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When ‘Under Your Wing’ became poetry to my ears

Arik Einstein's mournful love song brought to life words by one of the greatest poets of modern Hebrew

Under Your Wing

Arik Einstein
Words: Hayim Nahman Bialik
Music: Miki Gavrielov

* * *

In Israel, great works of poetry are regularly put to music to produce hit songs. This is so commonplace that during most of the 20th century, it was very nearly the norm. If you want to write a beautiful song, just open a book of poems by, say, Natan Alterman, or Leah Goldberg or Rachel the Poetess, and come up with a melody that brings the words to life. This both brings poetry to people who might not always be exposed to it and gives popular songs a depth that makes one keep coming back to hear them again and again.

Israelis don’t think about this much, just as fish don’t think about the water. But for me, coming from America, it is magical. For comparison, how many poems by Walt Whitman or Robert Frost can you sing? There must be a few, but they are not on any hit parade I know of. But the immortal Hayim Nahman Bialik’s “Hachnisini Tachat Knafech” (“Take Me Under Your Wing”) met me when I arrived in Israel as a 22’year old immigrant in 1981. It still moves me every time I hear it.

Bialik is a legendary figure in Hebrew poetry, and he was far more than just a poet. He wrote works of fiction, essays, commentary and some of Israel’s most celebrated children’s songs, most of this while still living in Eastern Europe. In the late 19th and early 20th century, he contributed enormously to the miraculous rebirth of the Hebrew language, until then used mostly for prayer and religious study. He arrived in Palestine in 1924 already hailed as the poet laureate of the Jewish community and of the Zionist movement.

So it is no surprise that Bialik’s mournful love song “Hachnisini Tachat Knafech” has been set to five separate melodies by five different musicians. I heard one of these versions over the sound system while sorting melons in Kibbutz Ketura’s packing house shortly after arriving. The beautiful song based on a century-old poem spoke to this adolescent, lovelorn fool as though Bialik and I were sharing secrets around a campfire.

The singer was Arik Einstein, whose voice blessed us for 50 years. When I sing in Hebrew, I try to sound like him. The sweet, plaintive melody was written by Einstein’s long-time collaborator Miki Gavrielov, and its brilliance is in its simplicity. A restrained arrangement based on simple piano arpeggios builds to a crescendo of emotion with a guitar solo that recalls Brian May of Queen. In the last verse, Einstein’s voice is complemented by the background vocals of Yehudit Ravitz and Daphna Armoni, powerhouse soloists themselves, signaling, perhaps, hope for the author’s desperate search for companionship.

Invited to sing at a wedding during my first year on Kibbutz Ketura, I applied my newly self-taught piano skills and my thick American accent to this treasure. I just kept thinking “Sing like Arik, sing like Arik.” I was richly rewarded with applause, claps on the back, and a few heartfelt hugs. It was the moment that I felt as though I had truly arrived at my new home. Bialik, Arik and I are still going at it, 40 years later.

A creative translation of the plaintive poem:

Take me under your wing,
Be my mother, my sister.

Take my head to your breast,
My banished prayers to your nest.

One merciful twilight hour,
Hear my pain, bend your head.

They say there is youth in the world.
Where has my youth fled?

Listen! Another secret:
I have been seared by a flame.

They say there is love in the world.
How do we know love’s name?

I was deceived by the stars.
There was a dream; it passed.

I have nothing at all in the world,
Nothing but a vast waste.

Take me under your wing,
Be my mother, my sister.

Take my head to your breast,
My banished prayers to your nest.

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.
Questions or comments? Contact noahjefron@gmail.com

About the Author
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide who has hiked and biked the length and breadth of the country. Bill is a member of Kibbutz Ketura, where he has lived since 1981 with his wife and three daughters.
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