Wading Through Widowhood: Back to work

After the ‘hagim,’ a tribute to unsung songs, and an unsung hero.

Dr. Gali Manor with her father Ehud Manor. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Gali Manor with her father Ehud Manor.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The New Year gets off to a slow start in Israel. First come the two days of Rosh Hashana itself, the festival of the New Year. We just finish the leftover lamb, and it’s time to fast; 25 hours of remembering breaches of positive commands and negative ones, those known unto us and unknown. After a rejuvenating cup of tea and some sweet cinnamon rolls on the night of the breaking of the fast, the younger members of the family get stuck into building the succa, and jeez… it’s time to shop and cook and clean again for another hag.
Last Succot I had one of those only- in-Israel seminal experiences, in the unlikely setting of the hairdressing salon near my house. The radio was playing a perennial this-time-of-year Naomi Shemer hit, “Shlomit Bona Succa.” It’s not, of course, only Shlomit who builds a booth in which to sit and eat cake with friends; the whole of Am Yisrael morphs into engineers with hammers and planks. There we were with dye on our hair: a woman in her 80s from Europe, a young mother on her phone, a schoolgirl having her hair straightened and others, all singing along to the nursery-school song, while the tattooed, multi-pierced assistant hairdresser beat in time with his brush. It was quite fabulous.
Just as food is more than simply food in the Holy Land, where all sorts of dietary constraints spice our menus, and issues such as opening shops on Shabbat take on existential angst, music too is much more than just music.
Our songs shape our collective consciousness, articulate the complications inherent in this complex sliver of the Earth and help us to cope. Who can hear “Shir Lashalom” (The Peace Song), for example, with its controversial anti-war message, without thinking of Yitzhak Rabin, singing shyly in the square just moments before he was murdered? Standing on the stage that fateful night next to Israel’s beleaguered prime minister was one of the country’s most revered songwriters and multi-talented artists, Ehud Manor.
And what a pleasant surprise it was, at a pre-academic year party for the IDC English staff last week, to discover that his daughter, a lecturer in English literature, is now on our team.
Dr. Gali Manor, whose name became part of our popular culture when her dad wrote a song welcoming her to the world, is currently researching Israeli music and writing a book about her famous father. What a privilege it was to hear her speak about her memories, and how wonderful to hear Ehud Manor’s beloved voice sing to us again as she hit the “Play” button.
For me, whose Hebrew is competent but far from sophisticated, it was utterly magical to get a window into the literary beauty of at least a couple of the more than 1,500 songs that Manor either wrote or translated into Hebrew.
The structure of his “Yemei Binyamina” (The Days of Binyamina), for example, a classic mainstay of Israeli popular music, fluctuates between the aabb and internal rhyme scheme when he remembers the past, to the aaaa lilt of a lullaby as he mulls over how to cope with it. “I want to go back to those days,” he sings, “to when a friend was a friend,” and we think of our own pasts, and our childhood friends and how simple life seemed.
I have never known the history of Israel’s music, and Gali’s talk was so fascinating that I thought I’d spread the word.
The genre of our songs, she explained, can be split into three periods: 1881-1948; 1948-1967; 1967 to the present. At first, musicians reflected the desire to erase the shtetl and embrace the melting pot reality of a new home. Lyrics and melodies were part of a fresh, invented tradition based on the Bible, Bialik and an overwhelming love of the land, wrapped up with Russian and local melodies. Mattityahu Shelem’s “Shibolet Basadeh” (Wheat in the Field) and Natan Alterman/ Daniel Samburski’s “Anu Ohavim Otach Moledet” (We Love You, Our Homeland) are from this era.
The government of Israel controlled the radio stations and TV channels from 1948 to 1967, and the most popular genre of music was that of army bands. The lyrics were all about us – “Bo Eleinu Layam” (Come with Us to the Sea) – about how good it was to live here and love here and even fight here in “Golani Sheli,” for example. There was very little “other” music, very little Middle Eastern influence, and almost no mention of “me” (as opposed to this year’s Festigal hit “Shir Haselfi” (Song of the Selfie). At the beginning of the country’s history what I want, what I feel, was subsumed into the general identity. And for a land building itself from scratch in the face of great adversity, that encouraging, patriotic, ennobling music made sense.
In 1967, globalization hit the Israeli music scene, and rock and pop overtook the Zemer Ha’ivri, the Hebrew song.
“My father was the missing link,” claimed Gali. “His songs were personal and spoke about individual emotions of pleasure and pain, but they adhered to the basic traditional form with quatrains and the well-loved rhyme schemes.”
At that point, Israeli music also took on political overtones. Ehud Manor’s memorial songs omitted the obligatory themes that portray dead soldiers as our “silver salver” that delivers salvation and presents war casualties as a necessary evil in order to survive.
Manor, who lost his 19-year-old brother Yehuda in the War of Attrition, sang about him in terms of the pity of war, the waste, the unlived years. Israel’s songs to our sad, sad, ever-growing list of boys who stop growing old are different since Manor started writing them.
Yet, despite the pain, Manor was hugely committed to his country. His daughter revealed that after his song “Abanibi” won the Eurovision contest, Manor, who was studying at Cambridge at the time, was offered British citizenship in recognition of his enormous talents. “He refused,” she recalled. “He said he had Israeli citizenship.
That was enough!” Not a surprising sentiment, really, when you think that he penned the lyrics to the haunting “Ein Li Eretz Aheret” (I Have No Other Land).
Ehud Manor died in his early 60s, just like my Martin. I think of all the songs unsung that died along with Manor, songs that he never got to write, and then I think that in his own way, Martin was also an unsung hero, who did his part for the country he loved. And then I think – as I prepare for another year of grading papers and teaching sonnets and rhyme schemes and rules of the present perfect without my perfect husband waiting for me at home – that actually it’s not really about how long you live, it’s about how you live while you are here and the songs that you write, literally or metaphorically. It’s about the legacy you leave. It’s about whether the good you do outweighs the damage.
As the students of Israel go back to another academic year, let’s hope that the balance of 5775, 2014-15, ushers in a period in which the good triumphs and the music soars.
Shabbat shalom.
The writer lectures at IDC and Beit Berl. peledpam@gmail.com