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The Hebrew Beatles?

No. 66 on our song list marks the birth of Israeli rock

Liel Leibovitz
December 22, 2010

To most American Jews, the Israeli pop anthem “Yo Ya”—number 66 in Jody Rosen and Ari Y. Kelman’s monumental list of the 100 greatest Jewish songs of all time—is a sort of musical falafel, a savory, imported bit of culture that one is glad to have sampled once or twice but that is never a part of anyone’s steady diet. In Israel, however, the song and the band behind it—known in Israel as Kaveret and elsewhere as Poogy—are on par with Agnon, Amichai, and other cultural giants. This is because Kaveret, it is safe to say, invented Israeli rock n’ roll.

Historically speaking, this is not at all an accurate statement. Shalom Hanoch, widely considered the Founding Father of Israeli rock, was swinging his axe in Tel Aviv’s clubs at least half a decade before Kaveret was formed in 1973, and Arik Einstein, the eminence grise of Israeli song, was crooning edgy pop ballads as early as 1960. But Einstein, and Hanoch, and everyone else who came before Kaveret were largely content with merely translating the sturm und drang of American and European popular music into Hebrew—Hanoch as an Israeli Beatle, Einstein as Tel Aviv’s answer to Jacques Brel—while Kaveret came up with a sound all of its own.

As is the case with all truly interesting bands, it’s a difficult sound to define. In part, it is pure boy rock, the sort of exuberant and beautiful rubbish that comes out when teenaged boys first grab hold of electric guitars and spend hours gleefully imitating their heroes. In part, it is a musical youth movement; many of Kaveret’s songs, “Yo Ya” most notably, feature the sort of call-and-response that anyone who had ever belonged to the Israeli scouts, say, would know well. In part, it is a classic California garage band, with stabbing guitar licks and deceptively simple beats.

The same is true of the lyrics. In “Golliath,” for example, one of the band’s greatest hits, the triumphant King David, having just slain his giant nemesis, is met with the following verse: “All of the Bible thanked him enthusiastically / If you want to be our king, they said, call us tomorrow at six.” It sounds much better in Hebrew, but the charm, hopefully comes across—a tad of Bible, a touch of humor, a glimpse of bureaucracy, the heroic and the mundane all rolled into one. Another popular song, “Baruch’s Boots,” tells the epic tale of a man’s quest to find his purloined footwear, and a famous hit is known simply as “The Bodega Song.”

This combination of playful lyrics and joyous guitar rock appealed to Israelis like no other band has before or since. In Kaveret, Israelis young and old found the humor, the sense of improvisation, the daring and the sense of wonderment they’ve come to see as the nation’s dearest values. Kaveret was like the Israel Defense Forces’ best-trained commando units, a small band of men who delivered greatness and made it look so easy; they were the quintessential Israelis, and they didn’t need a bob haircut or riffs stoles from the Stones to look and sound cool.

Of the band’s seven members, six went on to become musical superstars, and the seventh, Meir Fenigstein, became a renowned festival organizer and promoter of Israeli films. Its concerts, both at the peak of the band’s popularity and in a series of reunion tours, draw huge crowds; one 1974 concert is estimated to have drawn 500,000 people, 17 percent of the nation’s total population at the time. Whether or not Lenny Kravitz borrowed the “Yo Ya” riff for his “Are You Going to Go My Way,” as Rosen and Kelman suggest, the song is still a perfect introduction to Israeli rock’s greatest band.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.