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Reflections on Songs in Israel
May 2009
 
On my way to work today, I heard the song that Israel sang in this year’s Eurovision contest, which took place this past week. It’s called “There Must Be Another Way” and it is sung by a popular Israeli singer and an Arab singer. Part of it is performed in Hebrew, part in English and part of it in Arabic. Nice enough song, but I yearn for the days when the Eurovision was not just a political venue, of countries vying for world approval, producing low-rate ballads about nothing much. I remember when the Eurovision was a source of national pride and honor. When the songs that represented Israel embodied the Zionist Dream, what Israel stood for, believed in and held dear.
 
Back in 1976, our song, “Say Shalom”, had a line, “I’ve been alone for almost thirty years” which gained extra meaning, since in that year Israel was a 28 year old country, isolated among enemies, in the Middle East. A few years later, Israel presented the song “Hallelujah”, a ballad praising G-d for the entire world and all the good things in it. This unapologetically religiously themed song won first place! And in 1982 we took second place with the song, “Hora”, which describes the joy at seeing the beautiful places in our land and of dancing the traditional Hora folk dance. And I’ll never forget the following year’s song.
 
In 1983, I was privileged to be spending a year in Israel, post high school, focusing on Bible studies, and I was on my way back to my school after a Shabbat with friends. It was late at night and I was standing in a very dark, very deserted bus station, waiting for my bus, when a bus rolled into the lot, pulled up alongside me and the driver swung open the door and called out, “Lakachnu makom sheni!” We took second place! “Takshivi! Zeh Shelanu. Shelanu!” Listen, it’s ours. Ours…And he blasted the volume of his radio as I stood there, listening to Israel’s entry “Chai Chai Chai”– Alive, Alive, Alive- whose lyrics sing, that despite the attempts to destroy her, Israel has endured…she is still alive. The music floating out to me from that old Egged bus, with the driver beaming with pride, was one of my clearest, dearest memories of that year.
 
In the early 1990’s we had a few good songs in Eurovision, like “Oleh Oleh”– Rise Up and sing together, and “Shiru”-Sing! which talks of the power of song itself. In 1995 our entry was “Amen”, a song whose title name made you think of a prayer, and the song touchingly asks G-d for protection and love for His people.
 
Songs have always had a place of honor in our history and in our service of G-d. The Levites’ main job in the Tabernacle was to sing, to raise their voices in praise and song to the Lord. And when the Israelites are standing on the banks of the Red Sea, after witnessing the Splitting of the Sea, Miriam the Prophetess, Moses’ sister, picks up her drums and tambourines and leads the Israelites in a song of praise to G-d.
 
The Book of Psalms is full of instances where Israel sings out to G-d with thanks for His salvation, with hymns speaking of His glory. Song is the obvious, most appropriate response to the need to express our love for G-d and His ways. “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my G-d while I have my being.” (Psalms 104:33) And in Chronicles there is a wonderful verse which declares, “Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; Speak of all His wonders.” (16:9)
 
Songs in Israel are an intrinsic part of my experience of living in this country. Songs represent the spirit, the culture, the actual soul of this land. Even the little children in kindergarten sing of the land. I remember during the heat of the Intifada, going to a performance at my child’s kindergarten. The four-year-olds sang a song that made my heart drop to my stomach. They sang out to their parents in the audience, saying, “It’s not so simple being a child here…listening to the news every half hour, knowing that somewhere another mother is praying…as we keep learning in school about our wars.” And then when they got to the end, “In spite of it all, there is nowhere I would rather live,” we mothers and fathers all had tears in our eyes. Perhaps part of it is that we’ve sung about too many wars, too many times before.
 
During the Yom Kippur War, a song was released that sang “In the name of the parachutists, the tank soldiers, the fighter pilots…I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war.” And that was more than thirty years ago. I guess it makes sense, in our wonderful, wacky, and often difficult but always incredible country, that our songs will reflect how our despair is eternally mixed with hope, our prayers touched with pain.
 
One of my favorite Israeli songs is called “The Honey and the Sting.” It is a song asking G-d in His benevolence to watch over us, and speaks of how we are grateful for our lives, even as we realize that a Jew’s life is a life of both sweetness and bitterness, like the bee that provides honey and a sting.
 
A song we dance to in my Israeli Dance class, simply called “Land”, plainly states, with no apologies, “This is the land I was born in and I now live in, and I will continue to settle the land, no matter what happens.” A song of the most simple, basic faith in our right to be here. Whenever things get complicated in Israel, with its stormy politics, its shaky security, its isolation among the countries of the world, I always think of a certain song and I am comforted. “I don’t have another country” cannot be seen as anything but a love song. The singer maintains that deep in his heart, in the very veins of his being, he will stand by his land because “Here is my home.” Israel is so young yet has gone through so much, and her songs reflect an incredible faith that things will get better. “Next Year” describes that optimism. “You will see, you will see, how good it will be…next year.” That song is an old song, yet every time I hear it, it sends a little chill through me, that we are still waiting and always hoping, for that promise of better times, the ultimate Redemption.
 
The strongest topic of songs in Israel is the love Israelis have for their country, their small but wonderful land. A song that children learn when they are very young is “My Land of Israel is beautiful and keeps flowering. It has sweet, childlike hand motions and goes on to add, in each stanza, “I built my home here… I planted a tree here… I erected a bridge here… I constructed a road here…” “Here I was Born” is a song that is made passionately prayer-like in its simplicity. It claims “I was born here, my children were born here, I built my home here with my own two hands, and after two thousand years, there is an end to our wanderings.” In “Hello, my incredible Land”, the singer tells how he’s traveled to Paris and to Rome, how he’s visited the seven wonders of the world, and though sometimes he wanders and roams, it’s so much better to return to G-d’s Promised Land.
 
One of my favorite songs is “If Only.” Probably one of the most popular Israeli songs in the last decade, it is a song sung by a secular singer, but in my mind, one of the most spiritually uplifting songs written. Its lyrics sound like a prayer… “If only we will see a reform in the world… If only one day, we will sit peacefully in the shade of the palm tree… If only we won’t feel pain and people will love their fellow man… If only the gates of the Garden of Eden will open once again… If only are days would be renewed as in ancient times… If only the nations will no longer lift their swords against us… If only.
 
Our songs sound like prayers and our prayers are full of songs. There is nothing more emotionally moving, than to sit in synagogue and join with my friends and neighbors in raising our voices in powerful song, singing a wonderfully familiar melody from our prayer book. As far as I’m concerned, the older the melody the better, the strong tradition of the tune sending satisfying chills of belonging through me. It is touching to know that the songs of our prayers are just as ready on our lips as the most popular songs on the radio.
 
Last night, I had just come downstairs after putting Elitzur to bed, complete with story and stalling, when I heard him pattering into the bathroom. Again. Soon I heard his sweet voice singing out, “May the angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” This verse from Genesis is the song that seals the “Prayers at Bedtime” and I guess the tune was still in his head. For a second I wondered if it was appropriate to allow him to utter words from the Bible in the bathroom, but it was too sweet and too wonderful to think that a song- with these words- would be on his lips as he falls asleep, so I just smiled and stood there listening.
 
Shalom,
 
Shira Schwartz
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