Pegisha, Hetzi Pegisha
Words: Rachel the Poet
Music: Hanan Yovel
* * *
It was sometime around midnight in late 1981. We had been helicoptered and bussed back to our base after a fairly, demanding, dusty and sleepless three-day maneuver with the other paratrooper battalions. Most of us just wanted to have a normal meal, a reasonable mattress – or for the more self-disciplined – a shower.
But the Israeli army never wanted its soldiers to forget that they were part of a special people, with a soul, a spirit and a national identity. It had other plans for us. And so it was that after scarfing down the meticulously prepared feast, the soldiers of the Nachal 50th battalion took their seats on the floor of the dining room in the Beit Sachur base to hear a performance by folk-singer Hanan Yovel.
There is a long history of Israeli musicians coming out to serenade the troops, either as part of their reserve duty or simply out of patriotism. Unfortunately, due to the relentless demands of the job and constant training, those of us in combat units were rarely able to partake of these intermittent concerts. But this time, we were happy to be a captive audience and rallied to stay awake for the show.
I had never actually heard the name Hanan Yovel before that night. A few of his songs were already quite famous. Indeed, he had written the melody for “Fasuliah” — a satirical tribute to a flavorless weekly meal of beans – that was on the radio all the time, and a favorite of Israeli soldiers back then. But it turned out, that he was quite the troubadour himself and had several far more serious hits under his belt.
Yovel grew up on Kibbutz Mishmarot, the same exceptional community that was home to musical icons Shalom Chanoch and Meir Ariel. The two enjoyed greater “rock star” status nationally than their childhood pal. But Chanan Yovel was probably the best musician of the bunch. By the time he showed up to sing for us, he was already 36 – which seemed ancient. As a guitar player myself, I was impressed by his distinctive picking style, the intensity of his voice, the diverse and catchy tunes – and his ability to totally hold my attention, with just a six-string and a microphone.
Yovel only played original material and never thought of adjusting his message to a military audience. As a newly arrived immigrant and lone soldier – that meant that most of the song lyrics were far beyond my reach. In those days, Israeli performers had the good sense to realize that not every musician is born a laureate – and that there is a wonderful reservoir of Hebrew poetry just waiting for a melody.
Sometime in the late-night set, Yovel played” “P’gishah Hatzi P’gishah” – which can be roughly translated: “Meeting – Hardly Meeting.” It was, as we used to say growing up in North Carolina, a “humdinger” even though I couldn’t follow the words in the least.
The tune, however, remained in my head. And when I hummed it to friends in my unit the next day, they immediately made the full introduction. The lyrics, it turned out were written by none other than Rachel Bluwstein – or as she still widely known, Rachel the Poet.
Recognized as the national poet, Rachel is often seen as a tragic figure. In 1909, at age 19, she toured Palestine with her sister and decided to stay. For several years she lived near Lake Kinneret on two different kibbutzim, but she was much more a woman of words than of manual farm labor. Diagnosed in the early 1920s with tuberculosis, she had to leave her beloved rural world in the Galilee behind and spend her final years in poverty, tutoring Hebrew in Tel Aviv, until succumbing to the disease in 1931, at age 40. There she wrote many of the melancholy and lyrical poems that would be her lasting legacy
Meeting – Hardly Meeting, typically succinct, has only eight short lines. The verse describes an unexpected moment when her path chances to cross with an inaccessible, or perhaps unrequited lover, rendered here in this 1994 translation by Jean Shapiro Cantu and Robert Friend:
Meeting, hardly meeting, suffices:
one quick glance, fragments of obscure words,
and again waves of happiness and pain
sweep over everything and rage.
Anyone who has ever suffered the passion, heartache and emotional turmoil of an inaccessible love – that is at once unbearably close, yet maddeningly untouchable and unconsummated – (which I assume is anyone who survived adolescence) can surely identify with Rachel’s hunger and suffering. The poem goes on to describe how her precarious equilibrium is shattered by the glimpse of what might have been and the agony of separation:
The dam of oblivion I had built in my defense
is as if it had never been.
I kneel on the shore of the roaring sea
and drink my fill.
Written in the first person, for years the conventional wisdom has understood the poem to be a testimonial about Rachel’s tortured relationship with Zalman Shazar (who years later would serve as Israel’s third president). In 1911, during his first visit to Israel, Shazar visited Kvutsat Kineret where he met the 21-year-old aspiring poet and the two became an item until he returned to Europe and studied philosophy and history in Germany. Rachel, it seems, never lost her affection for the man, even after he married another Rachel – Katznelson – in 1920.
Not everyone loved the song that night as much as I did. Indeed, there was a telling moment sociologically, because the kitchen and support staff also came to the concert. After our challenging time in the field, they were supposed to spoil us by preparing a “feast” for the vaunted combat soldiers. They were willing to do that – but listening to poetic songs from the second Aliyah was another story altogether. After a few numbers, they became impatient, clearly not huge fans of a kibbutznik singer and his patrician style of music.
At some point, Yovel yelled out: “Chevreh (guys) – can’t you do something about them. It’s really hard to sing with all that noise.”
And one of us immediately yelled back: “If we try to do something about it – we won’t have anything to eat!”
For me, the song represents a lot of what I loved in the Israel that I chose for a country on my twentieth birthday more than 40 years ago. It was a land that had recently revived the national language and then immediately given birth to a renewed, Hebrew musical tradition, which did not hesitate to rely on the genius of its early poets. It also was protected by a “people’s army” that forced 20-year-olds to sit into the wee hours to benefit from this edifying tradition. I was just starting to realize that not all of us came from communities that venerated this heritage.
Yovel resurfaced in the national news this year after refusing to give a performance in the Knesset due to his displeasure with the coalition’s judicial reform proposals. By now 77 (but still singing) his defiance is representative of the outrage among Israel’s founding tribe at being usurped by citizens who appreciate neither the fragility of democracy nor the sublime beauty of the culture created during Zionism’s first century.
I believe that for now, the Israeli army still fights on behalf of that tradition and culture – and many others. Much of this Zionist heritage still resonates in the sentiments heard during the recent protests, as Israelis from many tribes took to the streets to protect the land and the songs they love.
As he is well known for his enthusiasm for singing Israeli folksongs, I am also sure that my company commander that night in 1981 enjoyed Hanan Yovel’s rendition of Meeting, Hardly Meeting as much as I did. Benny Gantz may well be our next prime minister – I surely hope he will be!
It is nice to know that we have remarkable, national leaders who remain connected to our extraordinary, vibrant, Israeli culture – a culture still in its infancy, and still so very fragile. In a multicultural nation, there are many voices that need to be part of the national chorus today. But Hanan Yovel and Rachel the Poet, surely need to have a central place when we sit down, together, and sing.
This essay is part of ‘That Song,’ a collection of writings about that one Israeli song that rocked someone’s world. Click here to find more ‘That Song’ essays.
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