Italians do it operatically. The French do it romantically. And Israelis do it in public.
Singing, that is.
Israeli entertainment without what is known as shira be tzibur – public sing-alongs – is like Israeli food without falafel. Just as you can put anything into a pita, smother it with tehina, and then enjoy eating it even though everyone can see the sauce dripping down your chin, a sing-along evening comprises a strange but healthy combination of the schmaltzy, the piquant and a measure of public embarrassment – food for the soul.
Legend has it that the Greeks dance no matter what. This side of the Mediterranean, we sing. We sing to remember, we sing to forget; we sing when we’re happy and we sing so much when we’re sad that a whole genre has developed called shirei piguim – terror attack songs.
Waiting for the Messiah
One of the best things about living in Israel is how in-tune it is with the times. You can forget about a “White Christmas,” but at Succot, “Shlomit Bona Succa” (Shlomit Builds a Succa of Peace) and Gali Atari’s “Stav Yisraeli” (An Israeli Autumn) are high on the Israel Radio playlist.
For the New Year, Yediot Aharonot’s entertainment supplement drew up a list it tagged as “The Country’s Hit Parade: the top 500 songs of Israeli music.” The list held some surprises – the No. 1 of which was the choice for the top spot. Whereas I had expected that the genius of Arik Einstein would beat all others – Einstein, celebrating his 70th birthday, is the ultimate timeless Israeli entertainer – it was sometime-rocker Shalom Hanoch who led the list with his mega-hit of the 1980s, “Mehakim Lamashiah” (Waiting for the Messiah). As the paper summed up, “Sometimes it all comes together – the words, the music, the composition, a few minutes of inspiration and the perfect song.”
The paper attributed the song’s success to its continued (or, perhaps, renewed) relevance: Not only are we still waiting for the messiah – “Mashiah lo ba, mashiah gam lo metalfen” (The messiah doesn’t come, neither does he phone), as Hanoch put it – but even a generation born after the double whammy of the First Lebanon War and the Israeli market crash of the early ’80s can still identify with the lyrics.
The Yediot list makes fascinating reading, partly because of its very unpredictability. In an unscientific but fun survey of sabra friends, I found that without exception they all expected Einstein to lead the chart and Shlomo Artzi to follow, with something either written by Ehud Manor or sung by Kaveret (a group too good to last) in the third spot.
A song to end the heatwave
Instead, Hanoch’s raw rock was followed by former Kaveret member Gidi Gov’s “Shlal Sharav,” verbally painting the picture of the end of the great heat wave, “as the sun sets in the blue sea and a silent wind calms face, neck, nostrils and blood.” If you’ve never suffered an Israeli hamsin, or more specifically the swelter of Tel Aviv, you might not appreciate how much there is to sing about when it finally breaks. The combination of Gov’s rasping tones, Meir Ariel’s lyrics and Yehuda Poliker’s music definitely created a hit, although one wonders if the voting wasn’t influenced by meteorological conditions and location as much by musical tastes.
Third place went to Yehudit Ravitz’s “Viduy,” a poem by Alexander Penn set to music by Sasha Argov. Not my favorite Ravitz number, it nonetheless has the immortal line: “Haya ra letiferet” – it was wonderfully bad.
It is, also, wonderfully Israeli to take classic poems and give them a musical life. This summer, for example, singer Etti Ankri is making a comeback and giving Yehuda Halevy’s words significant public exposure after almost 1,000 years. It’s hard to imagine Israeli music without the touch of poets Rachel (like Shakespeare, she needs but one name), Yona Wallach, Natan Yonatan, Natan Alterman, Bialik and so many others that Yediot could probably have drawn up a top-500 list of just those works.
Incidentally, Einstein only finally appeared in the Yediot chart (with Hanoch again) in the No. 4 slot, with a message we might all ponder now and again: “Lama li lakahat lalev?” – Why should I take it to heart?
Liat Collins is the editor of the International Edition of the Jerusalem Post.
Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.