The IDF’s greatest hits

The story of the IDF’s Nahal entertainment troupe, celebrating its 60th birthday, is the story of the country in song and dance.

Yardena Arazi_521 (photo credit: Yisrael Peretz)
Yardena Arazi_521
(photo credit: Yisrael Peretz)
The cult film Halahaka presents a supposedly fictional army entertainment troupe, but everyone knows which group it referred to. Halahaka – The Troupe – was about Lahakat Hanahal, not imaginary but legendary.
Once upon a time, before A Star is Born (even before television existed in Israel), the big names came from IDF entertainment ensembles, and none of them was bigger and better than Lahakat Hanahal, the first group, currently celebrating its 60th birthday.
This was where Haim Topol got his start, when Fiddler on the Roof was still a Sholem Aleichem story, not an international musical hit.
Topol, indeed, as commander of the troupe, discovered the genius of Arik Einstein, who has remained an inseparable part of the Israeli music scene since the ’50s.
But Topol is not the only global star who shone in such humble circumstances. In the mid-1950s, Danny Kaye brought some light relief to soldiers during unusual solidarity trips.
It is hard to list all the personalities who had their start on the makeshift stages where Nahal appeared. The local entertainment industry would not be the same without Yossi Banai, Yehoram Gaon, Yona Atari, Uri Zohar, Shula Chen, Yardena Arazi, Tuvia Tsafir, Hanan Yovel, Sassi Keshet, Miki Kam, Yisrael Poliakov, Shalom Hanoch, Rivka Michaeli, Hani Nahmias, Miri Aloni, Alon Olearchik, Danny Sanderson, Ephraim Shamir and Anat and Gidi Gov, to mention but a few.
In the days before there were acting schools in Israel, life on the stage often started in one of the IDF entertainment corps. In its prime in the ’60s and ’70s, Lahakat Hanahal was often likened to the entertainment corps equivalent of Sayeret Matkal, the elite special forces unit. Several members of Hagashash Hahiver, the country’s prime satirical group, got their start in the unit, and the mega-group Kaveret, the Israeli equivalent of the Beatles, was formed by several Nahal entertainment corps members following their more-than-honorable discharge.
The personalities were not covered in stardust, however, but very real dust, dirt and sweat.
The early days involved bumpy rides in an army bus on unpaved roads leading to outposts and combat zones. Many members of the troupe recall playing to soldiers on the Golan Heights and down in the Sinai, almost drowned out by the sounds of war, as they tried to bring a touch of home and a morale boost to the fighters. The show, as we know, has to go on, and wars often produced hits of the musical kind, such as Mul Har Sinai (Facing Mount Sinai) during the 1956 Sinai Campaign.
The story goes that during that campaign, the troupe once performed in front of a particularly unappreciative crowd on the southern front, only to discover that the soldiers gathered before them were Egyptian POWs. Talk about a captive audience.
Those were the days when Nahal soldiers, not foreign workers, still worked in the fields and orchards of kibbutzim and lyrics about picking “12 tons, it doesn’t matter of what” actually meant something.
As their popularity grew, the biggest names mobilized to write them songs and music, including Sasha Argov, Haim Hefer, Dahn Ben-Amotz, Ephraim Kishon, Shaike Ophir, Naomi Shemer and Moshe Wilensky.
The young soldiers did more than sing their hearts out. Although their repertoire did not focus on conventional love songs, there was plenty of romantic interest and intrigue. Einstein went out with Nechama Hendel, and Topol and his wife Galia were not the only married couple to have met serving in the unit; the Govs were a couple from the start, always sitting next to each other at the back of the bus, long before she became a famous playwright and he one of the biggest celebrity entertainers.
And while Americans might have asked whom Carly Simon was singing about in “You’re So Vain,” few Israelis questioned whom Shamir was referring to when he later sang the devastating: “It’s true you’re beautiful, but I’m the only one who knows that you’ll never know true love.” Yardena Arazi (still beautiful and undoubtedly much loved) recently told a television interviewer that she’d run from the room the first time she’d heard the song playing on the radio.
When I joined a Nahal garin at the end of the 1970s, we still sang much of the troupe’s playlist, including Carnival Hanahal, Mahar, Hora He’ahzut, Dina Barzilai, Ya Yareah, Hurshat Ha’ekaliptus, Shalva, Hare’ut (one of Yitzhak Rabin’s favorite songs) and Shir Lashalom (which was later to be associated with Rabin’s last moments before his assassination).
Shir Lashalom, written by wounded veteran Ya’acov Rotblitt in 1969, caused an uproar in its time, during the War of Attrition: The lyrics were considered defeatist, and the song was banned from performances by then-OC Central Command Rehavam Ze’evi (assassinated by Palestinian terrorists in 2001 when he was tourism minister). My own Bnei Akiva garin did sing it, but I remember philosophical discussions about the words “don’t whisper a prayer.”
Most of the troupe’s songs were inspiring and unabashedly Zionist, providing the beat to which the whole country, not just the army, moved.
The troupe had its ups and downs. More to the point, it was even closed down and started up several times. Nonetheless, if the country marches to a different tune, Nahal entertainers like Topol often played the fiddler. The songs struck a chord and the skits created catchphrases. Sixty years later, there is still reason to salute them.