Putting the Class in Classical – Israeli Folk Music: Part I: A Brief Survey

by “Joyful Joe” Miterko

I love classic music; music that has been composed decades, if not centuries, beforehand and still remains with us today. We can learn so much from these compositions; what the time was like politically when they were written, who the composer was and what his or her life was like, and more. Were pieces composed based on a reaction to surrounding events? Or did they spark controversy themselves (like Stravinsky’s Write of Spring)?

 Within the framework of classical, you have the genius works of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Chopin and more.   In addition, Broadway standards and showtunes never seem to date; they are timeless pieces we still sing today.  I love the sound of the big band and jazz orchestras that often perform them.

Israeli folk music, then and now, fits this paradigm perfectly with no exceptions. There is a wide array of flavors that make up the genre. From the Chasidic (Eastern European) tradition to the work of the Chalutsim (pioneers), the genre is filled with goodness that can still be applied to music for today.

It is important to note that in the galut (Diaspora), before the State of Israel was birthed and established, the Jewish people were composing music in addition to creating other forms of art. One of the most popular innovations is the piyut (pl. piyutim) or liturgy that takes on the form of poetry. These prayers would be set to a musical backdrop; often chanted in the synagogue.  One of the most famous of the piyutim was composed by Solomon ibn Gabriol entitled “Adon Olam” (Master of the World).  This poem has multiple Scripture references, including Psalm 118:6a and Isaiah 44:6b. Another classic piyut was written by Rabbi Daniyel ben Yehudah (“the judge of Rome”) entitled “Yigdal Elohim Chai” (Exalted is the Living God) is based on Moses Maimonides’  (also known as the Rambam) Thirteen Principles of Faith; the essential doctrine and creed of Rabbinic Judaism. In addition, the classic song "Ani Maamin" (I Believe) follows the Twelth principle. These poems and prayers share in a huge part of Israeli folk music as it is today.

Fast-forward to the 1860s European Jewry was experiencing the haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). There were many Jewish writers and philosophers who started pushing the bouJndaries in thought and what Judaism is and should look like. This paved the way to Zionism and the resettling of the Land of Israel (then called Palestine). Waves of excitement were emerging with this new Zionist spirit. Many songs started to emerge that were nationalistic in nature. One of the most classic examples of this time period is “Artsa Alinu” (We Ascended to the Land).The lyrics translate to “We Ascended to the Land. We’ve already plowed and sown too. But we have not yet reaped.”  There is a sense of longing to fully take the Land back with a sense of joy with the progress they have made.

While Israeli folk music tends to be upbeat and joyful, there are somber moments that demonstrate the struggles and realities that the Jewish people have faced for centuries  “Eli Eli” (My God, My God) was  composedby Hannah Senesh (1921-1944), a Hungarian born Jewess who decided to immigrate to Palestine under the British Mandate,  Yet she undertook a dangerous mission. She joined the British Army in an attempt to rescue her own people from the ashes of the Holocaust. However, when she parachuted into Hungary in 1944, she was almost caught immediately. She tragically died at the age of 23. “Eli Eli” translates to, “My God, My God, may these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rustle of the water, the lightning of the sky, and Man’s Prayer”.

Yet another classic we cannot forget about is Yerushalayim Shel Zehav (Jerusalem of Gold). This song came much later, but still has that fire that that initial chalutsim carried. Israeli composer Naomi Shemer wrote this famous piece in 1967, as an entry to the “Voice of Israel” music festival competition. And it took off from there. Here is famous Israeli singer Shuli Natan singing this beautiful piece. Many, including the popular jamband group Phish have covered this song. Shemer originally wrote the lyrics as a notion for longing to return to Jerusalem. However, before the song was completed, Jerusalem was in Jewish hands again by the miraculous Israeli victory of the Six Day War. After that, Shemer changed the lyrics around.

Another famous piece that is an “elephant in the room” is Israel’s national anthem – HaTikvah (The Hope). Somber as well, the lyrics are based from the poem by Naphtali Imber entitled Tikvateinu (Our Hope). However, the melody is unknown. Some attribute it to the Sephardi Hallel or the Tefilat Tal (Prayer for Dew).  Others say that composer Samuel Cohen wrote it. It had been sung in momentous occasions, happy and sad. After the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the survivors sang it. On the other hand, Czech Jews also sang it while they were entering Auschwitz-Birkenau. This song, as we can see, has a range of emotion, as does other Israeli folk music.  

There is so much rich history behind Israeli folk music and what the chalutsim did. They are responsible for some of the most cherished melodies that we sing today. We should be incredibly thankful for the modern State of Israel and what God has done; therefore singing these melodies should be a mandate on our hearts. We should sing them as an expression of thanks to God for what He has done and His Hand that continually saves our Jewish people.