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August 20, 2014 | 24th Av 5774

Play It Again

Galilee Diary #513, October 27, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

For every blade of grass has a song that it sings, which is like a passage of poetry. And from the song of the blades of grass, the tune of the shepherd is composed.
        -Rabbi Nachman of Braslav

Years ago, when I was a graduate student in Jerusalem, we went to hear Leonard Cohen. We still cherish the memories. He came back a year ago for one concert, but we couldn't make it. Last week, the Sex Pistols performed in Tel Aviv. We were not interested. But the point is that the culture of the world is all around us here. Jazz, classical, rock - many popular artists pass through (except those who are boycotting Israel) and draw large crowds and a lot of attention. But there is a local musical culture that gets less PR, and helps define who we are. Far from the concert halls and stadiums, a few recent examples:

On a visit to the Kinneret Cemetery, where a tour of the tombstones is a moving lesson in the human stories of the pioneers of the early 20th century, I encountered a jukebox.  The graves of Rachel Bluwstein, the poetess of the pioneers, and Naomi Shemer, whose music is so much a part of the lives of recent generations, are a few yards apart.  Between them there is now a stainless steel box on a stand, looking like a boxy parking meter, in which you can insert a coin and choose to hear one of four popular songs, two by Rachel and two by Naomi Shemer. Weird - but what better way to express immortality?

There is a new wave of interest across the land in classical Sefardic Jewish religious music, especially the medieval piyyut (religious poetry) of the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East. There is a network of "kehillot sharot" ("singing communities"), in which people gather on a regular basis to learn and sing this music. Here on Shorashim for the past several years, part of our Selichot evening program before Rosh Hashana has been an appearance by several members of such a group from another community nearby, who perform and teach examples of High Holy Day piyyut. For many Israelis from North African/Middle Eastern backgrounds, these melodies are powerfully nostalgic. For others (like me) they are interesting, but difficult - the language is very esoteric, the scales impossible to sing. Clearly, the fad is part of a process of reclaiming a heritage and restoring the dignity of a culture that for decades was seen as primitive, to be left behind. And since the majority of Israelis are in fact of North African/Middle Eastern origin, this is significant.

The other night we went to a concert at the Galilee School (bilingual, Jews and Arabs), which has decided to make music a central element in the culture of the school. On plastic chairs in the courtyard, huddled under a blanket as the Galilee nights have finally cooled down, we enjoyed the music of George Saman and Yair Dallal (and an amazing percussionist), an Arab and a Jew who often perform together on oud and violin, singing songs from both cultures in Hebrew, Arabic and even Aramaic. They have a calm, laid-back manner, an inspiring commitment to trying to find a cultural common ground, and they are excellent musicians.

It is possible to celebrate or bemoan the invasion of Israel by global culture. We don't want to be provincial - but we also don't want to have our own cultural identity washed away by a global tide. I guess the fact that the Sex Pistols came here to perform represents a success of Zionism - we are part of the world tour; but a greater success, it seems to me, is the continued growth of a rich and interesting local musical culture, rooted in the land and in the traditions of those who live here. 

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