Songs for the road

Step back in time, or hit the road, with a lyrical guidebook to Israel

Eretz, Shir, Sipur book  (photo credit: courtesy)
Eretz, Shir, Sipur book
(photo credit: courtesy)
They say that planning a journey is part of the fun. Hebrew-speakers recently received a particularly pleasant way to put them on the right track, a book called Eretz, Shir, Sipur by Efrat Shoham. The title literally means “Land, Song, Story,” but is translated by the publishers, MAPA, as Israel’s Songs. It had me humming merrily as I flicked through the beautifully designed pages all the way from North (represented, naturally, by the song “Malchut Hahermon,” “The Hermon’s Kingdom”) to the South (“Boi Le’Eilat,” “Come to Eilat”), and then a little bit over the border, accompanied by one of my favorites – Shlomo Gronich’s “Nuweiba,” a reminder of the tranquil days of the Sinai.
The book is quite a trip in itself – much of it down memory lane.
Shoham, 42, has certainly put a lot of legwork into this compendium.
In a phone interview, she explained that the book took an intensive year to research and write: “I treated it as a full-time job.”
She made a point of revisiting every spot she mentioned, even though she already had extensive knowledge of the country through her work as an editor for MAPA, which specializes in guidebooks, and even before that as a youth counselor for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and as an education officer in the air force. She also carried out extensive research in libraries and archives and interviewed anyone who could help shed information on the songs, periods and places she was writing about.
This was a labor of love for Shoham, who has also written two children’s books, both due to be published shortly, and works as a freelance content writer and editor.
Particularly in a place like Israel, she says, songs set the tone: “Songs aren’t born in a vacuum, but relate to events and places. If stories provide the basis of what retrospectively becomes known as history, then songs are the bonsai version of them – short, stylized and containing the essence of the experience.”
Those she included in the book reflect different periods (from the earliest pioneers, with their classic Hebrew, to the current generation, with its slang and emphasis on the individual), different musical styles (including singalong classics and hip-hoppers Hadag Nahash) and, of course, different regions.
She wouldn’t have chosen any differently, she says, although clearly, like any writer (or editor), one of the hardest aspects of the job was whittling down the information to keep the guide a manageable size.
Asked who was her targeted readership, Shoham says, “Anyone who is curious: The person who wants to take a trip from their armchair or the person who wants to get out and see a place on foot.”
Together with Shoham, you can meet Rachel the Poetess and national songwriter Naomi Shemer on the banks of the Kinneret; ride with Moshe Yoel Salomon to found Petah Tikva; take the steam train to Beersheba; or discover a “simpatia” for Tel Aviv and its conceptual art – summed up in the Nurit Galron hit.
Among the little-known facts you can discover on the way is that “Malchut Hahermon,” a love song to the northern mountain, was penned during the 1967 Six Day War by Yovav Katz, an officer serving on the Egyptian front, some 400 kilometers away. To further put the song in context, Shoham notes that in America at the same period, the antiwar movement and free love were taking root, while Israel, overcome with the miracle of surviving the war, was producing songs of victory and national pride.
“Nuweiba,” too, was obviously not written on-site. The song is a brilliant synthesis of lyrics and music, but as Shoham points out, no one lying on the beach there would see, as the song describes, the sun plummeting into the sea. Poetic license or faulty memory has changed the direction of the sunset from the Sinai mountains to the water (like the sunsets over the Mediterranean).
These aren’t the only songs written about one place from another. Ehud Banai’s eponymous tribute to the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of “Florentin” was actually written in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot on the eve of Independence Day 1980 and completed in Ramat Gan in 1992 (the year it appeared on Banai’s third album).
Particularly relevant against the backdrop of today’s “tent protests,” Shoham notes the conflict between real-estate interests in Florentin and those who want to keep something of its authentic, old-worldly nature.
Each site has been carefully researched with its own particular story and anecdote, a popular Hebrew song, and suggested attractions (complete with a phone number and a note mentioning whether entrance is free or not).
The Elah Valley, for example, is represented by “Goliath,” and Shoham explains both the history of the site of what is probably the world’s most famous duel and the quirky song, written by Alon Olearchick to Danny Sanderson’s music for Kaveret’s third album, before suggesting a few hikes in the area.
Readers travel to a different beat with, for instance, “Elul b’Ein Kerem” for Jerusalem, or Lea Goldberg’s “Shir Hanamal” (“Ode to the Port”) for Tel Aviv. Here we learn that the port was established under the British Mandate in 1936 when Jaffa Port was closed as part of the Great Arab Revolt. Goldberg’s poem was published in Davar Leyeladim and, from the children’s newspaper, was set to music by a Jerusalemite kindergarten teacher and spread through the country from kindergarten to kindergarten, youth movement to youth movement.
And while we’re on the subject of youth, I discovered, through Shoham, that the song “Ein Gedi” was written by two 17-year-olds in 1958.
We can also learn about iconic songwriter Ehud Manor’s childhood and memories through his “Yemei Binyamina” (“Binyamina Days”).
The songs, but not the accompanying text, have nikud (vowels), particularly helpful for some of the older ones (such as Ya’acov Orland’s “Shir Habokrim” (“Song of the Cowboys”), an appreciation of the “endless Arava.”
As guidebooks go, this not only has a twist – it concludes with the Bossa Nova in Hebrew.
It’s an interesting way to learn about the country even if you never actually hit the road – although it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to stay at home if they have a chance to put the book in a backpack, put on a hat and sunscreen, and step out of its pages. Eretz, Shir, Sipur (NIS 109) is available at all major book stores or through the publishers (