Music often lies at the heart of a culture, nowhere more so than in Israel. We often speak of “Israeli music,” but in truth there are many varieties of Israeli music: songs of the Jews who lived in Israel for centuries before Zionism; music representing the different waves of aliyah; liturgical and communal treasures brought by the various ethnic and religious groups, often reflecting musical trends in their native lands; then songs that tried to be consciously “Israeli,” to embody the new national ethos emerging in the land–first folk songs based on Hebrew poems, modeled on East European music, then popular Sephardi tunes based on Arab music, and later Israeli-styled rock, which is still often inflected with the sounds of the singer’s ethnicity or native country (like the Greek songs of Yehuda Poliker). I recently discovered that Hava Nagila, which is known worldwide as the quintessential Israeli secular song, was based on a chasidic niggun, in turn inspired by the Phrygian-scaled melodies of Transylvania. Israeli music, like Israeli society as a whole, is a quilt of many overlapping patches.
On these days of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut, I find that there’s nothing that connects me more with Israel on an emotional level than music. To that end, I discovered a new website about Israeli music and culture that is rich in educational material: Tarbut Yehudit Yisraelit, a joint effort from the Israeli Education Ministry and Snunit, a pioneer in online Jewish studies. They recently produced a unit on the classic song “שיר הרעות”, with words by the recently deceased poet Haim Gouri and lyrics by the prolific songwriter Sasha Argov. The song was written during the War of Independence, commemorating fallen comrades: “How many are no longer among us.”
The unit provides excellent resources for Hebrew classes in the Diaspora as well. The lyrics appear with blue lines under more difficult words–put your cursor over them and more common synonyms appear. On the left, a tab marked סרט contains videos of different singers performing the song, as well as an interview with Gouri and another with veterans of the War of Independence. Under the tab אמנות appear pictures of soldiers from that war. On the right, the first tab למורה offers pages of material for the classroom. Other tabs offer additional information.
For me, this song bridges the remembrance of the sacrifice that so many Israelis have given to establish and preserve the State of Israel, and the deep sense of heroism and idealism upon which the country was founded, and that so many of us still feel toward the country today.
One additional resource: a video about a trove of home movies from throughout the history of Israel.