In Sanderson’s 1980s Beach Boys tribute, Galshan (Surfboard, aka Hagalshan Sheli), he sprinkled California chill vibes onto blocky, gray coastal towns like Bat Yam. In Static & Ben El’s Kvish Hachof, a cruising car fills in for the surfboard, to a similar effect. They miraculously transform Highway 2, a functional, congested road, into a local equivalent of Pacific Route 1. It’s still our little Israel, but in the road-tripping getup of a much vaster country.

In my experience, it works. After returning from Australia, my friend Binyamin and I would occasionally go surfing in Tel Aviv, by the Dolphinarium. “Surfing” is a generous way of putting it. Despite the mild Mediterranean waves I could barely stand on my surfboard. (I still can’t.) But I did know what the ritual stood for: It was a gentle tide of Australian chul carrying into my Israeli reality. Helplessly paddling as another wave swept by, I felt free and unencumbered. It was just me and my rented surfboard, looking at the Tel Aviv coastline but feeling a thousand miles away.

About the Author
Ben Zion Ferziger is an Israeli attorney living and working in NYC, and a member of Shazur/Interwoven (, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering appreciation and collaboration between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. Ben Zion taught in Sydney, Australia for a year in 2011-2012.
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