Israel commemorated the semi-centennial of the Six Day War much as you might expect. Publishers were ready with reprints of classic works of non-fiction, alongside new polemics against the occupation. A nightly sound and light show bathed the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the city’s reunification. Across the Atlantic, the venerable Christian Broadcasting Network gave produced In Our Hands, a docudrama which I suspect–based solely upon the trailer–would have even Bibi Netanyahu overdosing on pure, unadulterated jingoism.
The festivities, then, have come and gone, leaving nary a memorable moment behind. But yesterday, at the height of the dog days of summer, Israelis were treated to what might be the single most meaningful response that this season has seen to the fifty years that have passed since June 1967. David Grossman, the beloved novelist, wrote the lyrics to a song called Yesh Matsav, and an all-star team of local musicians set it to music and recorded it. The song is nearly 12 minutes long–it is in fact more of an eclectic, three-part song-cycle, or a mini concept album, than just one song–and it is well worth your time, even if you do not speak a word of Hebrew. Yesh Matsav literally means “there is a situation”, and is slang for “sure!” But the matsav to which the title alludes is the Situation which Israel has struggled with since long before the Six Day War. The project’s website, in Hebrew, Arabic and English (translated by Jessica Cohen, Grossman’s prize-winning translator), should help you with the rest.
Yesh Matsav opens with “To Want,” a funky affair with vocals by the hip-hop group Hadag Nachash, which in many ways recalls Grossman’s first serious lyrical effort, “The Sticker Song” from 2004, which was a collaboration with the same group. The Sticker Song was an artfully arranged potpourri of bumper sticker slogans from across the political spectrum, and was generally playful, even as it bemoaned the seemingly intractable state of Israeli discourse. The lyrics of “To Want” are no less snappy, but are far more frank in their despair: “Inside the / sealed bubble / that we call ‘the situation’, / two wrestlers stand, / arms locked, exhausted, / both desperate / and both right – / Oh, so right, / so right there’s no light / inside the bubble.” Yoni Rechter, a grandmaster of Israeli songwriting, cuts in with an interlude: “We can never have our lives / if they do not have their lives. / They can never have their lives / if we do not have our lives.”
Though best known for his novels–his latest, Horse Walks into a Bar, recently won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction–Grossman is one of this country’s foremost chroniclers of the shocks and aftershocks of 1967. His work of West Bank reportage, The Yellow Wind, which was released in 1987, eerily foresaw the intifada which was to erupt later that year. Ever since, he has been one of the most eloquent and outspoken figures on the Israeli left.
The Yellow Wind had its own anniversary this year, and Grossman was invited to deliver his latest thoughts on the matsav as keynote speaker when he received an honorary PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, his alma mater. Standing on the stage of the Mt. Scopus amphitheater where, fifty years before him, a uniformed Yitzhak Rabin received the same PhD just weeks after leading the IDF to victory, Grossman spoke in prose. Towards the end of his remarks, though, he segued into poetry, riffing on Hatikvah, the national anthem, and its dreams of being a free nation. He wondered aloud how the ceremonies of 2067 would look. “I don’t know which Israel it will be,” he said. “I can only hope with all my heart that the man or woman standing here will be able to say, with head held high and with full intent: I am a free man. And a free people. In my country, in my home, inside my soul.”
That hope is at the heart of Yesh Matsav, and those words appear verbatim in the second part of the cycle, “New Heavens,” helmed by Daniel Zamir, the saxophonist and singer (and Chabad hassid). The song, which begins at the 2:45 mark, is a jazzy take on Grossman’s utopian vision, and verges on piyyut, or liturgical poem, as Zamir sings the words of the prophet Isaiah: “There shall be no more thence an infant of days, / nor an old man that hath not filled his days: / for the child shall die a hundred years old.” Hopeful, perhaps, but tragic too, when you remember David Grossman’s son, Uri, whose yahrzeit was only two weeks ago. Uri was killed in combat in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, when he was just shy of 21.
Yesh Matsav ends with “In the Light,” with vocals and guitar licks by Berry Sakharof, the prince of Israeli rock (it begins around 6:50 minutes into the cycle). “I want to raise children / in the light, Berry sings, so that their shadow falls / on no one, / so that they never know the darkness / of occupation / and of terror.” He is joined by the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, comprised of Palestinian and Israeli kids, singing in Arabic.
At this point, you would be right to worry that we are veering dangerously close to “We Are the World” territory (or at least to the Israeli equivalent), but the collective talent on display saves Yesh Matsav from any hint of sappiness. The stunning visuals, by the artist Michal Rovner, with their masses of featureless crowds, leave the piece with gravitas to spare. (In what was by far the classiest moment of the presidential visit to Israel this May, Nechama Rivlin, Israel’s First Lady, gifted her American counterpart Melania with an earlier Grossman-Rovner collaboration, “The Hug,” in Hebrew, Arabic and English, for her to give young Barron, who was spared the schlep).
“In the light, / I want them. / In the light,” sings the supergroup, as the cycle approaches its finale. And so, as Rovner’s olive trees sway in the wind, in what will have to pass for catharsis, Grossman himself intones, “With the full, / open breath / of returning to life / after a war.”