Among Israel's peculiarities is the way the country marches to a different tune. The state of the nation is literally broadcast on the airwaves. When war broke out last week, the first sign for most was when the radio began playing all those sad songs that we don't usually get to hear from one memorial day to another. You know it's serious when "The tears of angels" comes on.
For unlike our enemies, God damn them, who strike up a military march as they strike out, when we hit back, we start with the tearjerkers.
While war is nothing to sing and dance about, you can't just tune it out. The war launched by Hizbullah last week might be different from anything we've been through before, but from the airwaves it certainly sounds familiar: The voices of Naomi Shemer, Chava Alberstein and Yehuda Poliker all hit the airwaves within an hour of news of kidnappings and deaths. Before the first missiles fell, local radio and television stations were playing by the emergency rules.
Israel usually produces a theme song (or two) for every war. The nascent blue-and-white state sang along to Yaffa Yarkoni's "Bab el-Wad," and "Believe me, the day will come." The Sinai Campaign of 1956 produced the legendary IDF Nahal Entertainment Troupe's "Mul Har Sinai" ("Facing Mount Sinai"). And the Six Day War was just one hit after another with "Jerusalem of Gold," "Ammunition Hill," "Nasser's waiting for Rabin" and "Sharm e-Sheikh," to mention but a few.
The War of Attrition took its toll but we didn't skip a beat with "Shir Leshalom" (The Song of Peace).
Naomi Shemer's "Lu Yehi," originally conceived as a Hebrew version of the Beatles' "Let it be," became the virtual anthem of the Yom Kippur War. The early, more naive stage of that war also produced the hit in which Yehoram Gaon promised ("Ani mavtiach lach") that this would be "the last war."
Some of the songs are still popular today, and others have been revived and mobilized when necessary, such as Natanela's powerful "Heyeh li haver, heyeh li ah," with its plea to "be like my brother, and give me your hand when I need it," and Ruti Navon's "Geshem be'ito," which periodically rains down on us.
Perhaps one of the best known Yom Kippur refrains was "Mi yada shekach yehiyeh" ("Who knew it'd be like this?"), a sentiment certainly still relevant today. Some songs hit close to home.
At a time when nothing seemed funny, one piece sticks out: Popularly known as "The Underwear Song," "Ein Lach Ma Lidog" ("There's nothing to worry about") was written by Thelma Elyagon based on a postcard sent by her brother from the front. The original was a plea for toilet paper, but the broadcast version was toned down to a call for underwear "and to please stop bombarding us with cakes."
Of course, today's soldiers send SMSs rather than postcards and an important source of inspiration (and documentation of the war itself) disappeared.
Anyway, by the time of the Lebanon War in 1982 - or should that be the First Lebanon War? - fewer people felt like singing, and apart from the hit from the movie Ricochet ("Two Fingers from Sidon") there were not that many noteworthy songs. That said, "Al Da'at Hamakom," the tragic tale of the two Yuval Harels from Jerusalem who fell the same day, the wrong family being informed first, still literally haunts me. And it wasn't surprising to hear the Nurit Hirsch song "Bo beshalom" last Thursday, with its call "Please, come back to us safely."
Then there are the "bereavement songs": Ehud Manor's tribute to his younger brother Yehuda, ("Can you hear me? Did you know, the sun still shines....?"); poems by Natan Yonatan after his son, Lior, fell in the Yom Kippur War; the touching Danny Robas song to a brother who never came back from Lebanon...
Strangely, Israel's war songs, like old soldiers, don't die. Some, however, suffer a possibly worse musical fate: They get the rap treatment. The early 1970s hit written by Dudu Barak, "Prahim bekaneh," dreams of "the sun standing still between Gaza and Rafah as the moon whitens the tip of the Hermon and with flowers in the gun barrels and girls in the turrets, the soldiers will return to their hometowns."
The semi-rap version was mooted a couple of years ago as a suitable anthem for the war with no name that broke out in 2000.
It's too early to say how this war is going to play out, we'll just have to stay tuned, but I bet that now that the home front is the front, some song will pop up and strike a national chord. And in the end, our enemies will be forced to face the music and change their tune.