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September 1, 2014 | 6th Elul 5774

A New Song

Galilee Diary #497, June 30, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

...How goodly, goodly are our tents;
We will yet return to an ancient melody.
-"Ancient melody," popular folk-song (and dance) by Michael Kashten and Amitai Ne'eman

Sing unto the Lord a new song, sing unto the Lord all the earth.
-Psalm 96:1

Three pop music experiences in one week:

On Saturday, at the biennial convention of the Israeli Reform Movement, one of the study sessions was devoted to the text of a song by the popular singer Ehud Banai, which strings together a collection of expressions from the lingo of telephone talk (perhaps it's a wrong number; no reception here; I hear you broken up; I'm waiting on the line; etc.); each verse ends with "Are you still with me? / Answer me." While it might be a song about love or friendship, it is hard to avoid the impression that it is a prayer, and that at the other end of the bad connection is God.

On Monday I attended the wedding of a friend. A member of the bride's family has a business connection with Mosh ben Ari, a popular singer whose distinctive hirsute look (with a mane of dreadlocks) is instantly recognizable even to a nerd like me. And there he was, a guest at the wedding, who sang the opening song of the ceremony, a recent, popular version of Psalm 121 ("I will lift up my eyes to the heavens...").

And on Tuesday, at the graduation ceremony of the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem, after the certificates had been distributed, Kobi Oz and his band took the stage for a 40 minute show - banter and music. Quite popular now, Oz's music often touches on themes of faith, and makes references to Jewish sources, and some songs are a deliberate fusion of current Israeli rock with traditional North African piyyut (hymns).

So what's the deal - what's God doing at rock concerts? None of the above musicians comes from the Orthodox "sector" in Israeli society, and they certainly don't aim their art at that population. All three of them (and a number of others on the pop scene today) see questions of faith and identity and Jewish roots as legitimate material for songwriting, and/or use their music as a way to explore their own roots and their dilemmas in relating to them. This seems to be a trend in popular culture in recent years. Of course, it is pretty difficult to speak Hebrew and write Hebrew poetry without making references and including allusions to various texts from the Jewish classics (Bible, rabbinic literature), and even those poets who rebelled against the tradition, like Saul Tchernichovsky in the early 20th century, made frequent use of images and expressions from Jewish religious literature. Naomi Shemer was not an anti-religious rebel, but she was definitely part of "secular" kibbutz culture - however, if you are ignorant of classical texts, much of the richness and depth of her lyrics passes right over your head. Naomi Shemer was in the tradition of folk song (indeed, many of her hits have become folksongs), so perhaps this rootedness in tradition was to be expected. The current wave of rockers whose music is an expression of Jewish identity and Jewish searching is a little more surprising.

Perhaps it's just a passing fad, a product of the ongoing transition of Israeli identity from communal to individual, a stepping back from the secular Zionist rejection of the religious tradition. Or perhaps it is evidence of the impossibility of decoupling Jewish culture from Jewish religion in the long run.

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