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The Songs of Israel

05/15/2019 02:00:00 AM


Songs of Israel
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Clergy Corner, May 15, 2019

This week, Israel hosts “Eurovision,” the international song competition. Performers from across the globe are gathering in Tel Aviv to present the best of contemporary music. For Israel, Eurovision eclipses everything. Domestic political struggles, the conflict with hostile neighbors, international affairs, all recede in the presence of the music. In fact, Israel has always had a special relationship with music. The history of Zionism, Israel's birth, its flourishing, its anguish and its victories, are represented by its songs. Here is a brief glimpse at the history of Israel through its songs.

Hatikva.  The Israel national anthem, Hatikva was written by the Galician Jewish poet Naphtali Herz Imber in 1878 as a nine-stanza poem named Tikvateynu (lit. "Our Hope"). In his poem, Imber responds to the establishment of Petah Tikva, one of the first Jewish settlements in Ottoman Palestine. The poem plays upon the Biblical prophecy of Ezekiel, 37:11 -- “Son of Man, these bones are the House of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, we are doomed.'”  Published in Imber's first book, Barkai (lit. "Morning Star"), the poem was subsequently adopted as the anthem of Hovevei Zion and later of the Zionist Movement at the First Zionist Congress in 1897. The text was revised by the settlers of Rishon LeZion, subsequently undergoing a number of other changes. The melody, of folk origin, made popular in the classical piece, “The Moldau,” was arranged by Samuel Cohen, an immigrant from Bessarabia.

                As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
                With eyes turned toward the east, looking toward Zion,
                Then our hope -- the two-thousand-year hope -- will not be lost
                To be a free people in our land,
                The land of Zion and Jerusalem

The Song of the Palmach. Not since the Maccabean revolt in 166 BCE, did Jewish fighter rise up and successfully defend a Jewish homeland.  The early Zionists revelled in the image of the strong, brave Jewish fighter. The Palmach was founded in 1941 as the elite fighting underground force during the British Mandate. The Song of the Palmach is a stirring martial hymn, was written by Zerubavel Gilad. Gilad was born in Bessarabia in 1912, and came to Palestine with his family in 1924. He was among the first children of Kibbutz Ein Harod, where he lived until his death in 1988.

                Though the storm is ever mounting
                Still our heads remain unbowed.
                We are ready to obey all commands,
                The Palmach will win -- we've vowed.

                From Metula to the Negev
                From the desert to the plain
                All our youth defend the homeland
                Till we bring it peace again.

Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold. Perhaps the most famous Israeli song,  Yerushalayim Shel Zahav was written by Naomi Shemer for Israel song festival held in May, 1967 on the day of Israel's 19th birthday. When the Six Day War concluded just weeks later and the city of Jerusalem was reunited, Naomi Shemer added an additional verse and the song became an anthem of a new resurgent Israel.

                As clear as wine, the wind is flying
                Among the dreamy pines
                As evening light is slowly dying
                And a lonely bell still chimes,
                So many songs, so many stories
                The stony hills recall ...
                Around her heart my city carries
                A lonely ancient wall.

                Yerushalaim all of gold
                Yerushalaim, bronze and light
                Within my heart I shall treasure
                Your song and sight.

                Back to the wells and to the fountains
                Within the ancient walls
                The sound of horn from Temple's mountain
                Again so loudly calls,
                From rocky caves, this very morning
                A thousand suns will glow
                And we shall go down to the Jordan
                By way of Jericho.

Shir Lashalom. As Israel reflected on its struggles, different voices were heard. Alongside the triumphant voices was a call for peace. Too many have died. It's time for a different Zionist dream, a dream not of victory but of reconciliation. In 1969, Yakov Rothblit, born in Haifa in 1945, offered an anthem for a new Israeli peace movement. Tragically, this was the song Yitzchak Rabin join in singing at a peace rally in 1995 when he was assassinated.

                Let the sun rise up today,
                Oh let the morning dawn,
                All your prayers and all your pleas
                Won't give us life again.
                Now our candle's flickered out,
                Now we're turned to dust,
                Bitter tears won't bring us back,
                Or wake us from our rest.
                You can never bring us back.
                In the dark we lie. No help for us from
                All the songs of triumph you sing,
                And the hymns of victory!
                Just sing for peace, just shout it shalom,
                Don't murmur like a prayer,
                Just sing to peace, just sing it aloud
                Let voices ring out here!
                Let the sunshine filter in
                Through the flowering wreaths,
                Move ahead and don't look back
                At those who lie beneath.

Al Kol Elah.  For All This (1980) War, terrorism, endless conflict, Israel turned reflective and ironic in the 1980's as Naomi Shemer offered a prayer for resilience and the courage to continue. In 2018, this song was reprised by a new generation of Israeli singers at Israel's 70th anniversary.

                Every bee that brings the honey
                Needs a sting to be complete
                And we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.  

                Keep, oh Lord, the fire burning
                Through the night and through the day
                For the man who is returning from so far away.

                Don't uproot what has been planted
                So our bounty may increase
                Let our dearest wish be granted:
                Bring us peace, oh bring us peace.

                For the sake of all these things, Lord,
                Let your mercy be complete
                Bless the sting and bless the honey
                Bless the bitter and the sweet.

                Save the houses that we live in
                The small fences and the wall
                From the sudden war-like thunder
                May you save them all.
                Guard what little I've been given
                Guard the hill my child might climb
                Let the fruit that's yet to ripen
                Not be plucked before its time.

Medinah K'tanah, A Small Country.  With courage, faith, irony, protest, and a special sense of humor, Israel persists and flourishes. Danny Sanderson, born in Israel in 1950, raised in New York, was part of the legendary Israelis group “Kaveret.” He offers a dose of ironic humor on the life of this very small nation in a very rough world.  

                In a faraway place, close to here
                We got ourselves together
                We brought our friends
                And we didn't say who or what

                South, north, center
                We rented a little sky
                Tears brought rain
                We opened a new country

                A small country dodges trouble
                You won't find the address,

                It's safe in a box.
                In such a hard world
                It's not good to stand out
                We'll hide here and never ever come out
                Two houses, two horses, three trees
                Always going on foot
                Singing songs without a flag
                Breathing for years for no reason

                Wars, disasters go on off to the side
                We're in ourselves
                And all that's here with us
                Can always be erased

                Someday, if it's worth it, perhaps we'll leave
                As long as we can withstand the duration
                I don't feel the need
                We'll live and die and then we'll see.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784