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Discover, Watch, Listen: Music in a Time of War

Exploring how Israeli music has been used to express the emotions of the country before and after October 7

Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute Yehuda Kurtzer takes us on a musical journey in a recent episode of the podcast Identity/Crisis. To set the scene for exploring the musical offerings from Israel since October 7, he outlines the history of the politics of Israeli music in three phases (I hope you will permit me quoting him at length here as I think this history is fascinating). He writes:

The first era: 1950s-1970s

In the first era, so let’s say from the 1950s through the 1970s, maybe even the early 1980s, Israeli popular music was hugely informed and influenced by the experience of near-constant war. The peak of that era, of course, was the Six-Day War. And its music included sweeping ballads, famously like Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, which is a song that both reflects pre-war anxiety about what was about to happen and also gets edited after the war to reflect the news of its victory. Six Day War also produced playful gloating songs like Nasser is waiting for Rabin. But the period in question, I would say, also includes the folk music prior to that war and extends all the way, I would say, until Naomi Shemer’s Al Kol Ele, a meditation on territorial compromise that resulted in giving the Sinai back to Egypt in 1982 and the evacuation of the settlement at Yamit. 

Phase two: 1990s & early 2000s

I think phase two was the 1990s and early 2000s, when the soundtrack shifts from being war-informed to something a little different, the music both of the hope for peace and the trauma of terror. The peak of this musical moment was the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin and its aftermath. Rabin was shot right after coming down from singing a famous 1970s peace song at a rally. By the way, the blood-stained copy of that song with its lyrics found in his coat pocket after his death. 

Perhaps the most iconic song at the time was Aviv Geffen’s rendition of Livkot Licha, Crying for You, a song he had written about a friend killed in a car accident, but which became then more famously a tribute to a prime minister who had come to symbolize, for Aviv Geffen, for many other young Israelis, the person who would bridge between his war past and his dreams for peace.

Many of those songs, from Shalom Chaver, as well as others that joined the canon, then became part of a morbid, ritualized soundtrack that came to define the next decade of Israel. Every time there was a suicide bombing or terror attack, and there were so many of them, from that time on, from 1994 through the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, you almost didn’t have to listen to the news in Israel to know that a terror attack had taken place. You just had to turn on the radio. And if one of those melancholy songs was playing, you knew. 

The third phase

And then there’s the third phase, which I want to argue didn’t really have quite a plot until October 7th. Now Israel has always had political rock songs, but the last 20 years have been different than its first 50. There’s no obvious political narrative to respond to. Status quos, I would say, are morally awful in general, especially in the presence of injustice, but they’re also bad for art. 

In general, it seems now in retrospect that Israel between the Second Intifada and October 7th was in kind of a naive slumber. Donniel Hartman describes it by saying that Israelis had lulled themselves into a belief that they were living in Scandinavia, largely having subscribed to Bibi’s hubris of a non-strategy at the Gaza border and a simmering status quo in the West Bank. And let’s not talk about the North. 

Kurtzer – together with Lior Zaltzman of Kveller –  dive into the music that rose to public consciousness, both pre-Oct 7 songs that were repurposed and new compositions in the wake of Oct 7. In this podcast episode, Kurtzer explores the “evolving musical story” in Israel over the past 5+ months and how Israeli musicians are responding to this moment. These songs reflect the anger, rage, sadness, helplessness, grief, and hope of musicians and Israelis alike. He concludes the episode by summarizing that music is a blessing in that it can help the listener “to process and understand an incredibly complicated, sad, tragic, violent moment without forcing us to simplicity of opinion or narrative.”

I was so moved by each of the musical offerings; I hope you will take the time to listen and be equally moved.

Listen to the entire podcast episode of Identity/Crisis:

Listen to the curated playlist of every song played and discussed during the podcast:

From Rabbi Ilyse Glickman:

This is our ongoing blog series to introduce the DJC community to podcasts, books, websites, and other media offerings that may expand our understandings of the current war in particular and Israel/Palestine more broadly. I hope you listen/watch/read these recommendations with curiosity, openness, and empathy. Please let me know what you think about today’s offerings: rabbiglickman@djctoronto.com. I look forward to the conversation.

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