Hebrew love songs are nothing new, an entire book of the bible is dedicated to the subject and will always be held as the gold standard of any poem written on the subject. In modern hands, Hebrew expressions of love have broadened and become more emboldened, a reflection perhaps, of liberated attitudes. The good, bad, sad and glorious of love are fodder for dozens of entries in the Hebrew songbook. Spoiled for choice, I have created several playlists of my personal favorites, of which this is the first.
Dyadic love was never meant to be a valued or praised in the Hebrew culture of the collective-socialist idealists. Kibbutz members were actively discouraged from coupling--after all, it was a form of ownership that led to ‘bourgeois’ notions such as marriage and private family. Instead, a love of the group, of the earth and of universal liberation was meant to prevail. It turned out that the need for courtship and long-term mating is simply too ingrained in humans and soon enough, even the most hardened of socialists found themselves smitten, wandering off into the sunset in pairs.
In this first set of songs I present a mix of old and new, eastern and western inspired, male and female singers, silly, sassy, sensual and sad. They have inspired, excited, depressed and comforted me over the years. To me, love in Hebrew somehow seems a little more noble, ancient and sexy. Let’s see if you agree...
1. The Important Thing is Romance (Ha Ikar Ze Ha Romantica) Performed by Gidi Gov
This funny, jazzy number is a standout hit from legendary Gidi Gov’s 1978 first solo album (after being part of a stellar army band and two top-charting groups, Kaveret and Gazoz). Written by the powerhouse team of Eli Mor and Yoni Rechter, it tells the story of a man who never gives up on the game of love, though he almost never wins. It's nerdy, unsinkable, persistence is perfectly expressed by the raspy-voiced, nebbish Gov. A tribute to love itself, the trio later used the song as the basis for and title of a successful stage concert at the prestigious Israel Festival.
2. She Sits at the Window (Hee Yoshva Lachalon) Performed by Arik Einstein
Controversial in its day (and still powerful in ours), this melancholic poem tells the story of a young man whose heart aches for a woman of ill-repute. Like many Bialik songs, it contains elements of the broken, unattainable and distant, a reflection of a people in perpetual sadness and movement from one exile to another. The musical treatment it receives from the gentle, potent Arik Einstein--who epitomized the new, settled Jew--strips the poem of its diasporaic metaphor in favor of a more personalized, romantic narrative. Einstein's vocal depth and intonation allow it, nonetheless, to retain its deep pathos.
3. The Silk Road (Derech Ha Meshi) Performed by Yehudit Ravitz
The title track from Yehudit Ravitz’s outstanding 1984 album gave Hebrew music something it had been sorely lacking--sexiness. Written from a singularly feminine perspective, it celebrates love and sexuality in a manner that had rarely seen light in masculine obsessed Zionist culture. The song’s Queer undertone is a bonus since its appeal reaches beyond specific orientation or gender; it is simply an anthem to sensuality and passion. I think it is one of the best make-out songs ever crafted in the Hebrew tongue.
4. Legend in the Grass (Agdat Desheh) Performed by Hanan Yovel
As I noted above, Israeli culture, stemming as it does from the Kibbutz socialism, places great emphasis on the collective rather than the personal or private. Youngsters are encouraged to gather in friendship groups, called in Hebrew “Chevreh”. Meir Ariel and Shalom Hanoch use this as a setting in which to describe the awkward and exciting emergence of adolescent sexuality. In the process, they demonstrate the tension between the dueling Israeli desires to be part of a group and to achieve intimacy. The result is a drama that starts with great passion, but ends abruptly, a spell broken by immaturity and an inability to handle powerful needs and longing. Shalom Chanoch’s dreamy, melancholic music completes the lyric’s bittersweet, nostalgic feeling. Of the many fine versions of this song, Hanan Yovel's is my favorite, it has an angst to it that is most authentic.
5. He Didn't Know Her Name (Hu Lo Yada Et Shma) Performed by Arik Sinai
A theme that repeats itself in the music of the 1948 War of Independence concerns the tearing apart of lovers. This is understandable given the relatively small population at the time and the fact that so many women went to war alongside men (more than at any other time since). This song is, in my opinion the best of this genre; it encapsulates everything that a wartime love drama should, it is dramatic and painful, sentimental without being sickly-sweet. Its best, most powerful literary device is the use of textual gaps, incomplete sentences and lack of information meant to give a sense of chaotic reality. Much like Amos Gitai’s riveting film “Kippur”, it allows the story to be told in the silences that lie beneath din of war. In the end, we are left, like the main character, bereft and broken in the face of overwhelming tragedy.
6. Beduin Song (Shir HaBedoui) Performed by David Broza
A bit of a revolution in Hebrew music history, this song atypically presents a tragic love story from the perspective of nomadic Bedouins. Both the music (composed by the multi-talented Yitzhak Klepter) and the lyric, offer an exotic journey into a world of sandstorms and embroidered tents, where the desire to wander battles with the need for rootedness (a reality for Israel’s ever-struggling Bedouin population). The desert is anthropomorphized, creating a love-triangle that ends in mutual betrayal. David Broza elevated the song to cult status Kelpter’s composition offering a perfect platform for Broza’s guitar virtuosity and sensuality. Some recordings contain Arabic text, suggesting particularity, but at its core, this song is a universal metaphor for the struggle between the competing desires for freedom and commitment.
7. If You Go (Im Telech) Performed by Din Din Aviv
Idan Raichel was accused by some of cultural appropriation in his ethnic-infused 2002 project, praised by others for promoting narratives, music and musicians that would otherwise remain out of the cultural mainstream. His arrangement for “If you go” is a blend of the modern and western with the energy and intonation of Africa. Din Din Aviv provides the poignant vocals for this signature song of love and loss, a sort-of philosophical treatise on the price we pay for love--the prospect of its demise. To really understand the Ethiopian piece of this song, the beautiful video is needed, as it tells an all-too real story of a couple torn apart during their perilous journey through the desert. Amharic almost never features in Hebrew popular music and this song certainly does it justice, along with the tender manner in which it tells a facet of the complex history of the often mistreated Ethiopian Israeli community.
8. Ballad of the Three Answers (Zemer Shalosh Hateshuvot) Performed by Zehava Ben
Natan Alterman wrote this powerful, tragic song--a homage of sorts to the epic Spanish Romances--for the legendary wafer-thin voice of Rivka Zohar. It tells the story of a woman who is willing to sacrifice almost everything for the man she loves, acquiescing to all of his demeaning ultimatums with a response of “all that you ask I shall gladly do and continue to be happy...for this I have strength”. And then, just before we declare this to be a totally abusive, uneven relationship, our female hero declares her unwillingness to give in to her lover’s final demand--that she forget him and her devotion to him--at last allowing us to feel some sense of hope and balance. Listen to the original here, but I have a crush on a later version by the salty Zahava Ben, whose Mizrahi divaness takes the song to a whole new level of drama, with bit of a wink indicating that in the end, the lady is no pushover.
Alterman was in reality the man depicted in his song, testing the loyalty of his long-suffering wife with his very lengthy, very public extra-marital affair.
9. Give Me Your Hand (Tni Li Yad) Performed by Boaz Sharabi
This serenade of separated lovers was a hit single for Boaz Sharabi and the theme song of the 1984 iconic film “Behind the Bars”. An extraordinarily dark tale of life in Israeli prisons, its protagonists are Palestinians and Mizrahi inmates who are forced to reconcile with each-other's existence and reluctantly cooperate in the face of common adversity. The song is used symbolically to mark the point at which the divided communities unite, their desire for love and life at last outweighing their disdain for each other. Given the very masculine nature of the film and male centered sentiment of the song, I was surprised to discover that both the music and lyric were composed by women. The tenderness and emotion of this song have made it legendary, a favorite in ubiquitous Israeli sing-along sessions.
10. What is My Love Called? (Eich Korim La’Ahava Sheli) Performed by Yehuda Poliker
Yehuda Poliker’s stark, somber yet somehow sexy composition is both a painful coming out declaration and a deep confession of his darkest discomfort with all the surrounds him. Poliker spares us nothing in this song that questions everything--the state of affairs in Israel, the fragile ‘bubble’ of safety that is Tel Aviv and the uneasy sense that only a child of Holocaust survivors can truly understand-- that it might happen all over again at any moment. Poliker’s remarkable career has seen many incarnations, rebel rocker, co-creator of a revolutionary modern musical take on the Holocaust, guardian of the last remaining shards of the once mighty Greek-Jewish culture. Here though, it is his painfully slow march out of the closet that predominates, asking to finally name the love that he previously feared to mention as it insecurely finds its way into the light.
11. Valley of Flowers (Emek HaPrachim) Performed by Ahuva Ozeri/Daklon/Sagiv Cohen
Ahava Ozeri is simply one of the most talented Hebrew artists. A scrappy survivor, she was one of the first Mizrahi women artists to break the culture barrier in the Israeli music industry. Her ability to be both highly sophisticated and tell it like it is amazes me, it is no wonder that the BBC referred to her as the “High priestess of Oriental Music”. In 2005 she had her vocal cords removed and even this did not stop her, she continues to inspire, teach and play eastern string instruments such as the Bulbul Tarang with astounding virtuosity (check her out on the Dag Nachash Hit, “The Sticker Song”). This love song, a homage to the Song of Songs, is punchy, a bit naughty and a whole lotta fun! A recent cover album of Ozeri’s work features the smooth stylings of fellow veteran Mizrahi crooner Daklon and youngster Sagiv Cohen, who together turn “Valley of Flowers” into a party-worthy dance number.
12. Confession (Vidui) Performed by Ilana Rovina
A personal favorite of mine and a perennial hit in the Hebrew music world with over a half dozen powerful versions recorded by leading voices. A classic melodrama written in polished, flawless Hebrew, it is embellished to even greater depth by Sasha Argov’s superb musical arrangement. Though written by a man, its narrative voice is that of a maltreated female partner who tells the story of an epic “poor and stormy romance” which she believes to be both eternal and fatal. Penn, famously handsome and talented, was more than a little abusive of the women in his life and it is clear that this is his confession rather than that of the narrator. There is some mystery surrounding the identity of the female lover, it was apparently written for Penn’s second wife (who remained faithful to the end), though it seems reminiscent of the infamous affair he had with the grand dame of the Hebrew stage Hanna Rovina.
I first fell in love with this song through the sublime voice of Yehudit Ravitz, (listen here). Here, I am highlighting what I consider to be the most significant rendition sung by Penn’s daughter from Hanna Rovina, Ilana. For an alternate musical arrangement sung by the legendary actress Gila Almagor (with great archival photos of the protagonists), listen here.
Concertina and Guitar (Concertina V’ Gitara) Performed by Yona Atari & Eli Gorlitsky
What can I say, I’m a sucker for a funny, smart love song. This one is a hoot, the story of a passion that plays itself out as a duet between a concertina and guitar, peppered with professional pillow talk. Miss Nina works in disease control, Mr. Tzabar in the port’s tax office. Woven into their lovemaking is plenty of music and much talk of bacteria and import duties. Natan Alterman and Sasha Argov (perhaps Hebrew music’s finest duo) skillfully manage to take a one-joke routine and transform it into a true work of art. They offer up a frothy tango that rolls around expressions like “Retsina and techina” and tells of a love that is both "prophylactic and romantic". Actor-singers Yona Atari and Eli Gorlitsky dive into the work with such loud sincerity and nerdy-passion, that we can’t help but be a little jealous of the amour and silliness that these two exude.