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Rachelli Prawer
More in love with my land and my people every day

Shir la-ma’alot: Jewish song in times of crisis

In my last post, I explored the idea of cultural tools that have helped us evolve generational resilience as a people over millennia of adversity. More recently, we have again turned to during these tools to help us cope with and make sense of our present difficulties, which include (in no particular order):

  • music
  • humour
  • faith and optimism
  • historical and religious perspective
  • fostering interpersonal connections

These tools aren’t necessarily new, or unique to Jews. But it’s fascinating to see how naturally we turn to them to support and maintain national morale.

I will explore each of these strategies and their use, both historically and in the current war, in coming posts.

Today, let’s talk music.

We are far from the first Jews to use music and song, and song as prayer, to get through difficult times in general, and times of war in particular.

King David, the great warrior of Israel, was a gifted musician and songwriter, and many (possibly even a majority, I haven’t counted) of his tehillim (Psalms) contain his entreaties to G-d in times of trouble.

We have a tradition to recite tehillim in difficult times, particularly during illness, and certainly during war. Since October 7, it’s fair to say that millions of chapters have been recited worldwide, accompanied by tearful prayers for the dead, the wounded and those living in captivity. A popular online tehillim group website, Tehillim Yachad, has had a group running since October 7 for people to recite tehillim for “military success, return of the hostage and healing of the wounded”. At the time of writing, 1,282,170 chapters of tehillim (a total of 8545 complete books) have been recited by 122,232 individual participants in this single group. There are thousands of such groups active around the world.

We believe and hope that our prayers will storm the gates of heaven and change our fates and the fates of those dear to us. We genuinely believe in the power of prayer, not just as an ‘opium of the masses’, but as a tool to influence events, on both a personal and global level.

But tehillim serves an additional purpose during challenging times. Reciting tehillim with intent – not just contemplating our desired outcome, but considering the meaning of the words – reminds us that we are not alone, that our people have been here before and prevailed. We are not alone in our struggles, in our pain or in our suffering. Even Jewish heroes such as King David suffered pain, fear, and loneliness, and he too turned to G-d to ease his pain.

King David’s dual qualities of great strength contrasting with great sensitivity is a winning combination that has been passed on through the generations.

In recent months, many songs have been written, released and circulated by many different artists affected by the war in different ways.

I will never forget listening to and watching Aryeh Zurayev’s heartbreaking yet uplifting music video “עם אחד”  (“One Nation”) on loop, with tears streaming down my face, only 10 short days after October 7, when we were still filled with shock, horror and adrenaline, uncertain how the next few months would play out.

Osher Cohen wrote a haunting tribute to the Nova music festival victims, “תרקדי” (“Dance”), accompanied by a music video of the seemingly countless names of those victims.

Eyal Golan released the morale-boosting hit “עם ישראל חי” (“The National of Israel Lives”). His song was also covered by the staff and students of Moriah College in Sydney, Australia in a video that made the rounds and uplifted many Israelis and Jews around the world.

Hanan Ben Ari wrote and recorded “מולדת” (“Homeland”), a love song to the State of Israel, accompanied by moving footage of soldiers, volunteers and regular Israelis supporting each other and contributing to the war effort.

The lyrics of Naomi Shemer’s hit 1984 “לא תנצחו אותי” (“You Will Not Defeat Me”), originally recorded by Yehoram Gaon) gained new meaning in the current war, and was rerecorded by Gaon together with the IDF Choir.

Yagel Oshri’s song, “לצאת מדכאון” (“Overcoming Depression”), released in good time in August 2023, has been adopted as an unofficial soundtrack for video clips of soldiers returning home to visit their families (random examples here, here and here. or just search  חייליםחוזריםהביתה# on your favourite social media platform). It was also appropriately recently rerecorded by the artist together by the IDF Northern division choir.

Moshe Korsia, a soldier on reserve duty since October 7 (though recently released from service), penned a song titled “לא יהיו פה מלחמות” (“There Will Be No More Wars”) about the everyday joys and frustrations our soldiers miss while far away from home, accompanied by a moving music video of soldiers coming home to visit their families.

The husband and wife musical duo, Yoni and Nina Tokayer, known as “Yonina” recently released a achingly beautiful music video “מלקטת כוכבים” (“Gathering Stars”), describing the unique challenges of family separation while reservists leave their families for the battlefield.

Jews and our supporters worldwide have also embraced song to demonstrate solidarity and connection with Israel. One such event was the Koolulam worldwide mass singing event of Madonna’s song “Like a Prayer”, recorded in more than 100 locations worldwide, to raise awareness of the hostages still held in Gaza. A shul in my own former hometown of Melbourne, Australia also hosted a similar event singing Reva L’Sheva’s song “אהבת ישראל בנשמה” (“Love of Israel is in the Soul”).

This is very far from a comprehensive list, and more songs are still being released every day.

This post also doesn’t include the many video clips in circulation of soldiers amusing or comforting themselves with music and song during their long and sometimes tedious military service.

Music is a very powerful tool, and each of these beautiful creations has touched us in different ways. But they also serve as a reminder that, at heart, we are not warriors. We not descendants of Esav, the hunter. We do not revel in violence and bloodshed. We are Bnei Yisrael, the children of Yaakov, the tent-dweller and student.

And David, the humble shepherd, who sang to himself, and G-d, as he peacefully tended his flock.

*****

If you find music meaningful at this time, you might like my YouTube Music playlist ביחד ננצח” (“Together we will be prevail”) on YouTube Music or Spotify, which includes the songs referenced above, and many others.

About the Author
Rachelli is a qualified medical practitioner and currently works as a freelance medical writer. She moved to Israel from Australia 6 years ago, and currently lives in the beautiful Judean hills of Gush Etzion with her husband and 3 children.
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