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A Song About Israel

An American ballad, on the Jewish state’s Independence Day

David Tenenbaum
May 02, 2017
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Sometimes in life you find yourself at a crossroads. You finally achieve a goal, and you ask, “Now what?” Two months ago, I found myself in just such a position. And naturally, my instinct was to go to Israel. Maybe that’s a Jewish thing. Maybe that’s because the only place I travel to internationally is the Jewish state. Whatever the reason, I followed my instinct. And thus, on the eve of my 23rd birthday, I found myself in front of a microphone at a speakeasy in the holy city of Tzfat.

The speakeasy was also full of mostly English speaking expats from America, or England, or, even New Zealand. I met another David from Wellington, only he was from the one in New Zealand, and not Wellington, Florida, like me.

Here it gets a bit complicated. Tzfat is a magical city. Even I, a true skeptic, believe this. In one small instance of magic, the speakeasy served Canadian whiskey made in the Golan Heights. Here, you must understand something: I love Canadian whiskey. But it’s not so common in Israel. Magic was that night’s theme, as I also witnessed a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace” performed by an American expat who, it turns out, was also from Florida. “I’m from the South,” I told her, “so I’ve heard this song a lot. But never have I heard it sung by a room full of Jews.” I must admit, it was a rather moving rendition.

Then came my turn. Here I should note that the night before I left for Israel, I submitted the debut album for my band—Turkey Scratch—to our distribution service. The album still hadn’t been released on the various streaming services it was submitted to, so I had to introduce the songs with vague promises of an album that was coming soon. This was no problem; I’d been doing that for my entire musical career. So I did my usual spiel: I introduced the songs, I gave some backstory about their writing, and I played them. I had time for only three songs, so I did two Turkey Scratch songs and one cover—“Danko/Manuel” by the Drive-By Truckers (written by Jason Isbell).

Danko/Manuel” is ostensibly a song about Rick Danko and Richard Manuel from The Band. I’m a big fan of The Band; in fact, Turkey Scratch takes its name from Levon Helm’s hometown. The song has a line that, until that night, had slipped by me: “Maybe I can make it bigger overseas.” This was originally written as a reference to Richard Manuel’s time in Japan, but I had never thought of it in terms of my own life until I found myself playing a set in a foreign country.

Reader, if I may be modest, they loved me that night in Tzfat. I was complimented not just for the songs or for my singing but for my allegedly “great” stage presence. I appreciated the compliments, but I must admit, my on-stage shtick is nothing special. Still, as I left the venue with a friend, an Israeli couple stopped us to compliment my voice—something I’m not very confident in—and I turned to my friend and said, “See, that compliment will get my ego through three months, at least”—and it was true. Sure, the crowd was mostly English-speaking and, let’s face it, American. Maybe that’s why they liked me. Maybe I was desperate for something good to hold onto so I could forget, even for just a moment, what would be happening the next day back home in the United States.

I spent a few more days immersed in the magic of Tzfat. Somewhere, Chinese tourists have footage of me playing covers, tucked away in a street corner with my guitar and a Maccabee beer. Finally, on my last night in Tzfat I received word that Turkey Scratch’s album had finally hit Spotify. By another bit of magic, I found myself jamming in the “Sound Cave” (a large cave in Tzfat that has a pronounced natural reverb effect) with a local who had walked in with a guitar and flute while I was there with some friends. It was a fitting end to my time there.

Magic wasn’t restricted to Tzfat, though. In Tel Aviv, I found a newly reissued record by Danny Maseng at Third Ear, First Edition, whose B-side was exclusively Bob Dylan cover songs—in Hebrew. As a Dylan obsessive, I took this to be a miracle. I once spent an entire year listening only to Dylan.

One Shabbat, I made my way to the Dylan exhibit at Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People. Ramat Aviv (and Tel Aviv University) was rather quiet. It was nice, though having seen the “Dylan and the Nashville Cats” exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame, I was not blown away. The highlight was a video featuring Israeli musicians discussing the influence Dylan has had on them. In other words, I got to watch Ehud Banai (whose cousin, singer Meir Banai, sadly had died the day before) and Jane Bordeaux (my favorite Israeli band) discuss and then cover Dylan. I found a real pleasure in seeing the celebration of a modern-day prophet in the Jewish state. Perhaps this comes from the biblical feel of so many Dylan lyrics. Perhaps it comes from the sensation at seeing a pillar of American Jewry celebrated in the Jewish state. Maybe I was just feeling the dopamine rush that someone like me gets from being in a roomful of pictures of Bob Dylan.

I was a bit apprehensive that the people of Tel Aviv, so cultured, so developed, and so worldly, wouldn’t like me as much as the people of Tzfat had. Perhaps I figured that people in Tel Aviv would have more exposure to talented musicians and they would see me for the hack that I was. Either way, I figured wrong. I was not given a hero’s welcome after my set in Tel Aviv, but it was well-received. People clapped along to the choruses, and I even covered a Jason Isbell song—“Streetlights.” Perhaps I should have done an original, but it’s hard for me to fight the urge to cover just one song I love per set, especially when it’s a song written by Jason Isbell.

I didn’t get too many opportunities to play my own songs in Israel, but I’m grateful for what I had. I had dreamed of such a moment for a while—we even have a song, unrecorded as of now, called “Tel Aviv Sunshine”—co-written by myself and the gentile co-founder of Turkey Scratch, Hayden Miles, as a testament to my love for the city.

Now, sadly, I am back in the United States and not in Israel. However, I have returned with a new understanding of “Americana”—and its place in world music. While it may be a rather specific genre that applies mostly to one region of the United States, its musical roots are shared with other, more worldly, genres—like folk, blues, and, of course, rock. Israelis may not understand the obscure geographical references in some of the songs—any good Americana artist knows to throw in some names of small Southern towns—but then, I doubt most Americans know much about the poker room in Gretna, Florida, either. If you look past the superficial parts of the music and dig into the essence, you find universal themes, themes that you can find in any genre.

Perhaps one day I will be able to write Americana songs in Hebrew and truly continue my experiment. In the meantime, I just have to hope that folks in Israel will find and appreciate my music. And if they don’t, kol b’seder. Israel has enough of a music scene that they don’t need my junk.


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David Tenenbaum is a freelance writer and musician from South Florida.