The most beautiful prayer I know
Words: Yehonatan Geffen
Music: David Broza
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Shortly after I moved to Israel 18 years ago, I went with a friend to see a show of an up-and-coming punk band that he had interviewed for the newspaper. My friend had asked their lead singer why he sings in English, and his reply was priceless: In Hebrew, I tell my wife I love her. English is what I use to curse (actual curse, not fit to print, in the original).
That reflection may explain the way that David Broza snuck into my list of favorite musicians when I was 13. Electric guitars, thumping basses and over-eager cymbal smacks did fine in English. But in Hebrew, an acoustic guitar was all I needed. And I wasn’t alone. Broza was the soundtrack of Zionist summer camps in the mid-90s. When he performed in Philadelphia, scores of Ramah and Young Judaea campers poured into a tiny auditorium to sing the words we all knew the chorus to, “Yihyeh Tov.” Hebrew, to me, was the language of the synagogue, the language of prayer, and Yihyeh Tov was the most beautiful prayer I had heard.
I was born in 1983 and I have only ever known an Israel at peace with Egypt. And while Yihyeh Tov was written around Sadat’s visit to Israel, those two words, which can mean both “it will be good,” and “it will be better,” perfectly described my hopes around Israel. Seeing the signing of the Oslo Accords, I thought, “it will be good.” Following Rabin’s assassination and the news of suicide bombings, I prayed from the bottom of my heart, “it will be better.” The rhythm of Israeli life is that pendulum that swings between moments of deep hope and moments when hope is all we have left, and to me, Yihyeh Tov captures them all.
And yet, what I love most about Yihyeh Tov, as a song and as a concept, is just how far it is from its quintessentially Israeli cousin, “Yihyeh b’seder” — it will be ok. Yihyeh b’seder means abdicating responsibility and putting faith in blind optimism. But Yihyeh Tov tells a different story. It tells us that things will be good, but only if we work for them. It is, in my mind, the most Jewish message I can imagine. We can have a positive impact on our lives, the song tells us. We can make a difference. But we have to make it, we cannot just expect it to happen to us.
At 17, asked by a few universities to present my essence in 300 words or fewer, I chose to write about Yihyeh Tov. I saw myself as someone who deliberately believes that things can not only be better but can be good. And in the 23 years since, I sometimes even surprise myself by how much that worldview guides me. That optimism led me to build a life in Israel as a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi. That optimism led me to turn to five Orthodox Yeshiva students and get them to make a minyan for a young woman’s spontaneous Torah reading for her bat mitzvah. And that optimism is why I’m not decrying the end of the state. Not because I believe that this current painful moment will just pass. But because I believe that we are capable of doing the hard work that will bring us to a better place.
In the spring of 2002, the intifada raging, I had the opportunity to meet the song’s author, Yehonatan Geffen, who left our world just days ago. During a question and answer session, another student asked him about Yihyeh Tov, a yearning for a peace that felt so distant. Geffen’s response devastated me: “I’ve asked David not to perform it anymore,” he said. “It just isn’t true.” Nevertheless, at the session’s end, I told him how much the song meant to me and that it even helped me get into college. Geffen humored me and responded, “ok, I’ll let him keep singing it.”
In the 45 years since Geffen and Broza first released Yihyeh Tov, there have been myriad versions, each one with a different final verse that reflects current events. But my favorite version is right in my house, as my 7- year-old daughter and I sing it together almost nightly before she goes to bed. “Sometimes I am broken,” we sing in the chorus, “but tonight, oh tonight, I will stay with you.” These last few months in Israel have taken a toll on me and on so many of our friends. But for my daughter, for my children, I know that it’s worth doing work to ensure that it will, in fact, be better.
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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