Like most 60-year-olds, Israel is showing her age and weariness, but like most 60-year-olds there are still some people who remember when she was young, stunning and something to sing about.
Back in the 1950s, in the Massad Hebrew-speaking summer camps in the Pocono Mountains, teenagers got together to sing Israeli music with the same urgency that doo-wop magnetized teens on inner-city street corners.
They harmonized behind the bunks and on busses and in the heat of August afternoons. When the Massad choir wanted to sing into the winter, about a dozen of the kids formed the Zamir Chorale in 1960.
This Sunday, the Zamir Choral Foundation — now an archipelago of student chorales in 18 cities, in addition to the original core Zamir, with more than 55 singers — will celebrate Israel’s 60th at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by Theodore Bikel, Debbie Friedman and other musical guests.
“Of all the celebrations of Israel’s 60th,” Rabbi Haskel Lookstein remarked to The Jewish Week, “the one that probably will reflect the spirit of Zionism best — and most — will be this Zamir concert.”
Rabbi Lookstein, spiritual leader of Kehilath Jeshurun and principal of the Ramaz School, remembers Massad, where he was a camper and counselor, as “a place where we all sang Hebrew music. It identified us with the State of Israel and Zionism, and like music in general it was more than an intellectual exercise. It gave us an emotional connection to the chalutzim (the pioneers), to the Negev and Galil. I remember going to Zamir concerts and being thrilled because this was the music we sang, the songs we knew, with a higher level of musicality. No one was singing Hebrew music; Zamir started it all.”
Stanley Sperber, founder of Zamir, “was my camper in 1953,” recalls Rabbi Lookstein. “He was 15. I was 21. He slept in the next cot over. He was gifted musically even then. I got Stanley, and his friend Chuck Kleinhaus,” another original Zamir member, “involved as assistants to me in running the davening and teaching the other boys how to lead services. I like to think it was in that summer that Stanley and Chuck began to think about the influence they could have.”
Unlike other musical celebrations of Israel’s 60th that will feature pop stars such as Barbara Streisand, Zamir’s program at Carnegie will be “explicitly Zionist,” says Mati Lazar, who joined Zamir in 1963 and took over conducting duties and direction of the group in 1972.
Songs that still chill, such as “Shir HaPalmach,” evoking 1948; “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold),” evoking 1967; “Lu Yehi,” from the Yom Kippur War and “K’Shetavo,” for the captive Ron Arad, are a reminder that war, like heartbreak, may be hell but leaves terrific songs in the jukebox.
The song of the Palmach (the legendary fighters of the 1940s) will flow into an original composition by Yehezkel Braun, an Israel Prize laureate, based on Natan Alterman’s classic poem, “The Silver Platter.”
Braun, a veteran of the War of Independence, said that when Lazar asked him to set Alterman’s poem to music, “I felt a heavy lump in my throat. This poem was the supreme and most eloquent expression of a whole generation: the fighting generation of 1948.”
Of course, those who love Israel remember not only the wars but sultry nights and the private poetry of romance and defiance, evoked by “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” to be performed by Theodore Bikel, within a medley of folk tunes and anthems ranging from “Techezakna” to “Laila Laila.” He’ll be joined for several of these songs by Debbie Friedman.
“I love to sing with Theo,” says Friedman. “He’s been my hero since I was in high school.
“I went to one of the rehearsals,” she told us, “and I was in tears, watching Mati conduct, hearing how exquisitely they all sang.” She marveled at how Zamir is composed of “Jews from every possible walk of life, every denomination, making these beautiful sounds, and you couldn’t imagine why there was a world out there that was so hostile and aggressive.”
Though this is her first appearance with Zamir, says Friedman, “I’ve been familiar with them forever. I never thought I’d have the kavod (honor) to sing with them. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to work with Mati. Mati’s arrangements are so beautiful and their articulation was so beautiful that I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t in heaven. The guy’s a genius.”
“These songs connect us to how we felt in the beginning about Israel,” says Lazar. “Music can stimulate memory. When you hear certain songs or prayers you can feel where you were when you first heard it, you can feel again the emotion you felt at the time. It can reconnect you to a more original state, a more authentic state of your being. It’s easy to get stuck in intellectual conversations about Israel, but music can bring you to another truth. You may not get every answer but you’ll remember what you once knew. Some younger people might never have known these emotions in the first place.”
Lazar says that being trans-denominational “now pales next to the fact that we are trans-political.” Classical texts and classical folk and choral music “are points of common history and shared celebration. Music makes it accessible.
“At least for two hours,” promises Lazar, “the unity of klal Yisroel really exists. When you listen to these songs you don’t have to suspend disbelief, you can believe and authentically so.”