In 1951, American Jews heard something they never heard before and have not heard since: a Hebrew song at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. The song, Issachar Miron’s “Tzena Tzena,” had been recorded the year before by the Weavers, a politically leftist folk singing group from Greenwich Village with hyperactive accents and closer ties to Woody Guthrie than to Golda Meir. Adopted by Pete Seeger as a folk song, the Weavers’ version of “Tzena Tzena” fed American Jews’ sense of what Israel was—a land brimming with tanned and muscular kibbutznik-soldiers singing, dancing the hora, and making the desert bloom.
The song was composed by Issachar Miron (born Mirchovsky) in 1941. Yehiel Haggiz, who was then serving in Jewish Company Number 22 of the British Buffs Regiment in Palestine, had written the lyrics when he brought them to Miron. The song is short, and it encourages young girls to go out and meet the young, virtuous soldiers in the settlement—the title translates literally to “Go Out, Go Out.” One of the instructors in the company wanted a song to celebrate the completion of their training, so Miron responded by quickly writing a melody. Miron’s version had two parts that could be sung as a round, and its upbeat dance tempo made it both easy to learn and—like all hits—hard to forget. Miron taught the song to his own company and soon, by his recollection, “almost instantly, the whole camp was singing it.”
By the time the Weavers recorded the song, it had been reprinted in a 1949 collection called “Songs of Israel,” and it had been recorded at least twice: first by Paolo Gorin for Israeli radio, and then later by Sara Jaaray, in a deal with a fledgling American record company, Zamir Art Co. The Jaaray recording was included on an album titled Haganah Sings, of which about 1,000 copies were pressed for sale in the United States. According to one contemporary account, “Many of the songs in the ‘Haganah’ album were of [questionable] provenance; others were Tin Pan Alley arrangements of popular tunes.”
Whether through sheet-music reprints or its inclusion on the Haganah album, the original Hebrew version of “Tzena Tzena” then landed in the hands of Pete Seeger of the Weavers. Seeger, the son of Harvard musicologist Charles Seeger, already had a notable folk-singing career playing duets with blues legend Leadbelly and later teaming up with Woody Guthrie to form the politically progressive Almanac Singers. Unlike Guthrie and Leadbelly, Seeger was not much of a writer, but he committed himself to developing a vision and canon of American folk music, which he later expanded to include a world unified by folk music. He explained that he would craft performances so they included “a few songs from other countries, hinting at the different types of people in this big world.”
The young State of Israel was still largely an abstraction for American Jews in the 1950s. Few American Jews had visited Palestine or Israel, and even fewer had chosen to make the new Jewish homeland their home. Photos and newsreels captured the sights of the young country, but American Jews still had little sense of what this country sounded like. American Jews of a certain age still tuned in to Yiddish radio, while their children and grandchildren found their aural culture somewhere between Broadway show tunes and rock ‘n’ roll. A handful of collections of Israeli folk songs had been published and provided part of the soundtrack to Jewish schools and summer camps, but for the most part recordings from Israel were few and far between.
In fact, as Israeli musicologists Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi point out in Popular Music and National Culture in Israel, by 1952, the entire catalog of Hed Arzi, the largest Israeli record label at the time, consisted of a total of 22 songs, “a mixture of Shirei Eretz Yisrael, original songs in trendy pop styles (rhumba, swing, tango, and so on) and translations of foreign songs in the same vein,” in addition to a few cantorial numbers. The state of Israeli music in the United States drew the explicit ire of at least one critic, Peter Gradenwitz, who explained in a 1949 article in Commentary, “With the quick dollar the ruling motivation, it is hardly surprising that the worst sentimentalism and cheapest nationalism prevail in the ‘Palestinian’ music turned out for American consumption.”
Along with “Hava Nagila,” “Tzena Tzena” became one of the first Hebrew songs to be embraced widely by American Jewish audiences. But unlike “Hava Nagila,” which rang with overtones of religion and hasidism, “Tzena Tzena” lyrically evoked the sounds, sights, and soldiers of the new State of Israel, with its pastoral yet vigorous lyrics about girls going out to meet soldiers in the new settlements. In the early 1950s, Israel in the minds of Americans was some combination of the Garden of Eden and the little engine that could. It was dreamily socialist and seemed to hum with the vigor and romance of manual labor, filled with Jewish men and women who could fight and plant and love. The image of Israel in the minds of American Jews happily excluded the realities of malarial swamps and massive, hastily erected tent settlements to house the tens of thousands of Mizrahi Jews.
The aural framework that the Weavers provided fit snugly alongside Israel’s emerging sonic sense of itself, where the emerging tradition of folk songs tried to establish, in the words of Regev and Seroussi, “a means of tonal organization that would reflect both the people’s attachment to the land and the ingathering of the exiles.” This strategy not only fueled American Jews’ romance with the new Jewish State, but it was also part of a semi-explicit state strategy for cultivating a national musical culture.
In the following few decades, the song was covered by everyone from Vic Damone and Mantovanni to Richard Tucker, Chubby Checker, Judy Garland, and Dusty Springfield, among countless lesser-known artists like the Temple Israel Senior Youth Group Choir and the performers of Songs NFTY Sings II. In truth, it is probably one of the most recorded and best-known Jewish songs in the world.
“Tzena Tzena” is important not only for its popularity, but for how it became so popular in the first place. With its romantic depiction of young women lusting after righteous male soldiers, the song fulfilled the expectations of Israel held by many American Jews in 1951. Yet, this image needed a Harvard-educated American folk singer to reach an American audience. Despite the song’s pedigree, it took Seeger’s “hechsher” to make Israel audible to American Jews.
Ari Y. Kelman is a professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis and the author of Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States.