Israeli Popular Music

A unique sound emanating from a unique place

Print this page Print this page

Songs of Peace and Songs of War

Out of the Six-Day War in 1967 came "Ammunition Hill," a song in which paratroopers retell the story of the bloodiest battle in the unification of Jerusalem while a frenetic accordion rhythm gives the listener the feeling that they're alongside the soldiers hopping in the trenches. But the song most often associated with the Six-Day War, "Jerusalem of Gold," didn't come out of the military. The song, written by Naomi Shemer and performed by Shuli Natan in the month preceding the war, romanticized the beauty of the city. But when the paratroopers sang the song in the shadow of the Western Wall, it vaulted into Jewish consciousness as an almost liturgical anthem to the liberated capital.

The Six-Day War victory did more than expand the borders of Israel; it opened up the country's cultural horizons to influences from around the world. In the early 1960s, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion refused to allow the Beatles to visit Israel, fearing the messages brought by rock music would contaminate the minds of Israeli youth. By 1970, young musicians who had been listening to the music for the past decade finally got what they had been waiting for. "Shablool, (snail)"--a collaboration between Arik Einstein and Shalom Hanoch--was rich with the psychedelic effects and humor of the Beatles. The album became the foundation stone of Israel's homegrown rock scene. Around the same time, Yair Rosenblum and Yaakov Rotblit wrote the country's first war protest song. Even though the rest of the country was still intoxicated by the 1967 victory, "Shir L'Shalom" (A Song for Peace) urged listeners to "sing a song for love and not for wars."

Over the next decade Israeli popular music both imported and exported hits. A Hebrew translation of the Beatles' "Let it Be" was infused with a new melody and helped propel the singer Chava Alberstein to local fame. Israel joined the annual Eurovision popular song contest. The competition became a showcase for Israel's most popular young stars, like the group of army buddies "Kaveret" and the singer Shlomo Artzi; Israeli entries won in 1978 and 1979. The second winner was "Hallelujah," an ecumenical song of praise sung by Gali Atari and a group called Milk and Honey

Coming Full Circle

As Israelis shed the collectivist national themes from the earlier years, a new anti-establishment trend emerged. For years, the music of the Sephardic immigrants from the Mediterranean countries and the Middle East was ignored by the Ashkenazic elites, who owned the record companies and filled the roles of music critics. But in the late '70s, a Yemenite Jewish singer named Zohar Argov--who cut his vocal chops in the synagogue of his childhood--was building his popularity from the bottom up. His fame spread through appearances at local community centers and through cassettes sold at Tel Aviv's rundown Central Bus station.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.