Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rockstars — Israeli Music and Me

After the second song of the night, Kuppy turned to me and said “He’s a rockstar!”

By that time, Mosh Ben Ari had untied the makeshift bundle of dreads and let them down.

Sporting a black vest, a tattoo of what looks like a caricature of a scarecrow, featured prominently on his left arm, and neon guitar picks up and down the mic stand, he let loose with the band for three full hours.

I’m not going to try to define his music, in part because I don’t have that vocabulary in my arsenal. For now, let’s say rock with a kick of funk to it. See for yourself.

I received a text from Kuppy mid-day Thursday saying that Mosh was performing with Ehud Banai in Tel Aviv that night. I made a bit of a scene at the time, yelling something to the extent of “Oh my goodness, what do I do?! 150 shekels? But Mosh AND EHUD BANAI.”

Then she called. More pressure. No message.

I had made my decision, though. Just too much money. It had been a long day. Sure, if Hackit were in Israel I would just stay in T.A. But to come back that night and then to shop and cook all in one swell foop on Friday morning?

I called back.

“Sorry, Kupps. Not this time. He’ll come to Jerusalem. But I’m planning to go to the Peshutei Haam concert in a week. You want to come to that?”

“Who are they?”

“All of the singers that aren’t the lead singer from Shotei HaNevua. You know them?”

“Wait. The lead singer is going to be there tonight.”

Avraham Tal is going to be there, too!”

And like that, I was there.

Objectively, three of the most famous music artists in Israel, and subjectively my two favorites in Mosh and Tal, plus a classic for decades on the Israeli music scene — this is after all what money is made for. As my Uncle Itz once said when I was about 8, while handing each of the cousins a bill, “It’s just paper.” And indeed, there are few things in life that I enjoy more than Israel music.

We arrived at the nine, when “doors open.” I’m learning quickly that means: “Sure you can enter the building at that time, but nobody is going to perform for another hour-ish.”

After an opening act of African-ish ethnic music, sung in a language I couldn’t identify, with various instruments which I also couldn’t recognize, and the lead singer jamming out on the xylophone, in came from the back of Hanger 11 a set of four bagpipe players, clearing the way as the wrapped through the crowd.

Located at the Tel Aviv port, in what originally must have served as a ship hanger, the venue fit thousands.

Over the course of my time this year, I’ve been to several concerts. The same is true of four years ago. And for that matter, any time I find myself here, I find a concert.

When here on Ramah Seminar in 2000 (Kevutzat Rahel, kavod), I returned home with five CD’s — Shabak Samech (Kna’an), Shabak Samech (Live in Concert), Shlomo Artzi Ahavtiya, Bari Sakharov (Simanim shel Hulsha), Reva L’Sheva.

Israeli music, in short, is no less than a fundamental part of my Jewish identity, indeed my human identity. Which has led me to think — why? I don’t particularly enjoy American music. Nor do I read poetry.

But when you put Israeli poetry to music, I latch on. I connect to the allusions that weave their way through the texts. I latch onto the Hebrew and take it with me everywhere I go. Such is the nature of the iPod generation.

During our Nivonim summer at Ramah Wisconsin (1999 — Save the best for last. We had socks), we ran an educational day-long “proyekt” for all of camp around the topic of Jewish music. We defined Jewish music as music which was written by Jews, with the underlying thesis that Jews infuse their music with their Judaism, sometimes consciously, often not.

My dad is currently working on a book on Jewish art with the same underlying thesis; at one point it had the working title of “Modern/Jewish/Art,” noting the fluidity and overlap between the terms. We’ll see how the name sticks. I should note that he also proposed that an exhibition on large prints be called “Size matters.” He was kindly reminded that this is an age of Google. The final product was called “Grand Scale.”

I found this idea best expressed by Waldo Frank, from an article he originally wrote in 1926:

"Our premise is that the classic forms of Jewish life, as they survive today in custom and in manner, are decadent. They are decadent because the Idea underneath them and nourishing them has been withdrawn from them. The imitative Jewish artist, he who is satisfied only with surfaces and effects, may be precisely the one to employ these forms for subjects. The community which looks for Jewish art with Jewish subjects will probably be exiling the very matter from which, alone, it can be nourished and can achieve self-knowledge. For the true creator begins by rejecting decadent forms, by refusing old names and labels. With his own primordial spirit he will synthesize the chaos of the world about him into forms newly created, newly valid. And if he be a Jew, and if the term Jew still has any meaning, his synthesis, unlabeled, will be the actually Jewish. If you want an instance, take the Ethics of Spinoza. It was written in Latin and by a man discarded by the Jewish church. It is, nonetheless, so far as I know, the chief aesthetic work of that age worthy to have been assimilated by a self-conscious Jewish community as Jewish art. And yet the Ethics of Spinoza with its deeply Jewish spirit could never have been written if the man had not been intellectually detached from the limitations of a Jewish past and of a “Jewish” subject.

A large portion of the creative work, inspired and supported by this ideal community of ours, will of course be nominally Jewish: it will deal perhaps with Jewish history and tradition, with the psychology of the Jews. But the deepest of that work, insofar as it is truly creative, not merely traditional, may not have the traditional Jewish mark upon it. It will be made Jewish, as was the creative work of the Prophets, when the Jewish community digests it.

This ideal community of ours will find itself creative. It will nourish the creator and be nourished by him. It will objectively observe itself in the creator’s work: the creator will objectively experience himself in the responses of his audience. And so, each of them, through their objectivity, will subjectively grow greater. The community will let the creator be himself: but not through proneness or indifference. Say rather, through an immense and passionate concern with the results: since it will know that only by keeping its hands off, by reserving judgment, by refraining from traditional defense or attack, will it eventually achieve, once more, an idea worth defending, worth living."1

So why do I connect so much to Israeli music? Fundamental to it is my expression of who I am as a person, as a Jew. Israeli music, whether it intends to do so or not, is a primal expression of Jewish identity.

Over the past several months I have been looking for my place here. In some ways, I am in the midst of two worlds, not quite an outsider, definitely not an Israeli. At times I have found myself thinking back on a night and relishing that I was the only American in the room, which in some ways is superficial. In others it manifests my continual quest to redefine my relationship with Israel, a place I find myself year after year, yet also have a commitment to live elsewhere.

I don’t want the answers right now. Nor do they exist as such. But listening to a diminutive, fifty-year-old, Ehud Banai somehow break out with a guitar solo and sing along with Mosh Ben Ari was something else. It is a key part of this journey.

I continue to explore this land, its people, listening to others’ Jewish identities and refining my own.

By 1:30, the concert still was not over. I left early, still needing to get back to Jerusalem. But Mosh Ben Ari will come to Jerusalem, too. I won’t leave that one early.

And when an Israeli singer with dreadlocks comes to a city where I live, I haven’t missed a concert yet.

1. Waldo Frank, The Jew in our Day, 1944, originally published as an essay “Toward an Analysis of the Problem of the Jew” in The Menorah Journal, 1926


  1. Aldous Huxley once said, "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”