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Looking Inward to Fight Grim Mood, Israelis Making Good Old Days Trendy

September 9, 2004
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Dancing on long wooden tables, belting out the lyrics of songs written long before they were born, young Israelis pack into a darkened Tel Aviv club where celebrating the past has become trendy. As Israelis head into the Jewish New Year — which also marks the outbreak of the second intifada four years ago — a sense of nostalgia permeates the national mood. Young and old both yearn for the days when Israel seemed a quieter, more innocent, more united place.

“People are looking back, musing on the days when we seemed to be strong and there were not wars and suicide bombings like this,” said Danny Sides, a radio talk-show host and music editor. “People are looking at the past and saying how nice it was, how we were strong, we were heroes, optimistic and innocent.”

At Stage, a seaside club in Tel Aviv with orange walls and swirling lights, Monday nights are dedicated to what Israelis call “shirah b’tsibur,” or sing-alongs, led by! Sarale Sharon, a longtime icon of the genre in Israel.

Sharon gets the crowd, 300 or so 20- and 30-somethings, going with a rousing opening number, “I was Born for Peace.” Most of the songs sung this evening are folk tunes written between the 1950s and 1970s.

Everyone in the club is on their feet, clapping, cheering, dancing and singing along word for word. Red and orange spotlights shine on smiling faces and rows of people sway arm-in-arm to the music.

With her cropped auburn hair and loose white cotton shirt, the middle-aged Sharon, from Kibbutz Ashdod Yaakov, seems an unlikely figure to have achieved near rock-star cult status among Israel’s younger set.

Yet she’s been known to draw crowds of thousands.

“It’s about feeling a connection, about feeling at home,” Sharon said.

Assaf Tal, 32, is celebrating his birthday the night of Sharon’s show. A regular here — he comes almost every week — Tal has brought along 27 friends.

“It’s a trend peop! le like. People want Israeli things and this is our music, developed h ere. It’s the most Israeli thing there is,” he said, before being swept into a tide of friends and song.

Shirly Maimon, a 22-year-old who works as a hostess at the club, says she also is a fan of the old-time music.

“It’s connected to the past. The past is very in right now,” she said.

As she speaks of the past, Shimon Peres, a perennial political figure here who has remained on the scene throughout Israel’s short history, enters the club and the young crowd suddenly notices him, rising to its feet in standing ovation.

Some swarm around Peres, jostling for a closer look and a chance to shake his hand.

Other Knesset members, actors and songwriters are among the audience and among those who take to the stage to try their hands at leading everyone in song.

One of them is Maya Mofaz, daughter of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, her magenta-sequined tank top glistening under the lights as she belts out cheery, patriotic songs in a clear, strong voice.

The ! grim mood and feeling of helplessness engendered by ongoing violence with the Palestinians, the economic downturn and a feeling of isolation from the international community, seems to have driven Israelis to look inward.

The second most popular radio station after the main state news channel is Reshet Gimmel, dedicated exclusively to Hebrew music.

Other popular new additions to the cultural scene can be found on cable television, where one channel plays only Israeli music videos and another is dedicated exclusively to airing Israeli movies.

Israel Television airs a popular show called “In the Jewish State” that each week takes a long, fawning look at the history of Israeli comedy. There are stores specializing in Israeli products from the 1950s and 1960s, and Web sites dedicated to the period.

Advertisers also are tapping into the nostalgia phenomenon, with some brands setting their TV ads in the 1950s, trying to sell products as familiar items people knew wh! en they were young.

David Tartakover, a celebrated Israeli graphic artist and designer, co-authored the best selling book, “Where We Were and What We Did,” highlighting Israeli products and games from the 1950s and 1960s. He thinks nostalgia has a special place for Israelis.

“I think nostalgia speaks to everyone,” he said. “It works on connection of people to a place.”

That “place,” he said, is a lost Golden Age about which Israelis reminisce now that the Jewish state has been bogged down for 37 years in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“I think the political and social situation in Israel leads to missing the period when Israel was a small country, not a conqueror, that lived within borders that were defined,” Tartakover said. “We suffer from the occupation so we miss days that came before, days of values and ideals that are different from today’s.”

Dan Chamizer — known throughout Israel for the baffling riddles he writes, many of which are based on Israeli cultural history and humor — said Israeli culture feels in flux beca! use it never had time to properly digest new waves of mass immigration.

“The nostalgia is for the days we once felt we shared something. Today everyone is in their own corner, living their lives. We have one destiny but not one culture,” he said. “So people are escaping to things like folk dancing and sing alongs.”

Meiron Egger, 27, a musician who runs a business leading sing-along evenings, said the music speaks to his generation.

“The situation in Israel prompts a feeling that there is a need to return to a period that was good. And these old songs of the 50s, 60s and 70s, for the younger generation they express what was good.”

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