TREYSAR: Hebrew Songs of Love & Loss I

Ahava Sculpture at the Israel Museum. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Love songs written in the Hebrew language are nothing new. In fact, an entire book of the bible is devoted to the subject and will forever serve as the poetic gold standard. In modern hands, Hebrew expressions of love reflect a broad tent of normativity and the realities/complexities of finding/maintaining romance. The good, bad, sad and glorious of love are fodder for dozens of stellar contributions to the Hebrew songbook. Spoiled for choice, I’ve created several playlists of my personal favorites, of which this is the first.

Traditional Jewish culture venerates heterosexual love within connubial confines, but not so in the Hebrew culture of collective socialism. In the early years of the movement, Kibbutz members were actively discouraged from coupling–after all, it was a form of ownership that led to ‘bourgeois’ notions such as marriage and private family. Instead, love of the group, of the earth and of universal liberation were meant to prevail. It turned out, however, that the need for courtship and long-term mating is simply too ingrained in humans. Soon enough, even the most hardened of socialists found themselves smitten, wandering off into the sunset, two by two. Since then, Hebrew culture has joined the ranks of human history and culture in its endless pursuit of love–and endless moaning over its fickle fragility.

​In this first set of songs I present a mix of old and new, eastern and western inspired, male and female singers, silly, sassy, sensual and sad. They have inspired, excited, depressed and comforted me over the years. To me, love in Hebrew feels somehow noble, ancient and, well, sexy. Let’s see if you agree…

The Main Thing is Romance (Ha Ikar Ze Ha Romantica) 
This funny, jazzy number is a standout hit from legendary Gidi Gov’s 1978 debut solo album (after being part of a stellar army band and two top-charting groups, Kaveret and Gazoz). Written by the powerhouse team of Eli Mor and Yoni Rechter, it tells the story of a man who never gives up on the game of love even though he pretty much never wins. It’s nerdy, unsinkable, persistence is perfectly expressed by the raspy-voiced, nebbish Gov. A tribute to love itself, the trio later used the song as the basis for (and title of) a successful stage concert at the prestigious Israel Festival. Have a look at the translation HERE.

She Sits by the Window. (Hee Yoshva Bachalon)
Controversial in its day, this melancholic poem by the poet laureate of modern Hebrew H.N. Bialik tells the story of a young man whose heart aches for a woman of ill-repute. Like many Bialik songs, it contains elements of the broken, the unattainable and distant, a reflection of an exiled people in perpetual mourning and movement. The musical treatment it receives from the gentle, potent Arik Einstein–who epitomized  the new, settled Jew–strips the poem of its diasporic metaphor in favor of a more personalized, romantic narrative. Einstein’s vocal depth and intonation do however, retain the poem’s deep pathos. Dan Adler’s thorough website includes an English translation of this and many other of Einstein’s important songs. HERE.

The Silk Road (Derech HaMeshi)
The title track from Yehudit Ravitz’s outstanding 1984 album gave Hebrew music something it was sorely lacking–sexiness. Written from a singularly feminine perspective, it celebrates love and sexuality in a manner that had previously rarely seen light in masculine-obsessed  Zionist culture. The song’s Queer undertone is evident, though it reaches beyond specific orientation or gender and is simply an anthem to sensuality and passion. What Barry White gave to English speaking car seats and park benches, Yehudit Ravitz offers in Hebrew. I think it is one of the best make-out songs ever crafted in the Hebrew tongue. If you want a steamy peek at these sizzling words, look HERE.

A Story on the lawn (Agadat Desheh)
As I noted above, Israeli culture, stemming as it does from the Kibbutz socialism, places great emphasis on the collective rather than the personal or private. Youngsters are encouraged to gather in friendship groups, called in Hebrew “Chevreh”. Meir Ariel and Shalom Hanoch use this as a setting in which to describe the awkward and exciting emergence of adolescent sexuality. In the process, they demonstrate the tension between the dueling Israeli desires to be part of a group and to achieve intimacy. The result is a drama that starts with great passion, but ends abruptly, a spell broken by immaturity and an inability to handle powerful needs and longing. Shalom Chanoch’s dreamy, melancholic music completes the lyric’s  bittersweet, nostalgic feeling. There are many good versions out there, but this one by singer Hanan Yovel is my favorite, it perfectly expresses the innocence, excitement and sadness of the lyric. Check out the translation HERE.  

In My Life (B’Hayai)
So, Bialik this ain’t, in fact this number is a bit simple and repetitive. But, that is the essence of its charm, this is a celebration of everyday love from the ever-boyish, one-time reality star, Harel Skaat. In a culture that venerates high drama in all things including romance, Skaat offers us the joy of predictable, unremarkable love, a slow-burn rather than an inferno. He describes a relationship all too imperfect, but very reliable, the kind that lets you express anger, fart in bed and still have a few laughs along the way. The video treatment reflects the every-person feel of the song, f
êting the sort of resting heart-rate amour that most of us either have, or aspire to. We can forgive the video for looking a little too like Pharrell’s Happy, after all, both pay homage to the attainable joys that life offers in the world of real people and real lives–something that should never be taken for granted. The translation is Here.  

A Bedouin Love Song (Shir Ahava Bedoui) 
A bit of a revolution in Hebrew music history, this song atypically presents a tragic love story from an Arab perspective. The music (composed by the multi-talented Yitzhak Klepter) and lyric offer an exotic journey into a world of sandstorms and embroidered tents, where the desire to wander battles with the need for rootedness (a reality for Israel’s ever-struggling Bedouin population). The desert is anthropomorphized, creating a love-triangle that ends in mutual betrayal. David Broza (together with the oft overlooked Yael Levi) elevated the song to cult status and was part of an effort by young Israeli artists in the late 20th Century to widen musical horizons and honor local cultures. Kelpter’s composition offers a perfect platform for Broza’s guitar virtuosity and sensuality. Some recordings contain Arabic text, suggesting particularity, but at its core, this song is a universal metaphor for the struggle between the competing desires for freedom and commitment. Translated lyrics can be found HERE.

And Just Because I love you…A Bonus

He Didn’t Know Her Name (Hu Lo Yada Et Shema)
A theme that repeats itself in the music from the 1948 War of Independence concerns the tearing apart of lovers. This is historically accurate, given the small size of the Jewish community and the relative gender parity of fighters (more than at any other time since). This song is, in my opinion the best of its genre, perfectly encapsulating the agony of wartime love ripped apart against a backdrop of stoic heroism. Its best, most powerful literary device is the use of textual gaps,  incomplete sentences and lack of information, all of which speak to the realities of the situation. Much like Amos Gitai’s stunning film “Kippur”, the narrative emerges in the silences that lie beneath din of war. In the end, we are left, like the main character, bereft and broken in the face of overwhelming tragedy. Translate lyrics can be seen HERE.

This ballad has achieved canonical status and is a standard at war memorial services in Israel. I’m including two versions for your consideration, an early, very Western treatment by Esther Ofraim and a later, Eastern intoned one by the indomitable Sarit Hadad.

COMING SOON: Part II of This Series…with a half dozen more love songs to get set your heart ablaze

About the Author
Avi Rose, PhD is an arts-based educator, psychologist and Jewish/Israel studies lecturer. Dr. Rose trains fellow educators in the use of the arts as a learning tool. He is currently writing a book on the origins and development of the arts in Israeli society.