Neshama Carlebach

‘Invincible Spirit’ – The people of Israel live

Our new musical project for these dark days weaves two classic Carlebach tunes into an anthem of consolation and hope

I don’t have the words to adequately express what I am feeling, but the message from my heart and soul cannot be contained. So, in that spirit, the invincible spirit of our people, I offer you thoughts on a new song of strength, consolation, and hope.

Originally written in support of the Soviet Jewry Movement, Am Yisrael Chai has been an anthem of the Jewish people for over 50 years. The melody and words have brought energy, sustenance, and unity whenever it’s been sung, often in response to hardships facing the Jewish world. In times of need, it is simultaneously a call to action and a prayer, a defiant cry and a message of reassurance. The words, translated as “The People of Israel Live,” were set to music by my father in the 1960s and embraced as part of the Jewish canon. Today, since the horrors of October 7, they have once again become a constant refrain in the Jewish community.

This song has been in my blood, in the wind around me, and in my soul since I was born. It continues to lift and inspire me, even after hearing and singing it countless times.

R. Shlomo Carlebach with soldiers in the Golan Heights, 1973 (Screenshot)

In the 50 years since Am Yisrael Chai was composed, both everything and nothing has changed. My father wrote the song while still crying for the pain of the Shoah. I had felt the sorrow and response he conveyed through the simple phrase and melody but didn’t truly comprehend the depth of the grief until October 7, when a new pain and darkness settled on our collective heart.

Now I understand. I feel it in my bones. Spending countless hours on social media crying, my body is in pain as Am Yisrael mourns. Again. Through my own tears, I witness the precious few remaining survivors of the Holocaust working to comfort and acknowledge our new survivors.

And, as we mourn, as we mobilize to hold each other up, we are also screaming to bring the hostages home. And, as we mourn, mobilize, and scream, we face seemingly endless antisemitism surrounding our family and our children in Jewish communities spanning the globe.

Singing has always been my own form of resistance and so, for me, this moment called for a new interpretation of the music that has held me, and many of us, for decades. Just as my father channeled timeless themes to create a timely spiritual response, I believe I also must. I believe this is the best part of my complicated legacy.

Along with my two sons and my longtime musical collaborator, David Morgan, I began working on a new project. Am Yisrael Chai has usually been sung up-tempo, with excitement. I felt a new interpretation – a slower battle march – emerging, one that embodied the intensity and rhythm inspired by young Israeli soldiers.

This new musical interpretation is my way of expressing the feeling that everything and nothing have changed. Yes, Jews are still somehow on the defensive, required to defend ourselves while defending our right to defend ourselves. Israeli women are not seen and believed when they are violated. Jews are ignored when we cry out for justice. All that is the same.

Volunteers help out with cherry tomato harvest in Moshav Ein HaBesor, southern Israel on December 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

What is different? The words “The People of Israel Live” mean something new when Satmar Chasidim and Russian Olim and the Women of the Wall and American rabbis dancing with displaced children in Jerusalem are all singing it. Am Yisrael Chai means something new when it describes Jewish teenagers from around the world volunteering to pick lettuce in southern Israel and soldiers getting married at the front lines of a battle for our homeland. Am Yisrael Chai is reservists leaving family members, stays overseas, and flourishing careers behind at a moment’s notice to serve the Jewish People. Am Yisrael Chai is the Nova survivors’ new tattoos that promise we will dance again. Am Yisrael Chai is Shoah survivors holding posters of hostages and citizens demanding accountability from elected leaders in the face of horrific systemic failure. Am Yisrael Chai is the families who have taken in babies, newly orphaned by unimaginable terror. Am Yisrael Chai is Jewish women, warriors one and all, demanding to be believed and shown respect. Am Yisrael Chai is a battle cry against hatred, against cruelty. Am Yisrael Chai is our family marching for justice and life.

Am Yisrael Chai is us.

Protector of Israel

But I felt that something essential was still missing. The scale of our loss is too immense. Too many are holding stress beyond comprehension. Too many sisters and brothers and grandchildren and spouses are waiting and praying for their loved ones to come home from captivity and from battle. For them, for all of us in our collective despair, it seems that even the power of Am Yisrael Chai isn’t enough. For them, we call for extra protection, for more grace, for a miracle. For them, we added Shomer Yisrael/Protector of Israel, a plea to heaven for protection for our family against harm. We deserve so much better than we’ve received in these dark days. The words say it so clearly: “ve’Al Yovad Yisrael/Let not Israel be lost.” Shomer Yisrael is a prayer for when it feels like the world is collapsing and we don’t experience God’s protection.

And the last line of Shomer Yisrael is the final necessary element for our healing, the linchpin for the spiritual mashup of these two musical ideas. It is a reminder of who we are. We are “Ha’Omerim Shema Yisrael/the ones who say, ‘Hear O Israel.’” (It was reported that, in one unfathomable moment during October 7, a scared older resident of a massacred community in Israel’s south who refused to leave their attic for fear that the IDF soldiers beckoning him were terrorists in disguise only agreed to come out when the soldiers sang the Shema to him.) Through it all, over thousands of years of shared history, we have been defined by the unnamable connection Jews have with each other. I have never felt this so clearly. I hadn’t known what this felt like, what all this meant, until October 7.

That evening, I was due to go to shul to lead t’fillot for Simchat Torah having already heard the news. How could we possibly celebrate? How could we dance? Early in the day, we didn’t even know the extent of the horror, as every few minutes the terrifying numbers continued to rise. Even today, new staggering realizations of that day’s losses continue to appear.

Family and friends attend the funeral of Israeli soldier Lieutenant Colonel Roi Yochai Yosef Mordechai at Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery, on January 7, 2024. He was killed during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

We have lost so much. We must build and rebuild once again. My deepest wish is that this new creative expression could be a small part of the healing we all need so very badly.

Am Yisrael Chai is the declaration that our family deserves to live unafraid.

Shomer Yisrael is the call for safety and renewed family connection.

Combined, these songs serve as a reminder to every Jew – and to the world – that Am Yisrael has always been and will forever be defined by one thing: invincible spirit.

My prayer is that this renewed song brings strength to Am Yisrael, all around the world and especially in our beloved homeland. I believe the message transcends the music and soars beyond the words. It flows through our veins. Its power is not dependent upon any source. It is upon us to channel what has always been strong and hopeful in our hearts, to mobilize and ensure the life and dignity our children deserve. We lift our eyes to the mountains, demanding life, praying for protection, asserting our right to be. We do so with music, tears, dancing, with our army, with our prayers, with our very souls. We give our family everything we’ve got and more.

This is how we fight. We dance. We sing. We pray. We take care of each other. We demand justice.

This is how we win: we live.

Am Yisrael Chai!

About the Author
Neshama Carlebach is an award-winning singer, songwriter and educator who has performed and taught in cities around the world. A winner and four-time nominee in the Independent Music Awards for her most current release, Believe, and winner of the Global Music Awards Silver Award for Outstanding Performance by a female vocalist for the album, Neshama has sold over one million records, making her one of today’s best-selling Jewish artists in the world. As the first then-Orthodox woman of her generation to perform for a mixed-gender audience, Neshama has sparked public conversations with brave forays into the place of women in Judaism and today’s world. In the aftermath of the October 7th attacks, Neshama brought thousands of people together throughout the NY metro area for concerts that have raised over half a million dollars for Israel. Neshama is currently writing a memoir.