Words: Joshua Sobol
Music: Shlomo Bar
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My initiation into the mysteries of Israeli identity began through Hebrew music.
In the summer of 1982, a few weeks before moving to Israel, I attended a concert in Manhattan by the Israeli band, Habreira Hativit, which literally means “the natural choice” but which the band translated as “the natural gathering,” a more precise description of its essence. They were the first Mizrahi band to break into the mainstream, bringing the devotional music of eastern Jews into the Israeli playlist, a soundtrack for the political revolution that was replacing Labor Ashkenazi Israel with Menachem Begin’s Likud. That was enough to earn the band a central place in Israel’s cultural history. But as I discovered that evening, the agenda of Habreira Hativit was even more ambitious.
The concert was held in a synagogue on West 23 Street, next to the Chelsea Hotel and around the corner from my final American residence, a sixth-floor walkup. I’d never seen anyone enter the synagogue and assumed it was abandoned. But tonight, there was a long line of chain-smoking Israelis, some of whom would likely soon be joining reservist units in Lebanon, which the IDF had invaded two months earlier, to uproot terrorists firing Katyusha rockets into Israeli towns and villages in the north. When the army laid siege to Beirut, Israeli society erupted in dissent. For the first time, war not only failed to unite us but was tearing us apart.
The band members sat cross-legged on Persian rugs that had been spread on the synagogue stage. Moroccan-born Shlomo Bar played percussion, American-born Miguel Herstein played banjo, Indian-born Samson Samson played sitar.
The band’s most haunting song, “The Village of Todra,” was deceptively innocent. It tells of a Moroccan Jewish folk custom, in which a young boy, about to begin religious studies, is led in a joyful procession to a board with Hebrew letters written in honey, and told to lick, “so that the words of Torah would be sweet in his mouth.” Only Shlomo Bar’s wailing voice revealed that the song was in fact a dirge, a cry against the erasure of a culture, the transformation of an intact Diaspora community into the detritus of the state of Israel.
The band moved fluidly across genres of Jewish and Israeli music: a Moroccan song about the joys of Shabbat turned into rock; an old Zionist anthem about a pioneer’s love for his small portion of the land of Israel, transformed from a Russian into a Middle Eastern melody, reminder of our shared devotion to Zion.
But it was “Kfar Todra” that continued to haunt me long after the concert ended, that still evokes in me the emotional intensity of that night. Its Hasidic melody, reclaiming the easternness of Eastern Europe, was an ingenious carrier for a Mizrahi protest song. “Kfar Todra” offered the hope that, beneath the growing bitterness between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, was a shared identity waiting to be formed.
That evening was the most religious experience I’d ever had in a synagogue. Even more than an essential protest against the exclusion of Mizrahi culture from the Israeli playlist, this was the soundtrack of our story; at once eastern and western, pious and subversive, insisting on respect for our differences even as it celebrated our oneness. By embracing the synthesis of ingathering, the band was offering a radical but obvious statement about Israeli identity: Only when our collective song included all the songs we had brought home from exile would the ingathering be complete. Here was a vision of our future; an Israel, I thought, in which I, an American Jew with Bob Dylan as my soundtrack, might also find a place.
In retrospect, I realized that that night was the moment I became an Israeli. “Kfar Todra” taught me that “the great change will happen on the radio / pay attention to the songs,” as Ehud Banai sings in “Poet and Child;” that the master class in Israeliness was being taught by our rock musicians and troubadours.
Israel was not only built and planted and defended but sung into existence. Yehoshua Cohen, a veteran of the pre-state underground, the Stern Group, once said to me, “Do you know why we defeated the British? Because we never stopped singing.” During the siege of Beirut in summer 1982, he continued, he noticed that soldiers sitting around the campfire weren’t singing. “That was the moment I knew we would lose the war.”
Traditionally, the strongest Jewish art forms have been literature and music, and that remains true in the Jewish state. Israel sustains itself through song, from soldiers on the final “stretcher” march of their basic training to neighbors coming together for an evening of communal singing. The Hebrew canon created such an astonishing profusion of beautiful songs in so little time that it seems as if we carried those melodies through our wanderings, waiting to sing them when we returned home.
The code of Israeliness
I first glimpsed the profound connection between Israelis and their music at a parents’ meeting at my daughter’s kindergarten. My wife Sarah and I, new immigrants, marveled as our fellow parents squatted on the little chairs and passionately sang, without self-consciousness, the songs of their childhood. There were songs celebrating the first rain of autumn and the last rain before summer, a lullaby against the terrors of the night. The simplicity of those songs was deceptive: Many had been written by Israel’s leading poets, for whom the creation of a Hebrew songbook for children was essential to the revival of the ancient language.
By immersing in Hebrew music, I learned the code of Israeliness, that mixture of cynicism and outrage and love of country that is playing out in our streets today. “How I love you, land of Israel,” Arik Einstein sings. “So why am I so sad, land of Israel?” The great anthem of working class rage, Eli Luzon’s “What a Country,” protests against scheming politicians, unreasonable taxes, the end of the Zionist vision: “Where’s the morality?/What a disgrace.” But, like the ancient prophets, Luzon ends his indictment of Israel with words of comfort: “Despite the mess and all the failures/ you are our beloved country for all generations to come.”
Perhaps the most furious Israeli protest song is Meir Ariel’s “Legend of My Dove,” a warning against the moral corruption of occupation that compares Zion to a harlot: “How Jerusalem prettifies herself/and dances in the square//…//She doesn’t pursue justice, justice/doesn’t want peace/Because there is no peace without justice/so why did we come all this way?” And yet he too ends with consolation: “Truth and justice in your gates/that is your beauty!”
Much of our popular music, of course, is as trivial as popular music anywhere – though in Israel’s immediate post-Holocaust years, that very ordinariness poignantly affirmed Zionism’s promise to “normalize” the Jews. But Hebrew song was also grounded in an old idea: that music and poetry are interchangeable. From its inception, modern Hebrew music has been the home of poets. Some of Israel’s most beloved ballads are musical adaptations of great Hebrew poems; collaborative albums by our leading singers are acts of homage to the works of single poets.
There are various ways to trace the history of Israel: through its waves of immigration, its wars, its transition from a nation of communal farms and shantytowns to a high-tech superpower. But what helps define and bind those processes into an intelligible story is the music. Without it, Israel can seem incoherent, like the Hasidic story of a deaf man observing dancers at a wedding and assuming he was witnessing an outbreak of madness.
Hebrew musicians are deeply attuned to the life of the nation. Some of our best songs of longing for peace were written with the outbreak of war. We took for granted that our most talented musicians would respond to Covid with a steady outpouring of song. “You can feel sorry for yourself if you want to,” sang a group of performers from Habimah, the national theater, in one comic clip, evoking the Israeli contempt for self-pity – or you can learn to meditate or read that great novel you’d otherwise never get to. Just do the Israeli thing and turn trauma into challenge.
Some musicians sought meaning in the pandemic, an opportunity for a spiritual reset. Drawing on the apocalyptic imagery of the Bible, Hanan ben-Ari compared the emptied streets of Tel Aviv to the aftermath of the flood, the silenced business towers to the arrogance of the Tower of Babel (“Nothing is above us”). Covid created an opening in the frantic pace of modernity to renew our human connections. “And when you go,” Ben-Ari addresses Covid, “please don’t leave us as we were before.”
As for Habreira Hativit, they’ve managed an extraordinary longevity. Though I’ve long since moved on to other bands and singers, Kfar Todra remains, for me, the ultimate Israeli protest song, precisely because it is not obviously a protest song, because it is also a love song. Shlomo Bar and his band of visionaries remain my Israeli ideal, especially in this time when old wounds have been torn open and new wounds uncovered. His rough voice, at once furious and comforting, is an apt soundtrack for this Israeli moment, reminding us of what divides us even as he insists on the primacy of the melodies we sing together.
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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