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.

video

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!

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