My Word: The sound of Israel

A ‘look’ at local noise offers insights into those events that provide the soundtrack of our lives.

Traffic comes to a standstill as siren sounds on Israel's Remembrance Day‏. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Traffic comes to a standstill as siren sounds on Israel's Remembrance Day‏.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I recently received an email from a doctoral candidate with what at the time I thought was a strange request. In the course of her research, Michelle Weitzel had come across a column I wrote in 2012, “Real Israel: Sound Bites.” She wanted to, well, sound me out about some of the things I’d mentioned.
With a background in political science, her research pertains to “the way in which sound defines communities and demarcates physical territory,” and this was her first trip to Israel.
She wanted pointers as to where she could record some of the sounds I’d mentioned.
I wrote back something like: “If you’re looking for noise, you’re coming to the right place.”
See the latest opinion pieces on our page

For a start, the Jerusalem Post editorial offices are situated halfway between Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station and Mahaneh Yehuda market, neither of which is an oasis of peace and quiet. At the bus stop on my way home that evening, I listened with a new appreciation for the endless research possibilities for anyone interested in sound: Here was the busker armed with an amplifier singing of the coming of the Messiah; there was the couple arguing; here was the irate woman on the phone complaining she’d been overcharged, there was a group of rowdy teenage tourists, enjoying the freedom of being far from their parents, who probably live in more sedate surroundings.

Behind me was the sound of construction work; ahead of me, the noise of the traffic; above, a helicopter hovered; and at my feet a toddler in a stroller was screaming. I didn’t blame her.
The sounds didn’t stop on the bus, either. All over the world, people talk on their phones while traveling on public transport, but few do it as loudly as Israelis; and in very few places will fellow passengers join in the discussion.
All this while the bus driver has the radio on. And only in Israel have I heard the bus driver turning up the volume for the hourly news bulletin. In fact, the “pips” of the news and the Kol Yisrael newscasters’ standard introduction are part of the sound track of Israeli life.
As I pointed out when I met the smart and pleasant Weitzel, Israelis are not good at separating private and public space, and sound travels seamlessly from one to the other.
I’ve noted before: Noise is a form of pollution that might not kill you, but it might make you want to kill someone else. There is legislation controlling noise, I assured Weitzel, but enforcement is a different matter.
At home, I mentioned her interest in noise and where she could hear it. My family suggested hanging out in our neighborhood on a Friday afternoon when a neighbor performs karaoke, loudly and badly. It is also the day that you can hear the “thwacking” sound of rugs being beaten free of dust; and the shouting from the windows of our tenement blocks usually includes the greeting “Shabbat shalom,” “a peaceful Shabbat.” Only now do I appreciate the irony.
Weitzel, from Hawaii but studying in New York, made me “look” at sound differently. Loud and clear. Through her questions, I understood that the sound of Israel has its own peculiar rhythm. Friday preparations for Shabbat have a special tone. The siren that can be heard in Jerusalem marking the start of the Sabbath is also a one-of-a-kind noise.
As I noted in the original article, Israel, surprisingly, also has a unique sound of silence. The quiet of Yom Kippur here – when almost no Jew drives, there is no air traffic and no state radio or television broadcasts – is extraordinary. So is the sound of the siren that calls for a minute of silence on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars. Perhaps it is the noise and bustle that precedes them that makes the sudden stillness as everyone comes to a halt more stark and poignant.
Sadly, the sound of a rocket alert siren is now familiar to almost all Israelis. Anyone who has ever lived under rocket attack will, now and again, continue to hear sounds that remind them of it. During Operation Protective Edge last summer, many ambulances changed their sirens from the wailing sound that could be confused with a rocket alarm to a European-sounding siren.
Counting the sirens of rescue vehicles to assess whether they are responding to an “ordinary” incident or something more sinister is a very Jerusalemite reaction that started in the days of the mega-terror attacks of the first intifada. When I lived in the North during the First Lebanon War, the sound of a military helicopter carrying wounded to Rambam Medical Center was somehow always identifiable.
In the South, the sound of “Tzeva Adom” – Red Alert – blaring from public address systems has a similar “fight or flight” effect. My friend Dr. Stephen Malnick, a specialist in internal medicine, once co-wrote a paper on “Kassam colon,” a form of irritable bowel syndrome triggered by the alerts. The code was changed years ago from Shahar Adom (Red Dawn) after children whose parents had innocently named them Shahar in more peaceful times complained they were being teased.
In Jerusalem, as I noted in my original column, the sound of the muezzin is a barometer of the state of Israeli- Palestinian relations. When things heat up, the calls grow louder in a form of intifada in which, at least, nobody gets hurt by the blasts.
In the time- and place-dependent sphere, the “Ramadan cannon” this time of year is also a special Jerusalem phenomenon and includes the sound of a shot in the dark in the early hours of the morning.
Only in Israel are fireworks and religion so intertwined: We’ve just entered the period when Orthodox Jews don’t hold weddings and other big celebrations ahead of Tisha Be’av, the date marking the destruction of the First and Second Temples, while Muslims are marking the last few days of Ramadan and will soon be celebrating Id al-Fitr.
Is there a Jewish equivalent of the muezzin, asked Weitzel, and again got me thinking. Perhaps the nearest is the sound of the shofar, particularly in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana, when the Orthodox get up earlier than usual to participate in “Penitential Prayers.”
The sound of people singing Shabbat songs – windows open, of course – is also very Israeli. One of the pleasures of living in the Jewish state is that you don’t have to fear what the neighbors think of you loudly celebrating Shabbat, or Seder night for that matter.
Other “state”-related sounds? Probably the most “Israeli” of sounds can be heard on those most Israeli of days – back-to-back Remembrance Day and Independence Day.
It’s not just the sirens calling for a minute’s silence: It’s also the music: Nowhere else can you judge the news and mood by what songs are being played on the radio. Certain songs by Yehuda Poliker, Chava Alberstein or the late Arik Einstein can mean only one of two things: It’s a day of mourning or something terrible has happened. It’s a social code instantly understood by Israelis.
The broadcast of the ceremony at Mount Herzl marking the transition between Remembrance and Independence days is the sound of Israel: From the El Maleh Rahamim memorial prayer to the trumpet heralding the president and the distinct IDF parade ground march.
The public singalongs that mark the Israeli calendar are also peculiarly ours.
Joy and pain have their own sound tracks. There’s the sound of a Torah scroll being escorted like a bride to a synagogue, and the Breslov hassidim in their vans carrying the message, at full volume: “It’s a big mitzva [commandment] to be happy at all times.” And there are also cars with public address systems calling people to attend the funeral of a rabbi or some other noteworthy figure.
Weitzel later thanked me for my help and asked if she could return the favor. I jokingly told her that she should send me some Hawaiian-style peace and quiet, which she did: She sent me the link to an amazing version of “Over the Rainbow” sung by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole. I found for her a lovely video by David D’Or, called “Israel’s cultural ambassador,” performing the same song.
As I was writing, however, it was Yehudit Ravitz singing “Shlah li sheket,” the words of poet Yona Wallach, that kept going around my head. (Setting poems to music is also very Israeli, come to think of it.)
"Send me a good protected silence
Send me silence from a cloud
Send me a mechanized silence to hear a silence not from here
Send me silence in a box from a distant land."
But ultimately, here (or “hear”) sounds like home.
I just wish the songs, prayers and sounds of life came with volume control.

[email protected]