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How Musician Meir Banai Reflected Israeli Culture’s Recent Return to Jewish Tradition

Banai, who died yesterday at 55, was part of a wave of Israeli artists who derived meaning and inspiration from religious texts their secular Zionist forebears had spurned

Daniel Gordis
January 13, 2017
Adiel Lo/Wikipedia
Meir Banai Adiel Lo/Wikipedia
Adiel Lo/Wikipedia
Meir Banai Adiel Lo/Wikipedia

By now, the fact that Meir Banai released an album called Shema Koli (“Hear my voice”), words taken from the opening of the liturgy for Yom Kippur, seems utterly unremarkable. And that alone is indication of the pervasiveness of the revolution of which he was a part.

Banai, who died in Israel yesterday at age 55 after a long but private battle with cancer, was part of the “first family” of Israeli music. Like his uncle, Yossi Banai, and his brother, Evyatar (among others in the family), he was a household name in Israel. And like members of his family and other well-known Israeli musicians, Banai’s long-lasting contribution to Israeli music may reside less in the songs that he wrote and performed than in the subject matter he helped legitimate.

Meir Banai was, like many other Israeli musicians, a performer whose inner search for meaning led him not away from the Jewish tradition, but back to it. That may sound inconsequential or natural, but Israel’s founding generation had sought meaning precisely by leaving the tradition behind.

Haim Nachman Bialik, David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres, Eliezer Ben-Yehudah and dozens of others of the giants of early Zionism were raised in Orthodox homes and—to one degree or another—abandoned the rigors of that way of life. They sought sanctity not in the synagogue but their ancestral homeland. They replaced prayer with labor. They ached not for ritual purity, but for the dirt of the Land of Israel and the messiness of state-building. Early Zionism was, in many ways, a rebellion against Judaism. And poems like Bialik’s “City of Slaughter” were the declaration of war.

Thus, in the 1950s and 1960s, the caricature of the Israeli was the utterly secular man in shorts, sandals and a kova tembel driving a tractor. That man had no use for the trappings of religion, which was the vestige of Europe, where God had failed to redeem the Jews. Now, Israel’s founding generations said, Jews would redeem themselves, and the one thing they did not need was the passivity and weakness born of the religion of their ancestors.

Somewhere along the line, though, Israelis’ infatuation with secularism began to crack, and their anger at the religion of their great-grandparents began to give way to curiosity. Some of that was due to the inevitable fading of 1948’s revolutionary fervor. Part was the rise of Israeli materialism. Some was due to the crisis of faith in secularism wrought by the Yom Kippur War. But by the late 1970s, and with increased energy thereafter, younger generations of Israelis were not necessarily becoming observant—but they wanted to be part of the conversation that had been Judaism for centuries. And nowhere was this shift clearer than in the world of Israeli music—and in the Banai family itself.

The first generation of Banai performers, Yossi and Gavri Banai, were staunch secularists. In the next generation, first cousins Ehud and Yuval Banai, were in bands that brought East-West fusion into Israeli culture, a reflection of the spiritual search that then started taking Israelis abroad. Still later, in the 1990s, Ehud and Evyatar (also first cousins), became religiously observant and were soon bringing overt Jewish themes into their music. Later, Meir, who died yesterday, was also swept along by the interest in religion (though he did not become rigorously observant), and issued albums like Shema Koli that included songs like Lekha Eli (“To You, My God”), the words for which were composed by the medieval Jewish sage, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra.

Other rocks stars turned inward and set to music the work of religious giants from centuries earlier. Etti (Esther) Ankri achieved instant stardom with her first album, I Can See it in Your Eyes (1990), which reached double platinum in Israel. The very symbol of musical success, she was eventually named Israeli Female Singer of the Year. In 2001, though, she, too, began a slow return to religious observance, and when she released an album in 2009, it was a musical rendering of the poetry of the medieval Jewish poet and philosopher, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi.

Nothing symbolizes the Israeli musical return to Jewish roots more than the family of Arik Einstein. Einstein (1939–2013), the wildly popular “father of Israeli rock,” grew up in Tel Aviv with all its attendant hyper-secularism (and the lifestyle belonging to a rock musician thereunto appertaining). Einstein’s closest friend was Uri Zohar, a comedian and film director, who in the 1970s began to turn to religion. In 1977, Zohar—long a symbol of the best of secular Israeli entertainment—caused a stir when he wore a kippah on a popular television game show he was hosting. Not long thereafter, Zohar left the entertainment world, became a rabbi, and joined the ultra-Orthodox community.

In the meantime, Einstein divorced his wife Alona, the daughter of one of the Israeli Air Force’s first pilots, in itself sufficient to make her part of the secular aristocracy. After she and Einstein divorced, Alona found her way to religion, as well, and she, too, became ultra-Orthodox. Ultimately, Arik and Alona’s two ultra-Orthodox daughters married Uri Zohar’s two eldest sons, also ultra-Orthodox. In many ways, the story was a mere curiosity; but the image of Arik Einstein, the ultra-secular king of Israeli rock surrounded by ultra-Orthodox family members who had come from the secular aristocracy was a powerful symbol of the shifts taking place in parts of Israeli life.

Meir Banai’s death is thus the loss of a powerful, richly talented voice on the Israeli musical scene—and at the same time, an opportunity to reflect on the larger tapestry of which his life was part. The shift to engagement with religion that characterizes much of the Israeli music scene can be seen in books, on television, in education and elsewhere through Israeli society and culture. It is not that Israelis are necessarily becoming more observant. It is that they are increasingly disinclined to be what Paul Cowan called “orphans in history,” Jews severed from the traditional anchors that ultimately gave their people meaning.

Banai’s life and work was a reminder that it is never too late to ask ourselves what the Jewish State is all about. There are many ways to answer that question, of course, but the move from the secularism of Israel’s early generations to the heartbreak of 1973 to the religious inquisitiveness of recent decades suggests that more than anything, Israel is the place where Jews have come to reimagine what Jewish peoplehood might mean when it resides in its ancestral homeland and is coupled to sovereignty.

Israelis do not agree on what that Jewishness should look like or stand for. Thus, the raucousness of much of Israeli life. But Meir Banai’s life, and his musical output particularly after he began to re-engage his roots, is a powerful reminder that not far beneath Israel’s tempestuousness, there is a quest, a hunger and a yearning that is both deeply Jewish and achingly exquisite.

Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, was just awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Book of the Year.