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"For All Your Songs" - Seven Decades of Israeli Music

Guest Column

Photo for "For All Your Songs" -...

Left: Chizbatron Troupe, formed by Palmach Members,1949 (Photo: Israeli Governmental Press Office) Right: Hadag Nahash performing in 2011 in Beersheba (Photo: Eman/Wikimedia Commons) CC BY-SA 3.0

Center Visiting Assistant Professor Daniel Stein Kokin explores seven decades of Israeli history through musical selections, examining common themes of myth-making as well as myth-breaking.

A distinction particularly worthy of consideration in the context of Israeli music is that of myth-maker vs. myth-breaker. To what degree does an individual song foster or re-affirm the image Israel or Israelis have of themselves? To what degree does it instead question or reject it?

By Y&S Nazarian Center Visiting Assistant Professor Daniel Stein Kokin

In perhaps the most famous--and certainly one of the very best-known--of all Israeli songs, Naomi Shemer's Yerushalayim shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), the singer declares in the chorus, "Behold for all your songs I am a lyre" ("Halo le-khol shiraiyikh ani kinor"). While of course directed in its original context to Judaism's holiest city and Israel's capital, the phrase "le-khol shiraiyikh" ("for all your songs") easily lends itself, in this 70th anniversary year of the founding of the State of Israel, to a retrospective consideration of the Israeli musical tradition writ large.

What role has music played in the formation, dissemination, and critical re-assessment of Israeli identity? What themes are prominent in Israeli music? And what trends does its development over the last seven decades reveal?

While these are large questions resistant to any comprehensive and final answer--and it would be impossible for "all...songs" to undergo consideration--close examination of even a small sampling of approximately one iconic composition per decade offers important insights.

For starters, Israeli music is revealed as a critical source for understanding the changing values of Israeli society and evolving attitudes towards the Zionist enterprise as a whole. In addition, Israeli songs cast light on relations and tensions between the individual and the collective, between Israeliness and Jewishness, and between distinctive ethnic identities and their Israeli national counterpart.

While, to be sure, no one song--even an iconic one--can be interpreted as a direct barometer of the collective psyche at the moment of its composition, the songs do not lie either. A song which resonates at a given time and place--whether in terms of positive acclaim or harsh criticism--necessarily indicates something important about the context in which it emerged. And when a song continues to reverberate over time, it can in all likelihood teach us a great deal about the culture that spawned it.


A distinction particularly worthy of consideration in the context of Israeli music is that of myth-maker vs. myth-breaker. To what degree does an individual song foster or re-affirm the image Israel or Israelis have of themselves? To what degree does it instead question or reject it?

For example, Haim Gouri's classic Shir ha-Re'ut or Song of Friendship from 1948 helped enshrine the values of sacrifice in war for the national cause, the commitment to remember those lost, and the absolute social solidarity among those who fought on behalf of the State of Israel.

It also helped propagate the myth of the Sabra, of the strong, attractive, but also somewhat rugged, stubborn, and rebellious male--best epitomized through his forelock (in Hebrew, blorit).

Along the same lines, Hora Mamtera, the Hora of the Sprinkler (1955), invited collective celebration of the collective enterprise of transforming the barren Negev into fertile, cultivated land through irrigation. In this piece, the flow of water to the desert is analogized to a melodic line, implying that the rejuvenation of the young state's land is ultimately about the remaking of Jews into the new Israeli nation.

Furthermore, because it is cast as a hora or circle dance, there is no space for the individual to question or diverge from this great undertaking. If Shir ha-Re'ut might be called the hymn of the Palmach or War of Independence generation, then Hora Mamtera is the anthem of making the desert bloom.

The emphasis on social solidarity and cohesion in Shir ha-Re'ut and Hora Mamtera can be said to reach its apotheosis in the 1973 Shir ba-Boker ba-Boker (Song in the morning, in the morning), best known as Pitom kam Adam (Suddenly a Man Gets Up), for here a complete equivalency is drawn between the experience of the individual human being and that of the nation as a whole. Without any mention of Zionism or Israel, it is nonetheless clear that this is what the man getting up in the morning is all about.

One indication of the foregoing songs' optimistic dedication to the Zionist cause can be discerned in their respective treatments of time. Shir ha-Re'ut is adamant with regard to the fallen that "we will remember them all," that the "love sanctified in blood...shall return to flourish among us," and that "friendship such as this will never let our hearts forget."

In other words, the song is oriented toward the future and the values it propagates are eternal; there is no reason to doubt they will be sustained. Similarly, the song of Hora Mamtera's sprinkler is to be sung without end ("Ranenehu ad ein gemer"), while Pitom kam Adam fantasizes that "a thousand young years [lie] ahead" of the newly arisen man/nation. "Spring has returned," we learn toward the close of this song, but there is no indication that a summer, fall, or winter lie ahead.


These three songs all stem from the early decades of Israel's existence (1948, 1955, 1973--pre Yom-Kippur War), in which there seemed little reason to doubt the State's upward trajectory or the essential justice of its cause and endeavors.

These songs were accordingly easily assimilated into the national psyche, and deemed acceptable and admirable tokens of Israeliness. A rather different perspective emerges from the songs examined from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, including with regard to time and myth.

Chava Alberstein's Had Gadya of 1989 straddles the boundaries between the contemporary, historical, and atemporal. Released in Israel's 41st year, it is, one could say, a song of midlife crisis, of questioning prompted or at least intensified by the First Intifada or Palestinian uprising.

The song evokes history in reaching back to the pre-Zionist past to recall and rework a classic song of the Jewish canon. And yet it ultimately also resists history, in suggesting that there is but an ongoing cycle of oppressor and oppressed, persecutor and persecuted fated to know no end.

In problematizing any triumphant narrative of a Jewish "return to history" or "solution" to the Jewish question, Had Gadya falls squarely on the side of "myth-breaker." And while the criticism of Israeli militarism implicit in its declaration "I used to be a lamb and a calm kid / Today I am a leopard and a predator wolf" no doubt sparked the ban (subsequently overturned) on playing the song on state radio, the enduring difficulty to assimilate Had Gadya into Israeli culture stems more deeply from the song's outright refusal to endorse Israel's foundational ideology.

In short: how can a society be expected to embrace a work that refuses to embrace it? To be sure, there are songs of protest that manage to be integrated into their nation's canon; in the case of Israel one thinks in this regard of Ehud Manor's Ein li eretz aḥeret (I Have No Other Land). But such songs fully demonstrate their ultimate loyalty to the society (as in this piece's very title) despite--or even because of--their criticism thereof.

The questioning at the heart of Alberstein's Had Gadya rings in at a much deeper level: "I've been a dove and I've been a deer / Today I don't know who I am." Far from resolving the enigma of Jewish identity, the song implies, Zionism has only intensified it. If national identity in Pitom kam Adam is a simple as rising refreshed after a good night's sleep, in Had Gadya it is like a nightmare from which one can never awake.

Criticism of the Israeli project is also directed against its treatment of the State's own land and people. Thus the transformation of the Israeli landscape and nation so rousingly celebrated in Hora Mamtera is presented in quite cynical terms in Ma'aleh Avak (Ascent of Dust), the hit 90's band Teapacks's ballad about a fictional desert development town.

The social solidarity taken for granted in the former is highlighted in the latter as sorely lacking. In a biting satire on the Israeli strategic logic of "points on the map," the big-shots in the government simply want to fill in an empty patch of land and could care less what kind of life results for the people--typically new immigrants to Israel from Arabic-speaking lands--brought in to fill the houses built like "tossed matchboxes" on the side of the road. It remains for the song to bewail their loneliness, how "they [lock] themselves up at home" and long for "the day on which they’ll cross the road from nowhere."

Teapacks's desire to tell the heroic story of the settlement of the desert from the perspective of the objects--or perhaps better, victims--of this massive attempt at social engineering reflects the band members' "point" of origin in the southern development town of Sderot. It is also reflected in the mournful, Mizrahi-tinged melody of this and so much of their music: Teapacks played an important role in making the eastern or oriental sound mainstream in Israel.

If Ma'aleh Avak critically examines the problematic legacy of a key aspect of Israel's history: the top-down development instituted to house throngs of new immigrants in the early years of the State, Shirat ha-Sticker (The Sticker Song)--the result of a unconventional collaboration between elite author David Grossman and popular hip-hop funk band "Ha-Dag Naḥash"--sets its sights on the sloganeering so prominent across the board in Israeli discourse and the deleterious consequences thereof.

Composed nearly entirely of bumper stickers representing the political Left and Right alongside a variety of other causes and perspectives, The Sticker Song implicitly asks what happens when ideology runs amok, when slogans are ubiquitious, and when these slogans seem to crowd out any other possibility of discourse--as happens at the close of the song's memorable video.

Hovering in the background throughout the work and alluded to directly in its final words is the Rabin assassination, which many believe to have been brought about by the very sloganeering this song puts under the spotlight. Shirat ha-Sticker is not a "breaker" of any particular myth or ideology, but rather of the very ideas of myth and ideology per se, i.e. of the passionate, whole-hearted devotion to a particular cause.

Amid the frenetic encounter with the song's insistent and persistent sticker and counter-sticker, one wishes simply to pause for a moment to take a deep breath, to smell the proverbial flowers instead of campaigning and declaiming on behalf of cause X or cause Y.

The Sticker Song pines for a world beyond ideologies and slogans, beyond myths "made" and/or "broken," and Habib Galbi (Love of My Heart) delivers. This is a song about love and longing, thoroughly individualistic, wholly apolitical. For against the backdrop of the fundamental, universal human situation of romance gained and lost, of what interest can myth and ideology be?

Nonetheless, Habib Galbi the work is not devoid of social significance, for its very release and success in Israel as an Arabic-language song (despite or because of this?) raises important questions about the state of Israeli culture in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Most importantly, it appears that there is a place in this culture beyond myth and ideology, and that in and of itself seems to be a positive sign.


For more extensive analysis, texts, translations, and videos of the seven songs profiled here, the reader can use any or all of the links below:

1. “Shir ha-Re'ut”/ “Song of Friendship” (1948)
Lyrics: Haim Gouri; Melody: Sasha Argov; Performer: Naḥal Troupe
The classic song of the War of Independence generation; always moving, it is especially poignant this year given its author Gouri's death this past January.

2. “Hora Mamtera”/ “Hora of the Sprinkler” (1955)
Lyrics: Yehiel Mohar; Melody: Moshe Wilensky; Performer: Shoshana Damari
A powerful (if admittedly kitchy) testimony from one of the leading ladies of Israeli song to the excitement aroused in 1950s Israel by the prospect of channeling water to the Negev in order to "make the desert bloom."

3. “Suddenly a Man Gets Up” / “Pitom kam Adam” (1973)

Lyrics: Amir Gilboa; Melody: Gidi Koren and Shlomo Artzi; Performer: Shlomo Artzi
A stirring evocation of the individual's (re)discovery of national identity. From one of Israel's leading male voices.

4. “Had Gadya” / “One Little Goat” (1989)
Lyrics and Performer: Chava Alberstein; Melody: Folk
The concluding kid's song of the Passover Seder transformed into gripping and controversial political critique. From another of Israel's leading female singers.

5. “Ma'aleh Avak”/ “Ascent of Dust” (1995)
Lyrics and Melody: Koby Oz; Performer: Teapacks
A stinging criticism of the Israeli "development town" from one of the 90's top bands. Teapacks should know: they're from Sderot!

6. “The Sticker Song” / “Shirat ha-Sticker” (2004)
Lyrics: David Grossman; Melody and Performer: Ha-Dag Naḥash
Celebrated Israeli author David Grossman assembled the lyrics for this hit song entirely from bumper stickers. A memorable satire on the sloganeering rampant in Israeli political discourse.

7. “Habib Galbi”/ “Love of My Heart” (2015)
Lyrics, Melody, Performer: A-WA (based on Yemenite Folk Song)
This traditional Yemenite love poem became the first (and, to date, only) Arabic song to reach the number one spot on Israeli pop charts and enchanted listeners across the Arab world.