The Israeli culture wars arrived in my kitchen a few months ago when I discovered that the cure for my daughter’s grumpy preschooler moods was a Hebrew dance hit called “Happiness Revolution.” The song is of the genre known loosely as Mizrahi, a blend of Middle Eastern, Greek, and Western influences associated with Israelis who have roots in the Islamic world. In the country’s early decades Mizrahi music was deemed primitive and generally kept off radio and TV, shunted instead into an underground of small clubs, cheap wedding halls, and cassette stores clustered around the grimy bus station in Tel Aviv.
It turned out that my daughter not only knew the words (“A happiness revolution / Because we’re all family! We’ll dance like crazy / Because it’s time to fly!”) but also dance moves that she performed while watching her reflection in the oven door. She had learned the song at her Jerusalem kindergarten from the music teacher, a young ultra-Orthodox woman with no Middle Eastern roots that I can discern. When I attended the year-end party at the kindergarten, the kind of affair where the customary soundtrack has always been Naomi Shemer, the kids put on a performance involving a dozen songs, more than half of which were Mizrahi.
When I played “Happiness Revolution” at home, it turned out that my 8-year-old twins knew the song too—and, while we were at it, they wanted to hear “Terminal 3,” a Mizrahi hit about a South American vacation whose lyrics they learned on the bus during class trips. They didn’t think the music was strange or funny. They had breathed it in the Israeli air and it was theirs.
There is a long-running battle in Israel over the Mizrahi sound, one that crops up more often than you’d think and in language uglier than you’d expect. At issue in this argument is not high-end Middle Eastern music, which is increasingly rich but has limited appeal, but rather mass-market Mizrahi pop. Is this music “terrible garbage” and a “natural disaster,” as the Israeli music icon Yehoram Gaon put it in 2011, deriding the genre’s insipid lyrics and “broken Hebrew”? Does the Mizrahi sound signal—as a government minister once lamented, referring to an Arab city in the West Bank—that “we didn’t conquer Tulkarm, Tulkarm conquered us”?
Mizrahi, which means “eastern,” is also the collective name for Jews from the Middle East, about half of Israel’s Jewish population. So, does disdain for this music conceal disdain for Mizrahi Jews? Should it be marginalized, tolerated, or embraced? Is it Arab music, Mediterranean music, Israeli music? What is “Israeli” music, anyway? Or, in other words, what is Israel?
The noises in my kitchen are echoes of a battle decided. As a friend of mine, a Jerusalem sound man, put it: In 2015 it isn’t accurate to say that Mizrahi is a sub-genre of Israeli pop, or even a successful genre, or that it threatens the mainstream. It is the mainstream. It is Israeli pop. If you put a stethoscope to the country’s chest right now, the rhythm you’d hear would be Mizrahi. Every wedding I’ve attended in the past few years has featured Mizrahi dance music, no matter the ethnicity of the bride, groom, or guests. Even at Russian weddings not only is Mizrahi played alongside Russian pop and greeted with enthusiasm, but people born in places like Omsk can now pull off the wrist-twirling, hip-shaking dance moves that go with it, as Ilya Spitsarov reported for the Mizrahi culture site Café Gibraltar. “The Russian population of Israel, too,” he wrote, “has internalized the accepted link between Mediterranean pop and happiness.”
One of the biggest Mizrahi songs of the summer, Eden Ben-Zaken’s “Queen of Roses,” had more than 6 million YouTube views last I checked, a number that needs to be understood in light of the fact that it roughly matches the number of native Hebrew speakers on earth. “Happiness Revolution” had 9 million. “Hashalom Avenue,” about a guy getting lucky one night in an unfashionable part of Tel Aviv, has been viewed nearly 23 million times. (To achieve the same popularity in relative terms, a song in English would need to be viewed 6 billion times.) Other Israeli genres are nowhere close.
The first thing you notice if you listen to the current wave of Mizrahi pop, which I’ve spent much of the summer doing, is that there are quite a few parties going on, many of them at the beach. In the songs sung by men (which is most songs) there are girls at these parties, of course, and they’re beautiful, and often don’t wear very much, and love to dance.
Forget about a wedding, a white dress
She thinks that’s a waste of money
With all due respect (and she’s worth respect!)
She just wants to dance!
This song (Omer Adam and Moshe Peretz, “She Just Wants To Dance”) is unique for being the first Mizrahi-Celtic fusion number that I’ve heard. But the lyrics are standard. One recent hit from Eyal Golan, the reigning king of the Mizrahi scene, describes a woman, “maybe the prettiest in town,” who wears “a tiny bathing suit” to the beach on Friday afternoons. We’re firmly in the Western pop tradition here, with little that Brian Wilson or Justin Timberlake would find confusing (except, probably, for Golan’s shout-out in the same song to Oum Kalthum, the legendary Egyptian diva). But compared to much contemporary music in the United States the mood here is unusually innocent. The attitude toward women rarely deviates from saccharine: They’re “queens” or “beauties,” or described in terms of endearment lifted directly from Arabic songs into Hebrew, like “my life,” “my eyes,” or “my heart.” They’re objects, certainly, but objects of adoration. In mainstream Mizrahi pop one can be heartbroken about a woman but never too angry. There are no “bitches” or anything remotely close. Foul language is unthinkable.
One of the guiding principles here is a ban on cynicism. It’s not that the artists themselves necessarily aren’t cynics: Golan, for example, got into trouble not long ago over the alleged exploitation of underage fans for sex, though his father eventually took the blame, and a plea bargain. But Golan’s on-stage persona offers no hint of what he’s up to after the show. I spent two hours at a concert he gave in July without hearing a double-entendre, a violent innuendo, or anything wicked or funny. The concert’s energy came instead from the atomic power of Golan’s voice and his almost familial connection with his audience, who ranged from children to grandparents and knew every word of every song.
At one point Golan performed a number encouraging husbands to praise their wives, and a screen behind him flashed helpful suggestions along the lines of, “You look beautiful” and “You’re my princess.” (Golan divorced his wife a few years back and is now with a Ukrainian-born swimsuit model.) Between songs at a different concert—one that sold out Jerusalem’s new basketball arena—I heard the singer Moshe Peretz deliver a heartfelt paean to long relationships, encouraging “commitment” and “values” to much applause. Then he launched into a number about a woman lighting candles on Friday night and waiting for her husband to come home from synagogue, as she has been doing for 30 years. He comes home. They stay together. There is no twist.
Who’s invited to the Mizrahi music party of 2015? Girls, of course, and your friends, who bring vodka and watermelons. But also your mom, and your cousin who became religious, and all the gay neighbors. Omer Adam, one of the biggest names of the moment, is responsible for “Tel Aviv,” produced for gay pride week in 2013. This song is a favorite of the children in my daughter’s kindergarten and the children of everyone I know. Here is one verse, inadequately translated:
Tel Aviv, ya habibi, Tel Aviv
Check out the lirdim all over the place!
They’re like, “hi, hi”
And at night—woo-hoo!
Way to go, Tel Aviv!
Lirdim is Hebrew gay slang for hot men. The song continues with more gay jargon in the Holy Tongue and in a faux-Orientalist vein, including a request to “take me on your camel.” The song’s video has two men dressed like women vamping it up on the beach, admiring a man dressed like a man, and then giving up on him and kissing each other. Adam is straight, and much of his audience is traditional. It doesn’t seem to matter.
Mizrahi music’s closest American cousin is country, the only genre where performers can deliver the same earnestness and have the same flexibility to sing about girls, cars, God, America, and their parents. Like country singers, Mizrahi artists have long specialized in songs of the “laid low by life and love” variety, known here as “depression songs.” Mizrahi songs are supposed to express the authentic spirit of the place they’re from without putting on airs, just like country songs. But one difference is that it’s hard to imagine a mainstream country star identifying so closely and publicly with gay people, or to imagine a country audience caring so little.
Sarit Haddad, queen of the Mizrahi scene for the past decade and a half, teamed up in a new video with the producers of Arisa, a line of gay Mizrahi parties named for a spicy Tunisian spread. This is the same crew behind the “Tel Aviv” video, and also the one for “This Isn’t Europe,” which gets my vote for the best Israeli clip in recent memory in any genre. Sung by Margalit San’ani, one of Mizrahi music’s elder stateswomen, this song is a patriotic ode of sorts making fun of Israeli (and, one suspects, Ashkenazi) hipsters’ trendy and pathetic love for places like Berlin. “You’re not from London or Amsterdam/ Your face, honey, is from Bat Yam,” she sings, naming one of Tel Aviv’s sweatier suburbs. The clip, which stars a guy flouncing around dirty streets in a ball gown, is a national document as poignant as “Hatikvah.” I can’t watch it without wondering what Herzl would think.
As that song indicates, a kind of unapologetic national loyalty is present in Mizrahi music as it no longer is in most other Israeli songs, which these days tend to opt for angst, sarcasm, or attempts to pretend we’re all somewhere else. More and more Israeli artists sing in English. But rootlessness is not going to yield much worth listening to, and Israeli audiences know it. Mizrahi music doesn’t pretend to be from anywhere but right here in Bat Yam, honey. It’s not just Israeli music, in other words, but the most Israeli music there is. Many aspects of Israel’s politics and cultural life, like the film industry, are warped by international interest and money and tailored to foreign specifications. Mizrahi music is immune, and everything about it is local. In a new dance number by Eden Ben-Zaken we get the following patriotic expression, apropos of nothing in particular:
The whole city’s up on the roof, on the tables
Everyone’s clapping, raise your glasses!
Welcome to Israel
Can you tell the difference?
You’ve reached paradise, say, “Thank God!”
The same attitude is applied to Judaism. The nature of the current Mizrahi scene in this regard, and in general, can best be summed up with the following scraps from the Moshe Peretz/Omer Adam concert I went to in August:
• Songs about heartbreak performed with pathos, inspiring deep emotional involvement on the part of teenage girls near me, and only slightly less on the part of their mothers, who were next to them.
• A song about partying with the guys at a cheap weekend destination popular with Israelis—Bucharest. This is probably the only party song ever written about Bucharest, at least in a language that is not Romanian.
• Adam brings out a bottle of mineral water. Peretz puts his hand over Adam’s head in lieu of a kippah, and Adam recites the Hebrew blessing said before drinking water. About 8,000 people: “Amen!” The concert continues.
• A rendition of “Tel Aviv,” camels, gay pride, and all. Dancers strut with peacock feathers. Rainbow stripes flash on screens. Ya habibi!
• Adam sings “I Thank You,” based on the prayer recited by traditional Jews every morning upon rising. His movements—arms outstretched, turning from side to side—evoke a particularly devout worshipper in synagogue.
Or these, from the Facebook page of the young singer Haim Ifargan:
• Selfie in car with aviator glasses.
• Photo in pool with friends.
• Cellphone video of fans.
• Soulful selfie with kippah before the fast day of Tisha Be’av: “Have a meaningful fast [thumbs-up emoji]”
Zionism traditionally existed in tension with Judaism and the Middle East, and there are still quite a few Israelis who don’t think much of either. Mizrahi music embraces both. If you see Israel as a country of people who happen to be Jewish and are victims of an unfortunate accident that dumped them in the Middle East, this music and its success might grate. But if you accept Israel for what it is—a Middle Eastern Jewish country—it all makes sense.
Welding torches hiss in the rocket workshops of Gaza; centrifuges beep and whir under Persian mountains; farmers on our borders hear the tap-tap-tap of tunneling beneath their fields; up the road the crump of barrel bombs announces that the world that once expelled Mizrahi Jews is now destroying itself; from the radio comes the deep-toned blather of Israeli leaders adept only at confrontation; the odds against a normal future grow longer and longer—and here is a world of innocent love, of dancers on tables and lirdim on the town, a place near the sea where Arabic and Hebrew mix, where Judaism is everything and no big deal and God just another part of life, like sunshine and cigarettes. When you hear Mizrahi pop you’re hearing a minority in the Middle East having a good time. It’s a beautiful sound.
Matti Friedman’s last article for Tablet was a love letter to Jerusalem.
Matti Friedman is the author, most recently, of Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.