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Op-Ed: Sing us the songs of Zion

BAYONNE, N.J. (JTA) — Arik Einstein, who died last week at the age of 74, basically invented Israeli popular music. He was a unique Israeli combination of Sinatra, Dylan and the Beatles, embodying the spirit and the struggles of a younger, more optimistic Israel.

His death brought tributes from the top leaders of Israeli society. Shy, almost reclusive, he died in the same Tel Aviv house in which he had been born. Find another rock star who has never changed addresses.

But Einstein’s death has broader cultural implications. At a time when the U.S.-Israel relationship appears particularly fragile, and with the state of American Jewry’s ties to Israel again under discussion, the death of Arik Einstein presents us with the opportunity to ask if, musically, American Jews and Israelis are on the same page?

I’m grateful to my friend and colleague Rabbi Morley Feinstein of the University Synagogue in Los Angeles for posing the question. Feinstein noted that Einstein’s classic “Ani v’Atta” (“You and I”) had been sung in Reform movement summer camps, youth groups and creative services, helping to forge an important link between American Jewish youth and Israel.

Back in the early 1970s, Israeli pop songs were a mainstay of American Jewish camping. The playlist I remember includes “Bashana ha ba-ah,” an optimistic song that in the heady days between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War proclaimed the hope that next year will be better. We were full participants in the post-1967 Israel euphoria. The Naomi Shemer classic “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” despite its right-wing connotations, expressed the conviction that Jerusalem would always be in our hearts as well as on our lips. And years later there was “Abanibi,” an exercise in pure fun based on jumbled Hebrew sentences.

It was all rather easy. The songs flowed into each other. Everything was in A minor or D minor, depending on where you put the capo on the neck of the guitar.

In those days there was an unbroken link between Israeli popular culture and American Jewish youth culture. Our song leaders listened to Israeli rock music and almost instantly imported it  into camps and youth programs.

And today? Based on largely anecdotal evidence, most of the songs sung at Jewish summer camps are written by contemporary American Jewish composers. By and large, our American Jewish youth are not singing the songs of Zion.

The proliferation of American Jewish popular songs at summer camps is quite understandable. First, the golden age of Israeli popular music in our camps coincided with the post-Six-Day War American Jewish infatuation with Israel — an infatuation that has deepened into a more mature love, but one in which the bloom is clearly off the rose.

Second, our ways of teaching and presenting music has changed over the years. Kids are less likely to have song sheets in their hands, making the singing of complex modern Hebrew lyrics much more unwieldy.

Third, in the early 1970s there were essentially no American Jewish composers writing for a youth market. It was the BDF era — Before Debbie Friedman. We were dependent on Israeli imports and, to a lesser degree, on the music of Shlomo Carlebach. In some ways, the absence of Israeli popular music from our summer camps demonstrates that American Jewish culture has come of age. But with that cultural declaration of independence, what do we lose?

The Zionist thinker Ahad Ha-am hoped that the reborn state would become the cultural center of the Jewish world, with a new kind of Torah coming forth from Zion. Without Israeli songs on our lips, we lose a connection between American Jewish youth and Israeli culture. A pop culture connection represents the opportunity to see an Israel that goes beyond the crisis narrative, an Israel that is rich, vibrant, cool, sophisticated. And in fact, as I have learned from Yossi Klein Halevi, a meticulous observer and fan of this music, the music is better than ever, with much to say and teach.

Let’s work on restoring the link. It is easy, painless and technologically feasible. Let’s teach the songs and their significance — to contemporary Israelis, and to us as American Jews.

“Sing us the songs of Zion,” says the Psalmist. This was how the Babylonians taunted our hopeless and hapless ancestors who despaired of ever having songs to sings again. The Temple musicians, deprived of their sacred venue, hung their harps on the willows.The midrash says they even broke their fingers in protest.

It’s time for us to walk with history and to sing the songs of Zion. And here is the good news. Einstein’s “Ani v’atta” is still being sung at Jewish summer camps. It is Arik’s musical kaddish.

In the musical world to come he now inhabits, Arik is surely smiling. And come next summer, he will surely sing along.

(Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on spirituality and Jewish identity published by Jewish Lights Publishing and the Jewish Publication Society.)

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