In time for Tu b’Av, the Jewish holiday of romance (this year beginning Thursday night), ISRAEL21c presents a playlist of Israeli love songs and the fascinating stories behind them.
Tu b’Av may be a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar but it falls at the perfect time for major romance. Playing in the background of those late summer flings will almost definitely be 10 songs that crop up continually on the playlists of the Israeli listening public.
Like most in their genre, Israeli love songs tend to be about unrequited, unfulfilled passion. The stories about the people behind the words and music can be as compelling as the songs themselves.
- ATUR MITZCHECH
The love song topping almost every list is Atur Mitzchech [Zahav Shahor] (Your Brow Is Adorned [With Black Gold]). In 1950s Tel Aviv, actor-poet Avraham Halfi wrote about his unfulfilled passion for Zehava Berlinsky, the wife of Halfi’s friend, actor Ze’ev Berlinsky.
In 1977, singer Arik Einstein released the song to acclaim that brought Halfi out of obscurity. Still, the identity of the woman remained unknown until Zehava Berlinsky’s death in 2011 when, at her behest, it was played at her funeral and the poem engraved on her headstone.
In a documentary about Halfi’s life, Life of Poetry – The Story of Avraham Halfi, Arik Einstein spoke about discovering the poem in his father’s bookshelf. Set to music by Yoni Rechter, it has consistently been voted one of the greatest Israeli songs, and greatest Israeli love song, of all time.
The list of other best-loved Israeli love songs performed by Arik Einstein is almost endless: Hachnisini Tachat Knafech (Take Me Under Your Wings), Rak Itach (Only With You), Ahava MiMabat Rishon (Love At First Sight), Li v’Lach (For You And Me) – to name just a few.
- MI OHEV OTACH YOTER MIMENI
There is a haunting sadness to musician Arkadi Duchin’s execution of Mi Ohev Otach Yoter Mimeni (Who Loves You More Than I Do). The lyric, penned by former bandmate Micha Sheetrit, draws a parallel between the love of one’s spouse and love of one’s country that goes deep in the Israeli psyche. The song became an overnight hit upon release in 2004.
Although perhaps written as a love song to the State of Israel that raises philosophical questions – “Why is there war and pain? / Why does God not intervene? / Why are there people living the streets?” — it is also a romantic song that tugs at the heartstrings as the lover asks desperately, “Who loves you more than I do? / Who makes you laugh when you are sad? / How long will you be mine? / And why are you silent?”
- ELEF NESHIKOT
This sweet love song by lyricist Mirit Shem-Or and composer Zvika Pick, and released in 1985 by singer Yehoram Gaon, has its roots in the pre-State Ottoman Era. The words were inspired by a letter written by Avshalom Feinberg, often called “the first sabra” and one of the founders of the Jewish underground network NILI, which assisted the British against the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
It has been said that Feinberg wrote “The Ballad Of A Thousand Kisses” to his fiancée Rivka Aaronsohn (sister of NILI cofounders Aaron, Alexander and Sarah Aaronsohn, the tragic heroine of NILI), although others claim that the dates indicate it was written during his studies in Paris, well before Feinberg knew the Aaronsohn family.
Feinberg, too, came to a sad end. In 1915 he traveled to Egypt to make contact with British Naval Intelligence. In 1917, Feinberg again journeyed to Egypt, on foot, and was apparently murdered by Bedouins on his way back. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Feinberg’s remains were discovered under a palm tree that had sprouted out of the date pits in his pocket.
His letter, with its words of youthful passion, is preserved at the Beit Aaronsohn NILI Museum in Zichron Ya’akov.
Singer-songwriter Aviv Geffen wrote Ilana in 1993 as declaration of true and everlasting love for his then-girlfriend Ilana Berkowitz. He was the symbol of a new generation of Israeli rockers, she was a child-actor turned Tel Aviv bohemian-chic flower child. Fittingly, the song paid homage to John Lennon’s Oh, Yoko!
The two married in June 1996, at a lavish wedding in the presence of Israeli president and personal friend Shimon Peres. In March 1998, Geffen and Berkowitz divorced. Since then, both have remarried, and Geffen no longer performs the song.
- HAYU LEILOT
Written sometime in the 1930s by poet Yaacov Orland and set to music by longtime collaborator Mordechai Zeira, Hayu Leilot (There Were Nights) tells an ill-fated love story of pioneers of the Second Aliyah period, narrated by a woman.
Set in the Galilee region “Between [kibbutzim] Degania and Kinneret,” the story depicts life in those early farming collectives: hard work, driving carts in the field, embroidering shirts, and eventually, the sad reality of loss. Did her lover die? Was he killed by marauders? Did he simply abandon her for another life?
“Tell me, does anyone know / To where he has gone and not returned?” asks the storyteller, concluding, “There were nights I remember / I will remember them till the end of my life.”
The song has become a perennial favorite, with at least 130 different recorded versions, the most well-known by Shoshana Damari and Esther Ofarim.
Hayu Leilot was cited by singer-songwriter Idan Raichel who stated, “Orland wrote from a female perspective about [an incident] seared forever in memory. ‘There were nights I remember them, I remember them for the rest of my life,’ is a simple and timeless phrase about which there is no need to say more and need not be expanded on, but it goes on to describe a simple infatuation with a guy who left.”
Raichel released his first album, “The Idan Raichel Project,” in 2002. It included several instant favorites, among them the first Ethiopian-Israeli fusion hit, Bo’ee (Come With Me).
The song incorporates traditional Ethiopian musician Alemu Aga’s Tew Semagn Hagere, together with chanting in Amharic and singing in Hebrew.
Raichel’s wistful lyrics – “Come with me / Take my hand and we’ll go / Don’t ask me where / Don’t ask me about happiness / Maybe it will come. When it comes / It will come down on us like rain” — continues to make it, along with other Raichel hits like Hinech Yafa (You Are Beautiful), Mi’ma’amakim (From The Depths), Lifneh She’Yigamer (Before It Ends), and Ve’eem Tavoei Elai (And If You Will Come To Me) some of the most requested songs at Israeli weddings.
- HAPERACH BE’GANI
Although the HaPerach be’Gani (The Flower in My Garden) is considered Zohar Argov’s greatest hit and a milestone in the integration of Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) style music into the Israeli pop mainstream, the song was, in fact, written for another singer.
Hitmaker Avihu Medina wrote lyrics heavily influenced by the biblical Song of Songs and composed the Spanish-styled melody together with Moshe Ben Mosh. The team then brought the song to well-known Mizrachisinger Shimi Tavori, who was due to compete in the 1982 annual Mizrachi music festival. However, Tavori, who had already several festival wins to his credit, decided to withdraw from the competition.
The song was handed over to Argov, a well-known singer on the Mizrachi nightclub circuit and of “cassette music”– prerecorded tapes sold at central bus station kiosks. Like most Middle Eastern-style singers at the time, Argov was unknown to the general public. Winning the contest was the ticket to getting airplay on Israel’s state-run radio and TV outlets.
Argov did indeed take first place. HaPerach be’Gani entered the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) hit parade – a first for a Mizrachi song – and also brought an end to the era of two separate music festivals.
But who was the “flower in the garden”? Medina wrote the song about his unrequited teenage love for a girl at the Kibbutz Kissufim boarding school. “That was all was I interested in,” Medina reflected in a 2012 interview marking the song’s 30th anniversary.
“When I knew she was in her room, I would pick up the guitar and start singing and playing. She loved music, and that was my way of trying to get close to her.I used to bug her all the time, trying to get close, but I didn’t understand the rules of the he-and-she game. I didn’t interpret her reactions correctly. I was naive. That’s how 15-year-olds are, stumbling in the dark and making mistakes. It was too hard to say, ‘I love you.’
“There is a sentence in the song that goes, ‘I wanted to tell you, ‘I loved, I loved, and end it.’ Some people think the intention is that the love ended. But that’s wrong. ‘And end it’ is about the wish to let it all out, unburden, and confess.”
In 2015, HaPerach be’Gani was voted the best Mizrachi song of all time in a survey conducted by Ynet, Radio Tel Aviv, Radio Haifa and Radio Darom.
- PITOM AHSHAV, PITOM HAYOM (AHAVTIHA)
Another on almost every list of beloved Israeli love songs: Pitom Ahshav, Pitom HaYom, (Suddenly Now, Suddenly Today). Also known as Ahavtiha (I Loved Her), it is best-known for having launched the career of young singer Shlomo Artzi, at that time a soldier serving in the Israeli Navy entertainment corps, still to this day the hardest working man in Israeli show business.
After two other artists turned down the opportunity to debut the song at the 1970 Israel Song Festival, Artzi was offered the chance and given special permission by the IDF to perform if – and only if – it did not interfere with his entertainment corps duties. With almost no time to rehearse, Artzi performed and took first place.
“I thought it was a great honor to be invited to take part in the festival and I agreed,” Artzi told Ma’ariv after his win. “No, I hadn’t heard the song before, and frankly I was ready to sing any song they offered me. I’m too young and green to have an opinion about the songs.”
The song is emblematic of the IBA and the Israeli establishment’s unrelenting preference for high culture, even when it came to pop music.All three songs that won the 1970 Israel Song Festival were written by poets: Tirza Atar for Ahavtiha, Ahavata Shel Teresa Dimon (The Love of Teresa Dimon) with words by Leah Goldberg and Rabbi Akiva by Dalia Ravikovitch (recipient of the 1998 Israel Prize for poetry). Such were the barriers taken down a little over a decade later by HaPerach be’Gani.
Atar, daughter of Israeli poet Nathan Alterman – whose image is engraved on the current NIS 200 note – was a talented poet and author in her own right, but her father’s reputation cast a giant shadow. Alterman died only a few weeks before Ahavtiha’s win.
“I’m happy. And sad,” Atar stated. “I regretted the fact that my father, the late Nathan Alterman, didn’t get to be with me at this moment… He knew I sent the song to the festival, and I know it would have made him happy if he could have shared this moment with me.” Her own life was cut short only a few years later, in 1977.
- EREV SHEL YOM BAHIR
When website Mit4Mit asked Israeli wedding DJs to list their most requested songs, Erev Shel Yom Bahir (The Eve of a Bright Day), performed by then-husband and wife duo Efraim Shamir and Astar Shamir, came up consistently – and with good reason.
The romantic lines penned by poet Yehonatan Geffen – “Someone is waiting for me / She’ll make my face light up / She’ll paint me a rainbow / And brighten my life” – fit such blessed events perfectly.
Efraim Shamir was a founding member of Kaveret (the band also known as Poogy) and the original lyrics were in English, written by bandmate Danny Sanderson. That version failed to materialize, and after the band’s breakup, the Shamirs recorded the Hebrew version, which stayed on the charts throughout 1976 and 1977.
But just as the flip side of love makes for better drama, so does the backstory of another song on the album. Shamir and his bandmates got their start in the IDF Nahal entertainment corps where he unsuccessfully tried to woo the beautiful, unattainable Yardena Arazi. Shamir then wrote and eventually recorded an upbeat if vengeful tune entitled Nahon At Yafa (True, You Are Beautiful), which stated baldly, “But I’m the only one who knows / That despite your amazing beauty / You’ll never, ever know true love.”
In a 2010 interview with NRG, Shamir indicated that he and Arazi – who went on to a successful entertainment career — had made peace after many years.
- ZEMER NUGEH
Zemer Nugeh (Sad Melody), also known as Ha Tishma Koli (Will You Hear My Voice), was among the many melancholy love poems written by Rachel Bluwstein, better-known as Rachel the Poet. The object of her affections was fellow poet Shneur Zalman Rubashov, who in time changed his name to Zalman Shazar – and still later was named third president of Israel.
Rachel had come to pre-State Israel in 1909. She and Shazar first met in 1911, when he visited the Kinneret farming collective. Of that morning he later wrote, “And then the gate opened, and out of the courtyard came a row of white geese, roaring, rolling and spreading down the hill, and following them a herder, white gowned and blue-eyed, light as a gazelle and beautiful as the Kinneret… That herder was Rachel the Poetess.”
There may have been romance in the air, but history shows that they did part ways, and Shazar married another.
Rachel left Kinneret in 1913 to study agronomy in France, was delayed by the outbreak of World War I, and apparently contracted tuberculosis in Russia en route back to Israel. She joined the Degania collective but was made to leave when it was discovered that she had the then-incurable, highly contagious disease.
She moved to Tel Aviv, making a living selling poems to daily newspaper Davar, where Shazar was now editor-in-chief. Several of her poems – often signaling sad frustration to his indifference and the nature of their relationship – were dedicated to him, sometimes directly, other times indirectly.
Rachel died in 1931 in Tel Aviv and was buried on the banks of her beloved Lake Kinneret. A generation later, her poems of longing and lost love were set to music in songs like 1974’s Pgisha Hatzi Pgisha (A Meeting, A Half-Meeting), by Hanan Yovel; Gan Naul (Locked Garden), a minor hit in 1979 for duo Shuki and Dorit; and most famously in 1967 with Zemer Nugeh (Sad Melody), sung by the High Windows, a trio comprising Shmulik Kraus, who wrote the melody with its echoing refrain, vocalist Josie Katz, and Arik Einstein – singer of Israel’s most romantic songs.