Navigate to News section

The Seven Quintessentially Israeli Songs

A musical celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut

Liel Leibovitz
April 19, 2018
Wikimedia Commons
Rami FortisWikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Rami FortisWikimedia Commons

It’s Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and throughout the day the Scroll will highlight some of the gems Israeli culture has created in the past seventy years.

As anyone who has ever listened to even an hour of Israeli radio knows, Israeli music is a genre onto itself. Birthed by composers and singers who brought the melancholy melodies of their Eastern European childhoods to their new homeland, the Israeli sound soon absorbed the jagged chords of American rock n’ roll in the 1960s and 1970s, and then turned eastward and incorporated the intricate musical tradition of Jews born in Middle Eastern and North African countries. It’s hard to pick just seven songs from a stream so vibrant and diverse, but here goes, a historically minded, absolutely subjective list to get you started:

Shir Ha’Reut, by Lehakat HaNachal:

Best known in Israel as Yitzhak Rabin’s favorite song, this haunting piece was composed by the legendary Sasha Argov with lyrics by the poet Haim Gouri. It was written as the War of Independence was drawing to a close, with the newborn nation having barely survived a massive attack from all sides and with many young men having fallen on the battlefield. The refrain has since become an unofficial Israeli anthem: “And we will remember them all / Those handsome men with their forelocks / For such camaraderie will never / Permit our hearts to forget them / And love sanctified by blood / Will once again flourish among us.” The song’s most iconic version is by Lehakat HaNachal, a military entertainment troupe, featuring the future pop star Yardena Arazi as soloist:

Atur Mitzchech Zahav Shachor, by Arik Einstein:

It’s tempting, of course, to dedicate this entire list to Einstein, Israel’s Voice for so many decades, but even among his catalogue of masterpieces, this song, with music by Yoni Rechter and lyrics by Avraham Halfi, stands alone. It’s a song about unrequited love, and every note trembles with sublime yearning:

Or, by Shoshana Damari:

The Yemeni-born Damari emigrated to Israel as an infant, and got her start in comic theater. But her incredible voice and captivating stage presence soon awarded her the nickname “the First Lady of Israeli Song,” and, as is befitting her position, she spent much of her career traveling the world as a cultural ambassador of Israeli music. This anthem, about light and hope, was written by Naomi Shemer, arguably the most iconic Israeli composer and songwriter of all time:

Kol HaKavod, by Yehoram Gaon:

In 1954, a non-profit organization asked the Yigal Mossinson, a popular and prolific writer, to come up with a play about the plight of Mizrahi Jews who had emigrated to Israel from Morocco, Tunisia, and elsewhere and encountered rampant racism from their compatriots of Eastern European descent. The result was Kazablan, which has since become an iconic musical and, later, film. The story is simple: A Moroccan immigrant falls in love with the daughter of a local Polish-born bigwig who refuses to bless the union until he witnesses firsthand his future son-in-law’s kindness and courage. The lead role made Yehoram Gaon a superstar, a position he still maintains all these years later. This is the musical’s most memorable number:

Kmo Tzemach Bar, by Chava Alberstein:

You needn’t know a word of Hebrew or a thing about Israeli history to feel the profound sadness in this beautifully crushing song, all about departures, physical and metaphysical alike, from the great Chava Alberstein:

Yam Shel Dmaot, by Zohar Argov:

The oldest of ten children in a family of hard-working Yemeni immigrants, Argov dropped out of school at 13, got married at 17, and had his first child a year later. Despite his golden voice, he didn’t believe a kid like himself, from one of Israel’s toughest neighborhoods, had a shot at becoming a famous singer. He found work as a house painter and was trying to get a record deal when he was convicted of rape and sent to prison. Upon his release, he decided to dedicate his life to music, started performing, and was soon singled out as a stellar talent. He became the first artist to bring Mizrahi music, previously considered lowbrow and rejected by the Ashkenazi-dominated elites, into the mainstream, and his success launched a furious career, including a long tour in America. In Los Angeles, Argov attended a party and was introduced to crack; soon after, he was addicted. Returning to Israel, he continued to abuse drugs, flushing away his fortune and destroying his vocal cords. He also continued to run afoul of the law, and was jailed for stealing a police officer’s gun while on a drug-induced spree. On November 6, 1987, Argov hung himself in his prison cell with a torn blanket. He was 32. Despite his criminal past, despite his tragic death, he remains one of the most revered artists in Israel, with generations of singers giving new life to his songs. Here is one of his most powerful tracks, “A Sea of Tears”:

Nitzozot, by Rami Fortis and Berry Sakharof:

Rami Fortis was a young soldier during the Yom Kippur War, and was deeply traumatized by fighting in the front lines. After the war and his military service both ended, he became a stagehand in a Tel Aviv rock club, begging the artists on stage to give him a shot at the mic. One finally did, and Fortis launched his career, sounding like a Hebrew version of the Ramones. But Israel had little patience for punk, so Fortis took his good friends Malka Spiegel and Berry Sakharof and moved to Europe, where they found fame as a leading avant garde band named Minimal Compact. When infighting broke the band apart, Fortis and Sakharof returned to Israel as a duo and recorded a few albums that more or less reinvented Israeli rock. Here’s one of the best:

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.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.