Israel’s New Soul Stirrers
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Israel’s New Soul Stirrers

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

While the vast majority of Israelis are secular, one would never know it from the rock and pop songs that are dominating the country’s music scene these days — tunes that are filled with religious references, efforts to connect with divine energies and longing for release and redemption. As the renowned Israeli intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi (author of the award-winning “Like Dreamers,” about the Israeli paratroopers who reconquered the Western Wall during the Six-Day War) put it last month at a rabbinic conference in Jerusalem, “Israel’s most secular art form is becoming its most religious one. And its most Israeli art form is becoming its most Jewish one.”

Halevi’s three-part presentation on song lyrics, “The Return of God as Protagonist in Israeli Music,” was a highlight of the annual gathering for North American rabbis (and a handful of non-rabbis, like me) at the Hartman Institute, an organization that promotes the intensive study of Jewish texts from ancient to modern times. While the language of the Bible and Jewish worship has never been entirely absent from Israeli music — the first generation of Israeli rockers in the 1960s were drawn, in particular, to the Song of Songs for inspiration — Halevi suggested that the religious content of the songs of the current crop of Israeli artists takes the listener far into the uncharted territory of the soul.

He pointed to the example of the Banai family, whose ancestors were Persian Jews. Eviatar Banai’s “Father” begins, “Abba, I want to stand before you and believe that you are a good Abba … Abba, I want to be certain with all my heart/That this journey will have a good ending.” His brother, Meir Banai, bases his “To You, My God,” on a poem by the medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra: “My desire is Yours, my God/In You is my longing and my love.” Not to be outdone, their cousin, Ehud Banai, in “Your Love,” sings to God “My love, with you I am free.” Nor are they alone; Halevi cited examples of more than a dozen other musicians from Berry Sakharof (“A Prayer of the Lonely Man”) to Maureen Nehedar (“Pardon, Oh Pardon”) to Yishai Ribo (“My Beloved’s Voice”) who are writing songs in a similar soul-stirring style.

When did Israeli musicians become spiritual seekers, yearning for knowledge of God? Some of these artists, including both Ehud and Eviatar Banai, have embraced Orthodox Judaism as adults, becoming baalei teshuvah.

But this burgeoning interest in religion among Israeli musicians has, according to Halevi, many wellsprings. A whole generation of Israelis has traveled, after completing compulsory army service, to the Far East, especially to India and Thailand, to explore Eastern religion. Israeli music has been transformed by the arrival of Sephardic Jews, who have brought Persian, Iraqi, Moroccan and other Mizrachi melodies, musical modes and instruments.

And as secular Zionism has failed to replace Judaism as a faith in itself, musicians have turned to religion as a source of meaning and inspiration. As Halevi wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal, the “new songs provide a landscape of inner struggle and longing, not of religious triumphalism,” articulating a “contemporary spiritual language that is about doubt as well as faith, of searching no less than finding.”

On one of the last nights of the conference, the rabbis were treated to a performance by a small folk band called Alma (which means “world” in Aramaic and “soul” in Spanish). Founded by a young Orthodox couple, Avraham and Ra’aya Muskal, Alma bases many of its captivating songs on prayers and biblical verses, from “Elohai Neshama” to “Ilu Finu” to “Yevarechecha.” Along with Halevi’s presentation, the concert reminded me of how American Judaism has been regenerated in so many ways by music, from Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman in the late-20th century to the young composers who are writing melodies for the synagogue today, often bypassing the guitar in favor of Arab instruments like the oud.

Now if only we laypeople could be brave enough to talk more often to God in our own language, pouring out our hearts rather than reading the prayer book, taking our cue from the Israeli artists who have found these new spiritual and emotional peaks to scale.

Ted Merwin writes about theater for the paper.

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