Ariel's wordplay

Singer-songwriter-poet Meir Ariel paid his dues as a combat soldier who took part in battles in Jerusalem, and later earned the epithet of “the singing paratrooper.”

Local stars pay musical tribute to the late Meir Ariel. (photo credit: PR)
Local stars pay musical tribute to the late Meir Ariel.
(photo credit: PR)
The term “unsung hero” might sound a bit like a contrived play on words, but it would be a pretty accurate epithet to attach to singer-songwriter-poet Meir Ariel, who died in 1999 at the age of 57.
Ariel first came to note when he produced a satirical take on Naomi Shemer’s song “Jerusalem of Gold,” which was written prior to the Six Day War but took on anthemic status in the aftermath of the IDF’s taking of the Old City. Ariel’s version was called “Jerusalem of Iron.”
While the majority of Israelis and Jews the world over were euphoric about the brilliant military victory, Ariel added a somber tone to the post-war mood.
It must be said that he paid his dues as a combat soldier who took part in battles in Jerusalem, and he later earned the epithet of “the singing paratrooper.”
All told, Ariel released seven studio albums, two live recordings, three compilations and a couple of EPs. One of his principal songwriting partners in the early years was Shalom Hanoch, who, like Ariel, hailed from Kibbutz Mishmarot. Ariel appeared at all kinds of venues up and down the country and even tried his luck in the States for a while, but he never achieved star status.
If the mark of truly great art is that it outlives its creator, then the quality of Ariel’s output cannot be doubted. His posthumous fame has outstripped his popularity during his lifetime, partly due to the efforts of his widow, Tirza, to keep his flag flying with an annual tribute show.
The fact that the annual musical gatherings have attracted a diverse range of artists, from all areas of the commercial music domain and across the generations, indicates the high regard in which Ariel’s lyric writing and composing are still held, 16 years on.
The latest in the ongoing string of salutes to Ariel will take place at Beit Avi Chai on July 14. The show (in Hebrew) starts at 8 p.m. and admission is free.
The program goes by the name of Zirei Kayitz (Seeds of Summer), which is also the title of a record Ariel put out in 1993. The performer-speaker roster for the evening includes singer-songwriter Ronit Shachar, whose discography takes in a delightful reading of Ariel’s song “Rahel”; Haaretz music critic Ben Shalev; and poets Ronny Someck and Amihai Hasson. The 28-year-old Hasson will act as emcee.
Hasson’s lead role in the tribute is further evidence of Ariel’s enduring and expansive appeal. As he was only 12 years old when Ariel died, Hasson did not get to catch the troubadour’s act live but says he was drawn to Ariel’s leftfield approach, both in terms of lyrical content and the way he refashioned the Hebrew language.
“You could say he sculpted in Hebrew,” suggests Hasson, addressing a delightful conundrum which, he says, is the subject of much discussion in certain circles. “There is an ongoing debate over whether Meir Ariel was a songwriter or a poet. Ronny Someck and I believe he was definitely a poet, although that is not something to be taken for granted.”
That issue will feature in the Beit Avi Chai program.
“We will discuss that – what makes Ariel’s words more than just song lyrics.
I think Meir Ariel is someone who produced some of the most interesting things with the Hebrew language,” says Hasson.
Hasson is not just a fan. He feels that some of the Ariel touch has rubbed off on him. “I wouldn’t really say my writing is similar to his, but he is a definite influence on me.”
He sees nothing special in the fact that he and his contemporaries are such enthused admirers of an artist from a very different generation.
“There are plenty of youngsters in the United States who love Bob Dylan,” he points out. “And Meir Ariel is a sort of Hebrew variation of Dylan.”
Hasson may hail from a couple of generations after Ariel, but he gained his first experience of saluting the great man’s work several years ago.
“I was at a hesder yeshiva at [Orthodox settlement] Otniel, and I presented a tribute to Ariel there,” he recalls.
That sounds a bit daring.
“There were a few songs with sexual content that he had to weed out, but Meir got closer to his Jewish roots in his later years – I won’t say he became religious because he didn’t like to say that. It was a very successful evening.”
Hasson’s second run as a Meir Ariel tribute emcee should be at least as well received, especially with Ronit Shachar on call to provide appropriate musical augmentation to the, no doubt, edifying and enlightening discussion that will take place among Hasson, Someck and Shalev.
A full 18 years older than Hasson, Shachar was able to appreciate Ariel’s songs while he was alive.
“My friends and I grew up with his music,” she says. “I loved his album Shirei Hag Umoed Ve’nofel.”
The LP in question came out in 1978 and was Ariel’s first studio release.
Typically, the title incorporates clever double entendres, which is almost impossible to translate into English. The word moed can mean “a special or commemorative day” but also “stumbles,” while the latter interpretation is complemented by ve’nofel, which means “and falls.”
“I was 17 when I discovered his music, and my friends and I felt as if we were the only ones who had discovered his work,” Shachar recalls.
“I guess that was about right for that age.”
Ariel also had a formative influence on Shachar’s professional development.
“He was a strong influence on my lyric writing – he and Joni Mitchell,” she says, adding that she was equally taken with Ariel’s scores. “What is amazing with him is that all aspects of his work were so wonderful. In a way, he was more of a poet than a musician, but he was so great musically, too.”
Shachar paid tribute to her mentor by including her own arrangement of one of his songs, “Rahel,” on her third album Le’hat’hil Le’hamshich (Starting to Continue), which came out in 2006.
Shachar actually knew Ariel through a friend, and the two talked about possibly doing something together just a couple of weeks before Ariel’s untimely death.
“When I wrote the score for ‘Rahel,’ it felt so right,” she says. “It was as if Meir had written the music himself.”
Zirei Kayitz takes place on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Beit Avi Chai. Admission is free. For more information: (02) 621-5300 and