Levi Meir Clancy
Between Erbil, Jerusalem, and America.

With her poetic lyrics, Narkis has lessons for all of us

This post is all about נרקיס Narkis, a Jewish singer of Teimani (Yemeni Jewish) and Parsi (Persian Jewish) ancestry, born and raised in the State of Israel.

She is deeply under-appreciated.

Narkis draws upon her Jewish, Yemeni, Persian, and Israeli identity to record stunning music. Also, she is observantly Jewish, keeping her hair covered, and observing other aspects of tzniut, the modesty rules for Jewish men and women.

Sure, i love all sorts of Jewish music and from places around the world, but a lot of times Jewish visibility seems predicated on us presenting an assimilated, “acceptable” version of ourselves to make non-Jews comfortable.

Narkis sets her own terms. She challenges both secular and religious attitudes inside of Jewish communities, in addition to external antisemitic biases, which altogether disproportionately erase Orthodox Jewish women.

And we have already passed the terrible great sea
And where are you hiding?
When the desert closes in on us

She draws from the Torah, placing us at the instant when Jewish people had escaped from Egypt, but the parted sea behind them had not yet closed on the Egyptian chariots that were hotly pursuing them.

Although the song is grounded in a very particular textual narrative, she smoothly explores some of its universal motifs.

אביא, אביא לו
אויר הרים
אביא לו צחוק ילדים
אביא לו אש ויין

I will bring, I will bring him
mountain air
I will bring him children’s laughter
I will bring him fire and wine

Narkis takes an interesting approach to discussing freedom. Rather than tell of freedom as the absence of oppression, she describes it as the presence of our fullest Jewish selves.

She describes freedom as only a Jewish woman can: our yearning to “bring” ourselves closer to Ha’Shem; the “mountain air” we breathe by returning to Jerusalem; and the traditions we pass on to our joyful children.

My favorite lyric is “fire and wine” —this alludes to the fire at the altar of the Beit Ha’Miqdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, as well as to the wine over which we do kaddish in our homes anywhere.

With just a few simple words, Narkis explores the depths of the Jewish past to make us feel the breadth of the the Jewish present. But more personally, with its geographic and aspirational themes, she is alluding to her family’s journey of doing aliyah from Yemen and Iran to Eretz Yisrael.

Photo of Yemeni Jewish olim at a refugee camp in Eretz Yisrael, in the year a.d. 5710 (1950 c.e.). Courtesy of the National Photo Collection, part of the Government Press Office of the State of Israel, and released into public domain.

After so many generations of praying to return to Jerusalem, her parents finally tasted its air, and she grew up able to play in its streets.

Christian, Islamic, and secular movements have often drawn from or outright appropriated the exodus narrative. But it comes from the Torah, the constitution of Jewish civilization. It is unique to us as Jewish people. Exploring its relevance to present-day Jewish experiences adds to its strength.

By centering Jewishness, אביא לו Avi Lo does not confine the exodus narrative. Instead, it nourishes the narrative’s roots. And from there, its many branches can continue to help uplift the rest of humankind.

כל הנהרות
עוד ישטפו את הדמעות
אני יודעת שמצאתי אותך

All the rivers
They will wash away the tears
I know I found you

There is something profoundly relatable about הולכת איתך Holechet Et’cha, a love song that is grounded in Narkis’ identity as an observant Jewish woman.

Written by songwriter צליל קליפי Tzlil Kalifi, the lyrics do not rely on any of the pop conventions about dating around, sleeping around, or any other “aroundness” that is not part of Narkis’ lifestyle.

Instead of using pop tropes, the song describes the experience of giving love and receiving love in overarching, almost spiritual language. Because of its universal appeal, Narkis even opted to re-record the song in Arabic.

At the same time, the song is searingly raw and personal. Narkis makes it uniquely her own.

When she sings the word “ליבי libi” (my heart) in the chorus, the two syllables soar. They are commanding, assertive, and vulnerable all at the same time. The song is firmly anchored in her voice and the experience she brings.

ליבי כמו ספר פתוח
תראה אותי
וגם עד סוף העולם
אני הייתי הולכת איתך

My heart is like an open book
See me
And until the end of the world
I would go with you

Also, the music video for הולכת איתך Holechet Et’cha has several notable touches.

There are several backup dancers, and all of them wear a mitpachat (head scarf). It is rare to see opportunities for Jewish women to communicate through dance while still presenting themselves in a traditionally modest manner.

Also, the choreography is thoughtful. It stirred something in me to see such visibly Jewish women moving together in perfect unison — sometimes spreading out across a spacious warehouse, and other times coming together to embrace one another.

I realized that I had never seen anything like this before.

In the United States, Jewish visibility usually means a punchline like Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song, or a Holocaust film that may do more harm than good, or something completely, unrecognizably abstract like Greta Gerwig’s “Shabbat” approach to Barbie.

Experiencing a pop song where the music video has such authenticity and soulfulness in its overt, traditional Jewish representation was a feeling I had not even realized I missed my whole life.

אם ננעלו Im Nin’alu

אם ננעלו Im Nin’alu originated as a poem composed by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, a renowned poet who lived in the seventeenth century C.E. in Yemen. Ever since, אם ננעלו Im Nin’alu has been lovingly handed down from one generation to another of Yemeni Jews.

אם ננעלו דלתי נדיבים
דלתי מרום לא ננעלו

Even if the gates of the rich are closed,
the gates of heaven will never be closed.

Rabbi Shalom’s words spoke volumes not only about Jewish spirituality, but also about the precarious, second-class status of Jewish communities under Islamic rule in Yemen.

Shortly after Rabbi Shalom’s death, the gates very literally closed on Yemeni Jews when the Islamic leadership banished them from nearly all of the cities and towns in Yemen.

Soldiers were sent to ensure every last Jewish person was sent on a death march into the open desert. A year later, the head of state allowed Jewish communities to return as they were an important source of labor and tax revenue.

Centuries later, אם ננעלו Im Nin’alu was given new attention by Ofra Haza, a singer born in the State of Israel to parents who had fled Yemen. Ofra blended a few words from the poem with an optimistic, disco-inflected beat and English lyrics. Her rendition became an international pop hit.

Narkis drew on her deep heritage as a Yemeni Jewish and Israeli Jewish woman when deciding to make her own recording of אם ננעלו Im Nin’alu. She more or less skipped over Ofra Haza’s version, and went directly to the original poem.

Naris imbues אם ננעלו Im Nin’alu with multiple layers of meaning, like in all of her music.

Most directly, the poem gives voice to Rabbi Shalom’s experience of life in the 17th century C.E. as a Jewish person, and especially in the years leading up to the Mawza Exile.

However, as a Yemeni Jewish woman in the present day, Narkis’ rendition highlights that the poem continues to be deeply relevant.

In the 20th century C.E., Narkis’ parents fled from Yemen to the State of Israel, where she was born. אם ננעלו Im Nin’alu speaks to their experience, too.

Communities of Jews had lived in Yemen for thousands of years, but under Islamic rule were a low caste. In recent years, every Jewish person in Yemen fled due to the growth of centuries-old antisemitism.

However, the music video emphasizes a third parallel.

Narkis is not just invoking events from four centuries ago or one century ago. She simultaneously tells the story of enduring ethnic cleansing yet again, in 2005 C.E. when the State of Palestine was given autonomy over the Gaza Strip.

She grew up in גוש קטיף Gush Katif, an area in the Gaza Strip where there had been Jewish communities living for generations. Jewish history in the Gaza Strip goes back thousands of years, and names such as Nathan of Gaza pop up over the course of Jewish history.

However, the State of Palestine bans Jewish people from owning real estate, and outlaws Judaism. This is similar to antisemitic prohibitions in other countries in North Africa and West Asia, as well. In many places, Jewish people are banned from holding public office, owning real estate, practicing Judaism, or — in essence — existing at all.

When the State of Palestine exercised autonomy over the Gaza Strip, every single Jewish person there was evacuated. Like in Yemen, this meant the end of Jewish history in that area.

The small village where Narkis grew up was wiped off the map. In the music video, she shows archival footage from גוש קטיף Gush Katif alongside present-day footage of former residents, including her own family.

It is heartbreaking.

אם ננעלו Im Nin’alu is a centuries-old poem, yet Narkis shows how it remains extraordinarily relevant due to the durability of Jewish memory, and the repetitiveness of antisemitism.

אל הבית העומד בקצה חיי
אני חוזרת להביט בו בפעם האחרונה
והיה אבינו בוכה דמעות של סוף
ומה נותר לאמנו כל סיפור חייה בחול

To the house that stands at the end of my life
I look at it again for the last time
And our father was crying the final tears
And what is left for our mother
The whole story of her life is in the sand

However, there is not just sadness in these lines. There is also strength.

The lyrics, the archival footage, the present-day footage, and even the Hebrew language itself all come together seamlessly. Narkis draws upon the unparalleled depth and continuity of thousands of years of Jewish experience in the Middle East.

Some of the experiences have been good, and some of them have been not so good.

In one song and music video, Narkis expresses all of this.

About the Author
Levi Meir Clancy lives in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and is the founder of Foundation of Ours, which supports Jewish expression in the Kurdistan Region, and provides platforms for reconciliation and coexistence between all communities. He was born in Venice, California and moved to the KRI in 2014, after which he became involved in cultural, social, and religious affairs in addition to his work as a software developer, photographer, and videographer.
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