Monday, May 26, 2008

The Songs of Israel (Part 2)

Anyone who knows anything about Israeli music probably knows the name Naomi Shemer. By every measure she towered over other Israeli songwriters. For half a century her songs were, literally, the voice of a nation and a people. After her death in 2004 it was revealed that she had appropriated the melody of a Basque folksong for Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. The Jewish people held no grudge.

But there was another great female Israeli composer who lived in her shadow for decades, Nurit Hirsh. Her name is less well known in North America, even though her music was (commercially) more successful.

Having a hit song is one thing, but composing a mega-hit, a song that by definition alters the musical landscape, is quite another. By that yardstick, Nurit Hirsh’s Oseh Shalom became the equal of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, and more. Where did this seemingly “traditional” song come from? Oseh Shalom was one of two hit songs from the first Hassidic Song Festival, held in Tel Aviv during Sukkot of 1969. This is what it sounded like on the very night of its premiere. (The other was V’haeir Eineinu by Shlomo Carlebach, whose wildly popular Hasidic-pop songs had inspired the Festival. In the years following, a dozen or more Hasidic flavored worship standards would emerge from this Festival to become part of the permanent American synagogue repertoire.)

Nurit Hirsh’s new Oseh Shalom arrived on these shores like every other Israeli song in those days – via sh’lichim (emissaries) who came here from Israel in search of olim chadashim (new immigrants). During the spring of 1970 it spread through a network of Hebrew teachers and young rabbis, helped along by high school students returning from their Israeli exchange programs. For those of us strumming our guitars at Jewish camps in 1970 (I was 16) and learning it for the first time, it hit like a bolt of summer lightning.

Yes, during that summer we were gifted with one of the most recognizable Jewish songs in history. Through the summer and into the fall it was on everyone’s lips, and by the following year it felt like an old friend. In Jewish venues across the USA, from synagogues, camps and Hebrew schools to Federations, nursing homes and nightclubs, it became an anthem. Here is NFTY’s recording from 1972. 

Before long, teenagers, emboldened by the power of this new song (and others that would follow) urged their rabbis and cantors to include it in worship services, and many did. But some questioned the appropriateness of such a “simple” tune becoming part of the regular synagogue repertoire. Youth group and camp was one thing, they said, but the bima was another. In 1975 I attended an academic conference on Jewish music, at which I heard a well-known musicologist complain that the repetition of melodic sequences in Oseh Shalom’s B and C sections made it a poor choice for inclusion in synagogue services.

The following summer brought her second mega-hit, Bashanah Haba’ah, to an American Jewish audience now hungry for tuneful, inspiring and spirited new Israeli songs. Hirsh’s bouncy and playful melody, wedded to the late Ehud Manor’s elegant and simple lyrics was a huge hit at camp - we couldn’t stop singing it. By the early ‘70s El Al was using it in TV commercials, so kids would start dancing around the dining hall with arms outstretched like airplane wings whenever it was sung, and before long everyone was doing it.

Bashanah is an enduring song and I love singing it. But it has taken on more than a hint of Catskill kitsh, especially when done in swing time. This may be a legacy of the song’s English language version, “Anytime of the Year” sung by (Brooklyn cantor’s son) Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Broadway lyricist Robert Brittan’s “translation” has little to do with the Hebrew, (maybe that’s for the best) and while Steve and Eydie’s swinging 45 rpm version is rarer than rare, this excerpt, sung by Holly Lipton gives you the general idea.

Interpreting Bashanah is a risky affair. Where do you go with it – swing? samba? The song has started to show up in December school “Holiday” concerts as the token Jewish song, which, sadly, can only hasten its decent into dreidle-ization. I’ll give some credit to the San Diego Men’s Chorus for trying a different tack in this YouTube video, and then finish up with two of my personal favorites.

First, from the mid-70s, is the proto-Jewish-rock-group, Tayku, five superb musicians who met while studying Torah at JTS. Bassist David Burger is a highly respected composer and performer, while pianist Matthew (Mati) Lazar has become one of the leading conductors of Jewish choral music on the planet. It's an inventive arrangement. The Latin treatment is, trust me, (as I have said before) cutting edge for its time. I only wish I had a better sounding LP version, but sadly, a CD transfer was never released. Listen here.

Two decades later we have a very refreshing straight ahead rock treatment by the Boston based (and quite Beatlesque) Yom Hadash, one of our great contemporary Jewish bands, from their first album, When We Were Young. Listen here.

How can I end a tribute to Nurit Hirsh without taking note of her third big hit, Abanibi? Here’s the video. The cute disco hit (I actually kind of like it) gave Israel its first ever 1st Prize at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1978, paving the way for Halleluyah, video here, which also won 1st Prize for Israel the following year (and probably earned more money than anything either Shemer or Hirsh ever composed.) Eurovision songs have never been accused of heft - let’s just say the bubblier and bouncier your song is, the better your chance of taking home a prize.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Songs of Israel (Part 1)

Happy Birthday Israel! What a proud and momentous celebration - six decades of statehood. I still treasure the memories of my first trip to Israel in 1978. I lost count of how many times I’ve visited since then, each trip unique and wonderful.

No aspect of Israel means more to me than her songs. They are her heartbeat and pulse, her very spirit. They live within me and I take them everywhere I go. They bathe my brain in beauty and memory. They conjure up the sand, the shuk, the Sea, the Golan, the Kotel, the sky, the heat, the air, the bitter and the sweet. Israel's songs are medicine for the soul, three-minute doses of strength and hope.

So what better way for me to celebrate these 60 years than to offer some reflections on The Songs of Israel as I know them and sing them, filtered through my ears and my heart. They are the musical signposts of my own journey through Israel’s recent past.

I grew up singing the old songs, the classics: Artza Alinu, Zum Gali Gali, Eretz Zavat Chalav... Hinei Ma Tov (in waltz time) is the first Hebrew song I remember learning. These were songs of yearning with few words and simple melodies. Sweaty and heroic, they serenaded the draining of swamps by day, then fueled a night of horas at week’s end. In those early years, schmaltzy old tunes from Russia were brilliantly retrofitted to accompany the exquisite poetry of Yonatan, Rachel, Bialik and Chefer. Later came the love songs, soft and plaintive, evocations of the Good Land, songs like Dodi Li and Iti Milvanon (both from Shir Ha-shirim, composed by Nira Chen).

The Six Day War in 1967 was the catalyst for a new and contemporary outpouring of song, now influenced by the American folk revival, and by tunes brought from around the world with each wave of immigrants to the young country. The most famous of this period is the late Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, a song so beloved it serves as a secondary national anthem and appears in many siddurim (prayerbooks).

As we count these days of the omer, I will be counting the songs of Israel that have meant so much to me, and blogging about them here.

Let’s begin with a spectacular moment from 30 years ago: Barbara Streisand talks to former Prime Minister Golda Meir on national TV, then sings Hatikva to celebrate Israel’s 30th birthday. Raised in Brooklyn, Streisand learned early on how to shed her accent, a talent that served her well on Broadway and in Hollywood. Listen to her perfect elocution as she introduces the humble Golda, slipping into comfy Brooklyneese for the chit-chat, then effortlessly back again, before singing a stunning Hatikva!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Kol B'Seder celebrates 36 years!

It’s 36 years since Dan and I started singing together, in the Spring of 1972 (the name Kol B’Seder didn’t come until a couple of years later.) So, here’s a Kol B’Seder birthday present from Danny and me: 20 minutes of highlights from our concert last week at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, NY.

This particular concert was a lot of fun, in spite of a very dicey flight situation from Boston. In addition to our golden oldies, we sang some of our silly Pesach songs (not on the MP3, sorry) and Dan generously allowed me to sing four of my Bob Dylan parodies (three of which are on the MP3, two of them - until now – never before released.) We also sang - for the first time - my new "Sim Shalom".

Amazingly, it had been a year since our last full-length concert. (I joked that now we know how Simon & Garfunkel felt when they did their reunion tour a few years ago.) Unlike the real Simon and Garfunkel, Dan and I never truly ‘broke up’ – we just had to ramp things down a bit. Dan got really busy as Vice President of the URJ, I moved to Boston, took a new congregation and battled some voice issues (all but resolved, thanks to an extraordinary voice teacher - but that’s another story for another time.)

B’chol zot (with all this), we’ve managed to sing at least a few times every year, including some really big shows. This past December we sang at the URJ Biennial in San Diego to honor Debbie Friedman. Back in 2004 we marked the 30th anniversary of “Shalom Rav” with a concert not far from where that song was composed in Boston. In 2005 we sang in Russia in support of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and in 2006 we were named “Legends of CAJE” along with Debbie, Craig Taubman, Doug Cotler, Julie Silver, and Sam Glazer. In 2007 the Zamir Chorale of Boston built a concert around our music. A couple of songs from the concert are on YouTube, at least one of Josh Jacobson’s awesome arrangements for choir (Oseh Shalom) will soon be published, and we have some incredible film footage in the can for the future.  So, even if, like such great duos as Simon & Garfunkel, The Everly Brothers, and Nichols & May, we never actually ceased performing, this still seems like the right time for a Reunion Tour. Therefore I am announcing:

Kicking off Friday December 5, 2008 at Temple Sinai in Sharon, MA. 

The rest of the tour, however, depends on you. If you’d like to bring Kol B’seder to your community, just click this link, and talk to Moishe Rosenfeld at Golden Land Connections. (Special deals are yours for the asking if you are close to the New York or Boston metro areas.)

We hope you enjoy the music.  Songs on the MP3 include excerpts from: Yism’chu, In Every Generation, Modeh Ani, Or Zarua, Rollin Up the Torah, Haporeis Sukat Shalom, Oseh Shalom, Tangled Up in Jews, Like a Rollin Cohen, Eilu D’varim, Sim Shalom, Lo Alecha, and Cantillation Row.

We are grateful to Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld and cantorial soloist Penny Meyers for arranging the concert, held at Temple Beth Zion’s beautiful downtown sanctuary! Thanks to Enid Bloch for the lovely photos.