Editor’s Note: Please check out the previous installments of this ongoing series.
Songs have played a huge role in Israeli nation-building. With Jews immigrating to the land from all over the world, an incredibly diverse mix of influences had to be sifted into the musical melting pot. And yet, even in pioneering days well before the declaration of statehood in 1948, songs of distinct, unmistakable Israeli (or what came to be called Israeli) character started emerging.
The Zionist enterprise was not an easy one, beset with economic hardship and violent attacks, and songs were a huge morale-booster. Public sing-a-longs, often with dancing, were a staple of life in the rural settlements and also became part of the general culture. Songs ran the gamut of human experience, but love for the restored land, and heroism and mourning connected to wars and battles, were common themes especially on the collective level. Songs using biblical motifs and passages were also very popular.
Women have been among Israel’s greatest creators and performers of songs. Here I can only offer a few examples from dozens of worthy cases.
“Jerusalem of Gold” (“Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”; lyrics in English here) is an Israeli song so quintessential that it has even been proposed as an alternate national anthem to “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”).
A dreamlike reverie, “Jerusalem of Gold” was originally written in May 1967 and expressed longing for the sacred sites of Jerusalem, from which Israelis had been barred by the Jordanian occupation since 1949. Yet a few weeks later, in the Six Day War, Israel recaptured eastern Jerusalem and the Old City where the Western Wall and the Temple Mount are located, and the song’s author added a final verse of wonder and joy.
That author was the hugely popular Naomi Shemer, known as “the first lady of Israeli song.” Back in May 1967, she chose a then-unknown singer named Shuli Natan to sing “Jerusalem of Gold” at that year’s Israel Music Festival. Shuli Natan has been associated with the song ever since, and above she performs it soon after it was written, before the other verse was added.
Middle Eastern elements are a major presence in Israeli song—in part simply because of where Israel is located, in part because large numbers of Jews from Middle Eastern countries have immigrated to it. One such was Shoshana Damari, who was born in Yemen in 1923, came to Palestine with her family a year later, and over a decades-long career became known as the “Queen of Hebrew Music.”
Above she performs “The Little Shepherdess from the Valley” (“Haroah Haktana min Hagai”), which blends Middle Eastern-tinged harmony and rhythm with a distinctly Israeli bounce and flair. Typically the melody was written by major Israeli composer Moshe Vilenski, who was of Polish background, and the lyrics by Rafael Eliaz, who was of Bulgarian background; much Israeli culture grows out of European-Middle Eastern cross-fertilizations.
Also typical is the shepherd theme, which was especially popular in the 1950s when this song was written and was based both on biblical shepherd motifs and on the actual landscape of modern Israel, where you can still see both Jewish and Arab shepherds tending their flocks. In this song a shepherd broods about a shepherdess as dusk falls, which seems to belie the feisty mood.
“The Flute” (“Hechalil”) is one of the most compelling and beautiful Israeli songs. A lyrical meditation on the sound of a shepherd’s flute with, again, a rich blend of Western and Eastern harmonies, its melody was composed by David Zehavi and its words were originally a 1938 poem by the great Israeli poetess Leah Goldberg.
The above powerful rendition of “The Flute” was done on Israeli TV in around 1990. On the right is Ofra Haza, an iconic singer of Yemenite background who died at 42 in 2000. On the left is Yehudit Ravitz, a very popular singer to this day.
One of the greatest Israeli singers of today is Ahinoam Nini, known abroad as Noa. Born in Israel and also of Yemenite background, raised in New York City before returning to Israel, she sings in both Hebrew and English and is equally at home with traditional Jewish and Middle Eastern music or Beatles ballads, and a great deal in between. Her politics are far from mine; what to do? It’s true of a lot of artists whose work I value.
Early in her career Nini wrote the music (her guitarist Gil Dor wrote the lyrics) for “Mishaela,” performed above, both with characteristic Israeli elements and strikingly original (lyrics available in English here.) “Mishaela” expresses ecstatic union with nature and well represents the ongoing tremendous vitality of Israeli song and Israeli women’s essential contribution to it.