Real Israel: Singing the blues (and whites)

The country marked Independence Day with an off-key, but not low-key, celebrity sing-along.

Peres and Ashkenazy Independence Day 311 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Peres and Ashkenazy Independence Day 311
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Israel marches to a different tune: a genre of songs known as Shirei Eretz Yisrael, or Zemer Ivri. Sometimes I think it could be described as “guns and proses.”
On Independence Day, the country again proved that as long as we can still sing together in what is known as shira betzibur we can strike a happy note.
Ahead of the International Bible Quiz (which reportedly doubled its ratings thanks mainly to the participation of the prime minister’s son, Avner Netanyahu) and well before the Israel Prize awards ceremony – both dignified Yom Ha’atzmaut staples – was a celebrity sing-along at Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem where Shimon Peres had been greeting 120 outstanding soldiers with his own peculiar style.
It was apparently the perennially young Peres who came up with the idea for a sort of karaoke for the country’s top brass. Among those taking part together with the president were Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who put up the best fight, or put on the best show.
The audience was comprised of the soldiers and their families along with many of the nation’s top dignitaries, and the event was broadcast not just in Israel but to Diaspora communities.
However, there is a reason why Netanyahu, Barak and Ashkenazi did not serve in the IDF entertainment corps, and that reason became apparent. Each of the big names had to choose a song suitable for Independence Day, and then sing it, proving they were good sports if not good performers. For backup, there were professional singers.
Peres chose “Anashim Tovim B’Emtza Haderech” (Good People Along the Way), one of the many songs by Naomi Shemer that became a virtual anthem:
“Good people along the way
Very good people
Good people along the way
And with them we can continue to walk.”
Netanyahu chose “Tsiunyunei Haderech” (Landmarks), whose “white rocks between Metulla and Eilat” took him not so much down memory lane as back to the cross-country treks he did as a young soldier. Whatever the prime minister was elected for, it was not this. Fortunately, at the moment of truth, he lay down the microphone and surrendered, admitting that singing is not his forte.
Ashkenazi opted for “Malchut Hahermon” (The Majesty of Mount Hermon). He chose it, he said, with the satire program Eretz Nehederet in mind. When he took his tongue out of his cheek, he admitted that it also reminded him of his early days as a soldier and officer in the North.
Barak, unlike Netanyahu, charged right in, admitting he loves to sing. His choice, “Mirdaf” (Pursuit) written by Yaron London and made popular by Chava Alberstein, was appropriate, but his rendition reminded me why in past interviews he has stressed his talents as an amateur pianist rather than singer.
“A good land with honey in her veins
But blood like water flowing through her rivers.
A land with mountains of copper
But nerves of steel.
A land where pursuit is her history
Two thousand pages plus one page more...”
The song naturally ends on a happier note with a prayer for peace.
I SUSPECT I was not the only sing-along fan to wonder both what made the country’s leaders agree to such public humiliation and what song I would have chosen under the same circumstances.
As I work, I tend to belt out everything from “Shir Hafelafel” to Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” depending on my mood. Neither of them seems appropriate. So I think I would have opted for “Ein li eretz aheret, gam im admati bo’eret,” “I have no other country, even if the ground is burning.”
Voted more than once as Israel’s most popular song, it was one of the tributes Ehud Manor wrote for his brother Yehuda, who fell in the War of Attrition, and was later adopted across the political spectrum – some emphasizing the helplessness, some stressing the hope, all underlining, in the words of the the song: “Kan hu beiti,” “Here is my home.”
For an encore (because I can’t stop singing these songs once I get started), I think I would have chosen Hakol Over Habibi’s version of Naomi Shemer’s “Ha’oreah” (The Guest), partly because there is nothing more Israeli than singing both Manor and Shemer in public.
“If at the gate there stands a guest
Who has landed from overseas
What should we offer this guest
When he comes from there?
A green basket of fruit, a white flower
Red wine and some bread with salt
That’s what we have
Sit down with us here.”
The song is, of course, also suitable for the upcoming Shavuot holiday.Our enemies are welcome to face the music and join in the chorus. Butmeantime, I suggest Ashkenazi does not give up his day job.