Blowin’ in the wind

Folk singer Chai Afik asks whether the early Zionists would like what they see today.

Chai Afik 370 (photo credit: Rotem Yatshari)
Chai Afik 370
(photo credit: Rotem Yatshari)
By his early 20s, singer-songwriter Chai Afik found himself “blowin’ in the wind.” He had left the Ofra settlement where he grew up, served in the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, reluctantly learned in yeshiva and had a religious revival in Safed. It was then that he started to take a look around at the country whose soil he fought so hard for and began asking questions.
The questions led Afik to compose lyrics for his first album, released last year, Songs of Love and Protest. Afik, 29, questions the religious and political ideologies on which he was raised on the album, while simultaneously admitting his own deep connections to the land and his nostalgia for it.
“I grew up in a national religious home but I wasn’t religious. That is, I was ‘datlash’ from a fairly early age,” says Afik, using the acronym for “formerly religious,” in an interview with The Jerusalem Post over coffee in Jerusalem.
When at age 19 Afik returned to spirituality due to a stint in Safed, he believed he had finally found the truth, and was happy in it. But the feeling did not last and after a year or two, he found himself lost once again, but this time Zelda, the Israeli poet, would be his guide.
“I identified with her,” he recalls. “She is very connected to God, and despite that it is still not good. I found the truth so it was like everything needs to be good, but inside it still wasn’t good.”
Songs of Love and Protest, whose title is an ode to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, is the work of a true poet, a seeker in the land of Israel trying to find himself against the demands of religion and politics.
Afik’s words are wise and touching, and his skilled guitar, harmonica and accordion playing make for an excellent folk album.
On “All Night I Cried,” Afik cries out Zelda’s words, “All night I cried, Master of the Universe/Maybe there is death that doesn’t have violence.” And yet he is inextricably tied to his past. On “Highway 60,” which features fantastic harmonica playing, he sings of the road by “whose mountains my childhood is reflected.”
The highway runs into the West Bank, and was the scene of much violence during the second intifada.
The route is also believed to follow the travels of the biblical Patriarchs.
Afik, bearded with curly brown hair and heavy, thoughtful brown eyes, grew up with Israeli literary giants all around him, he says, such as Yehuda Amichai, Rachel and Avraham Chalfi (his mother is a literature and poetry teacher). But not only Israelis.
Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsburg and Robert Frost were major influences, he says. It was listening to Dylan that made him start writing songs in the first place.
Afik’s story even sounds like a Dylan song. His time in the military led him to question what he was fighting for and the implications of growing up on disputed territory, where he says he still, albeit uncomfortably, lives today (in Tekoa). He identified with the little guy getting pushed around by The Man, the government and the army.
“You feel that you are fighting for the sake of something right,” he says. “So you read in the newspaper and you listen to politicians... you ask, who’s leading me? Who are these people that are making decisions?” Today Afik feels no affinity for ideology, just questions.
Are the settlements good? Are they hurting people? Is war always right? Maybe, maybe not, he says.
“Art searches,” he says. “Art asks. Art says, is this good?”
HE WROTE much of his material far from his home while living in the North in Moshav Mishmar Hayarden, right on the banks of the Jordan River, from 2005-2010, distance which he says he needed. Afik wrote many of his lyrics by the river, and his melodies while on reserve duty.
Getting away from home allowed him to open his mind and compose, he says. These days Afik says he’s less angry and writing a different sort of material at night, while three days a week he studies directing at Ma’aleh Film School in Jerusalem, where he is in his second year, and helps care, along with his wife who is a teacher, for his three young children.
While the world is sleeping, Afik’s mind wanders creatively, writing most of his lyrics between 12 a.m. and 4 a.m., he says, adding that Shabbat, which he keeps with his family, is when he sleeps.
Living in Gush Etzion is not simple for Afik, and he has moments where he throws up his hands and says he’s moving to Tel Aviv. He came back to the Jerusalem area in large part to be near his family, but the urge to escape is never far away.
“I grew up in a settlement and I didn’t like being there,” he says. “I didn’t like that everyone is the same essentially. I didn’t want to return to where I grew up because I’m different today, but Tekoa is a special settlement because it’s mixed religious and secular, very open,” he says.
His bandmates, bassist Boaz Freed, his friend since age two, and Ariel Wreschner on electric guitar, live in Tekoa, but Afik is looking for a drummer who’s from outside their world, who brings a different perspective, he says.
“I want someone who will bring something else. A drummer from Tel Aviv is the best,” he says, only half in jest.
While he harbors some fears that listeners may judge him – he says that even though he was living a nonreligious lifestyle in the North when he wrote and recorded the album, people who heard the songs thought a settler wrote them – he believes anyone can connect to his music because he writes it from a personal place. “Because I speak about the experience of one man, not about the collective, the group. I don’t feel that I am identified with a group identity.”
Despite the obvious conflicts he feels, Afik’s lyrics reflect an abiding love for the writings and art of early Zionists, from a simpler time perhaps.
“I have a conflict, but it’s clear to me that I identify and am connected to this land, my place,” he says confidently. “The conflict started much later. I have a conflict today in the reality of today that is much more complicated.”
On “Relaxing in the Hula Valley,” Afik asks early settlers like A. D. Gordon if they would be happy to see him strumming his guitar in the Hula Valley by the Jordan.
“Is this what they intended or did they want something else? What did they want to happen here?” he asks.
The questions are never-ending, but Afik embraces the search as he accepts his past and feels at home in his foundation.
“I still don’t know what’s right and what’s not, but with the love of the land, the basis, I have no questions.”
Chai Afik is performing tonight at 10 p.m. at Chanaleh at the Khan Theater, 2 David Remez Square, Jerusalem. Admission free.