‘Small Gifts’: About a place where Judaism is in the air
Words: Noam Chorev
Music: Rami Kleinstein
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The first time I saw Rami Kleinstein in New York in 1998, I was blown away. There was no band on stage and no flashy lighting. Just Rami, his grand piano, and his talent.
As a lifelong Billy Joel fan, I was mesmerized by “Israel’s Piano Man.” His songs drew me in instantly. His mellow voice and masterful piano playing, combined with catchy melodies and thought-provoking lyrics, transformed me into a hardcore fan. (It didn’t hurt that he concluded the evening by singing Billy’s signature “Piano Man,” delighting and uniting the entire audience in joyful Shira B’tzibbur – communal singing.)
I soon immersed myself in Rami’s vast repertoire, and it wasn’t long before I had to buy a second copy of his “Greatest Hits” CD because the first one had worn out. To this day, I always look forward to his new material. But when he released “Matanot Ktanot” (Small Gifts) in 2014, he took my breath away.
This was the song that put my love for Israel into words.
Let me step back. I consider myself to be shomer shabbat, a Sabbath-observing Jew. To me, the traditional Jewish prohibitions of Shabbat are a blessing, enabling and ensuring precious family time without the distractions of phones, tablets, or televisions. It’s truly my favorite day of the week.
At the same time, I fully recognize that Shabbat observance isn’t for everyone – and I’ve never supported any attempted “enforcement” of Sabbath observance in Israel or elsewhere. In fact, as much as I appreciate Israel’s predominantly Jewish character, I also have a deep appreciation for its secular culture…as “non-kosher” as it may be.
But for Jews in Israel, even if you consider yourself chiloni (secular), you likely still have Shabbat.
Sure, you’re probably not going to spend the day immersed in prayer and Torah study. But you are spending most Friday evenings with family, likely reciting kiddush over wine, enjoying fresh challah, and savoring an elaborate and delicious dinner.
“Matanot Ktanot” sets the scene perfectly:
It’s another Friday, balcony and a newspaper
The sun, like the worries, slowly disappears
Simple melodies get in through the window
And no storm will hide the silence here
Anyone who’s been to Israel knows the scene well. It’s late on a Friday, moments before the sun begins to set, and you can just feel Shabbat in the air. Fewer and fewer cars whiz down the road. The savory aromas of delicious delicacies waft through every window. Tables throughout the neighborhood are set with their owners’ finest. Nostalgic Israeli music is playing softly from radios all over town. A calm serenity begins to take hold. And soon, a sea of black and white fills the streets, with neighbors walking to and from synagogue, greeting one another with a warm and genuine “Shabbat Shalom.”
As Rami himself remarked upon releasing the song:
“The song describes Israeliness, the special phenomenon in Israel on Fridays, when everything changes gears….You won’t find it in New York, Berlin or Paris, where Friday is like Thursday. It’s special for Israelis.”
“Matanot Ktanot” transports me back to Israel, no matter where I’m spending Shabbat. The picture Rami paints is special, serene, and sacred. But suddenly, at 2 minutes and 23 seconds into the song, he takes the listener on an unexpected detour into the spiritual nature of the day. In my favorite moment, the music slows and Rami hauntingly begins singing the words of the Friday night kiddush, the Jewish prayer recited over wine at the start of the meal:
For You chose us
And sanctified us
Blessed are You, God
Who sanctifies Shabbat
Wow. If you know only one Shabbat prayer, there’s a good chance it’s this one…and its inclusion elevates the experience and immerses us even more deeply into the Israeli Friday night.
So is it a religious song, or a secular one? Like many Israeli households, it’s a little bit of both – and that’s exactly the point. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or secular. It makes no difference if you’re observing Shabbat to its fullest or as a stop on the way to a party in Tel Aviv. You can’t help but sense the tranquility of the day as it’s presented in “Matanot Ktanot”. And it’s beautiful.
This is my Israel. That beautiful fusion of religious and secular – with a Jewish flavor on either side. The Israel where secular singers sing about Jewish themes. The Israel where music on the radio often evokes ancient Jewish texts, creating a listening experience that is uniquely Israeli. The Israel where you can just feel Judaism in the air, no matter where you fall on the religious spectrum. The Israel that still captures my heart and my imagination, all these years later.
A “small gift” for some – but to me, “Matanot Ktanot” embodies all the magic of the land of Israel in less than four minutes. I rarely begin Shabbat without it.
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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