The Mizrahi canon: Top classics from the margins of Israeli society

Although Mizrahi artists have become household names that can sell out amphitheaters, their music is still missing from the Israeli musical canon. The culture that Mizrahi Jews never forgot, along with the attachment to their roots and faith, are excellent tools for creating new Mizrahi classics.

By Avi H. Muthada

The Mizrahi canon: Top classics from the margins of Israeli society
Eyal Golan performing in Cesaria, July 19, 2011 (Eliran Hadad)

Classics, like good wine, must be preserved in wooden barrels in dark basements for years upon years. Only every so often do we open the treasure, have a taste and fondly remember the memories of the past.

When it comes to Israeli classics, the association is clear and one-dimensional: the words of Alterman or Hefer, which are often heard over the notes of Sasha Argov. Of course, it will be Chava Alberstein or the voice of one of the military bands which will describe the views, the feelings and the memories imbued in these songs. Those who suffer from insomnia must know the nightly program on Channel 1, which collects songs performed by those we consider classically handsome who are often pictured singing somberly on backdrop of the Mediterranean.

It seems that the place of Mizrahi singers is missing from the Israeli musical canon. Eyal Golan can sell out the Caesaerea Amphitheater, cultural centers and stadiums, his songs can be heard from every house in Israel, and yet his albums will not receive their due respect in the Israeli cultural pantheon. Moreover, Mizrahi artists won’t be included in state ceremonies or Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day). They are considered light entertainment, rather than producers of meaningful art.

Before Golan received his recognition several years ago, the fathers of the genre attempted to adopt the Israeli classics as their own. The best example of this is Zehava Ben’s rendition of Nathan Alterman’s “Zemer Shalosh Ha’Tshuvot.” Her version is an exceptional take on a somber song about unrequited love, which was originally performed by Rivka Zohar. Like Ben, many other Mizrahi Jews sought to wrap themselves in the comfort of Hebrew classics.

The song “Hayom Hayom,” first performed by Shlishiya Pikud Mercaz (The Central Command Trio) featuring Dorit Reuveni, got a makeover by Sarit Hadad and Ofer Levi, respectively. Levi was smart to put out an entire album in which he performed new renditions for classic Israeli songs such as “Atur Mitshech,” “Ha’Reut,” and “Yerushalaim Shel Zahav.” It must be stated that Levi, as is his wont, did not forget his roots, and included songs such as “Ha’Perach B’Gani” and “Latet” – both Israeli classics in the full sense of the word. Even Avi Biter did a new version of Haim Hefer and Yehoram Gaon’s “Beit Avi” on his album. And before you raise an eyebrow and express your contempt, take a listen to the way in which Biter’s silsulim (a musical trill associated with Mizrahi or Arab singing) sheds new light on the song.

What about the Mizrahi classics?

What makes a song a classic? Words that are on the border between poetry and songwriting, a melody that can be seen as a masterpiece, and a singer who is connected to the lyrics. But most of all, the critics and the crowd need to give their approval. In Israel, the keepers of the metaphorical “Hebrew cultural archive” make sure to sweep away every trace of Mizrahiness.

But Mizrahi music need not wander in strange pastures, as it has its own pantheon which contains classics that deal with faith, wealth, nature, pain, grief and memories. Here are a few examples:

Tzlil Inbalim Yishai Levi

Yishai Levi’s “Tzlil Inbalim” (“Sounds of Bells”) describes a vivid picture of a time when innocence was the law of the land. Yehuda Bedihi does a wonderful job of weaving together notes to Avraham Levi’s lyrics. The question remains: why is this song missing from the cannon of Shirei Eretz Yisrael (“Songs of the Land of Israel”)? I guess Mizrahim can’t talk about pioneering and Hebrew labor.

Kshe HaLev Boche – Sarit Hadad

There exists quite a bit of criticism of Yossi Gispin as someone who writes songs offhandedly. But if Gispin was put on this earth solely to write “Kshe Ha’Lev Boche” (“When the Heart Cries”), it would have been enough. Sarit Hadad sings the pain-stricken lyrics, which were written in the wake of the 2000 Ramallah lynching, which took place in the beginning of Second Intifada. Gispin proves that not only is he a songwriter who knows how to write hits, but also one that knows how to write deep, eloquent songs. This is one of the only songs that became an official part of Israel’s Yom HaZikaron, and was redone by artists on the other side of the musical spectrum, such as Miri Aloni and Ninet Tayeb.

Zer Kisufim – Eyal Golan

Eyal Golan is the best singer in the country. It’s not a matter of taste, but rather of facts. The self-righteous ridiculers will forgive me if in another 40 years Eyal Golan won’t be remembered for the songs “Milion O’ Dollar,” “Yafa Sheli,” “At Sheli Ani Shelach,” and definitely not “Jungle.” Rather, he will be remembered for masterpieces such as “Elohai,” “Biladayich,” and “Ben Ha’Tov Ve Ha’Ra.” One of the most beautiful and exceptional tracks that Golan released from his 2010 album “Derech L’Haim” is “Zer Kisufim” (“Wreath of Longing”):

But we’ve managed to forget this song as well. Yoni Yaish, who wrote the song, is an example of someone who knows how to create cultural wealth.

One could add many more songs to this list, including, but not limited to “Ha’Perach B’Gani,” “Al Nevakesh,” “Badad” (actually, any of Zohar Argov’s songs), “Bo’ee Lanuah,” “Kol Nidre,” “Eineya Karu Li,” “Ze Ha’Zman Lisloah,” “Tipat Mazal,” “Levad Al Em Ha’Derech,” and many more. These are the kinds of songs to listen to when cleaning at home or in the car, when you’re driving by yourself. Israeli radio doesn’t receive the frequency of classic Mizrahi songs, and most of the stations that do play Mizrahi music refrain from playing these songs. What won’t turn into a ringtone or make a profit in the short-term goes straight to the trash bin.

Honestly, the affliction that dumbs down our society and language also exists in Mizrahi music. Unfortunately, taking on the form of catchy, upbeat pop was a necessary step in order for Mizrahi music to make it into the pantheon of Israeli music through the back door. Now is the time to return to real, pure creativity.

The title of “Mizrahi” has long been disconnected from origin, becoming an antithesis to “tsabariut” (the word “tsabar” is used to refer to Israelis born in Israel, usually associated with Ashkenazi-Israeli culture, which often sees itself as superior to other cultures in Israel). The culture that Mizrahi Jews never forgot, along with the attachment to our roots and our faith, are excellent tools for creating new Mizrahi classics. Songs aren’t created by mere words, spontaneity or brilliance. Songs come from the heart.

Here are a few more classic Mizrahi songs:

Badad – Zohar Argov

Tipat Mazal – Zehava Ben

Haim Moshe – Ahavat Chayai

Tziltzulei Pa’amonim – Ahuva Ozeri

Ha’Perach B’Gani – Zohar Argov

Readers are welcomed to link to their favorite artists/songs!

This piece first appeared in Hebrew on the Café Gibraltar blog