Teacher offers Israeli history crash course through song at RMU

Teacher offers Israeli history crash course through song at RMU

The 61 years of modern Israeli history have been contentious, and Jonty Blackman believes one way to make sense of it is by examining Israeli culture, especially its music.
Blackman, a South African-born Israeli educator in town as a scholar in residence with the Agency for Jewish Learning, gave a tour of Israeli popular music as it pertains to Yom Hazikaron in a presentation at Robert Morris University Thursday, Dec. 3.
“Part of Israeli culture over these past 60 years has been an ongoing fight for survival,” Blackman said. That ongoing fight, he said, is often best expressed in Israeli songs.
He began with “Bab El Wad,” a mournful tune from 1948. Bab El Wad means “Gate of the Valley” in Arabic, and refers to the geographic entrance to Jerusalem, where the wide open coastal plain in the west narrows as it approaches the mountains of eastern Israel.
Israelis used this road to bring supplies into Jerusalem in the days after Independence, but the low lying position made it an easy target, and the road became the site of attacks and counterattacks between the new Israeli citizens and the surrounding Arab population.
The song “Bab El Wad” references the “Iron Skeletons,” or the bombed out trucks placed on the side of the road as a memorial to the war dead, and the blooming cyclamen, the national flower of Israel, also known as a Solomon’s crown because of its shape.
From there, Blackman jumped to 1967, when the first native-born Israelis would have turned 19 — military age. As Egyptian and Jordanian troops amassed on the borders, the national mood in Israel turned fearful. Blackman said Israelis even dug mass graves.
It’s easy to forget that the Six Day War in June 1967 came three weeks after Yom Hazikaron. With reservists being called up around the country, a young woman named Naomi Shemer wrote a song called “Jerusalem of Gold” for the Israel Song Festival.
After the Israeli victory in the war, the song became famous as an anthem of victory, making it easy to forget that it was first performed before the war and expressed the longing and uncertainty of a nation that could not access the sacred sites in Jerusalem.
“The song is about the yearning of the Jews,” Blackman said. “The song is about a Jerusalem that does not belong to the Jews.”
The political ramifications of that longing are embedded in the song, especially in the most common English version, which Blackman called “a commentary” meant to preserve the rhyme scheme of the song at the expense of an exact translation.
With the success in the Six Day War, the song became an anthem of Israeli strength in the face of overwhelming opposition, but Blackman said, “That will be dashed in 1973.”
Although Israel ultimately won the Yom Kippur War, the surprise attack and the resulting casualties — around 3,000 Israelis, 1 percent of the population, killed in three weeks — left a mark on the Israeli psyche and therefore on Israeli culture as well, Blackman said.
“The songs that come out of 1973 are songs of tremendous sadness,” he said.
In particular, he pointed to songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s that questioned Israeli might. This attitude emerged before the Yom Kippur War — like “Jerusalem of Iron,” a play on “Jerusalem of Gold,” and “Song of Peace,” both from 1970.
Blackman also pointed to the 1973 song “Let it Be,” which begins: “There’s a white sail on the horizon/ Opposite a heavy black cloud/ All that we ask for —let it be.”
From there, he jumped ahead three decades, around the time of the Second Intifada and the breakdown of the negotiations in the 1990s like the Oslo Accords. In 2002, Blackman said, a song called “Everyone’s Talkin’ ’Bout Peace” grabbed the attention of the nation with its claim that “Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout peace/ Nobody’s talkin’ ’bout justice.”
Finally, Blackman played a strange song of limited scope that somehow also captures the mood of a specific time and place. A S’derot schoolteacher wrote the song “Color Red” in 2008 as a way to prepare area children for the threat of rockets from the Gaza Strip.
A mix of instructions and reassurance, the song includes lines like, “Hurry, hurry, hurry, to a protected area/ Hurry, Hurry because now it’s a bit dangerous.”
These songs, Blackman said, show the two sides of Israeli culture. He quoted a saying that the difference between a “community” and a “camp” is that a community is united by a common vision and a camp is united by a common threat.
“Israel is a little bit of a camp and a little bit of a community,” Blackman said.

read more: