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April 25, 2014 | 25th Nisan 5774

Israeli Culture I

Galilee Diary #245
August 7, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

All of these, all of these -
Please watch over them for me, my God.
The honey and the sting,
The bitter and the sweet.
Don’t uproot what has been planted,
Don’t forget the hope.
Return me and I shall return
To the good land.

-Naomi Shemer

Touring the Galilee with American Jewish teachers, I visited the Kinneret cemetery for the first time in several years. This beautiful, serene spot near the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee is a kind of informal national shrine; by reading the epitaphs there one can learn a great deal about the history of Zionism and Israel – not only are famous leaders and thinkers buried there, but nameless infants from the early 1900s, anonymous refugees, pioneers, poets – not just private memories, but national ones as well. Perhaps the main reason that Israelis make pilgrimages to this spot is the grave of Rachel (Bluwstein), the unofficial “poet laureate” of the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Israel before 1948). She tried her hand at pioneering, then went to work with refugee children in Russia after the First World War, where she caught tuberculosis and was not allowed to return to the kibbutz. She lived out the rest of her short life in Tel Aviv; her poems were published regularly in the daily newspapers and were hugely popular – the pop culture of the 1920s. Many were set to music and have achieved the status of folk songs. There is a compartment attached to her gravestone containing a very dog-eared book of her collected poems (attached to a chain). A recurring theme in her poems is attachment to the land – to this land around the Kinneret – in a tone not of militant nationalism but of sad longing and personal rootedness.

This summer there was a new grave in the cemetery – that of Naomi Shemer. Her songs too were central to the popular culture of Israel for two generations and many, like Rachel’s, have become folk songs. She was a secular Zionist, but her songs are rich in references to traditional terms and concepts. For example, in the stanza above, see the references to Ecclesiastes 3:2 and Jeremiah 31:17 – and probably others. That makes them great tools for Jewish educators abroad; here in Israel I suspect that many if not most of the people singing her songs miss many of her allusions. For example, I don’t think many Israelis educated in the state secular schools catch the connection between the “Jerusalem of Gold” they know by heart and the “Jerusalem of gold” wedding ring R. Akiba gave his wife, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 59a-b).

But then, Naomi Shemer didn’t know that “Jerusalem of Gold” would become the anthem of the Six Day War – nor that her Hebrew version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” would become the anthem of the Yom Kippur war - nor that the song quoted above would become an anthem of the settlers removed from Sinai in 1982 and from Gaza in 2005. She had an amazing ability to write in a language and a musical idiom that really spoke to the masses; her songs can be seen, in a remarkable number of cases, as part of the liturgy of secular Zionist religion.

In the face of the Macdonaldsization of Israel, it is comforting to know that there is a strong and continuing strand of true cultural creativity here; Naomi Shemer was not alone in her life’s work of facilitating a successful encounter between the language of the Jewish past and the experience of the Jewish present, thus providing a basis for a Jewish future.

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