In a Minor Key

Why is it that the most beautiful songs are, almost always, also the saddest?

Today is Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for the fallen of Israel’s wars, including the victims of the many murderous terrorist attacks that have been launched against Israel and Israelis, by barbarous enemies for whom no means are too foul.

On this day, normal TV programmes are suspended, in favour of films and documentaries about those who gave their lives so that the Jewish State might live. Even the music played on the radio is low-key, reflecting the mood of the nation.

And yet, the songs about sacrifice and loss are, in terms of both words and music, amongst the most beautiful in the canon of Israeli music. Take, for example, “He Didn’t Know Her Name” (הוא לא ידע את שמה – Hu lo yada et shema),  music by Sasha Argov, lyrics by Haim Hefer, (two of the giants of popular Israeli music in the pre-State and early Statehood years), sung here by Arik Einstein, another  giant of the Israeli musical scene, who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s (although he carried on writing new songs into the  new millenium) and who died a few months ago, signalling, as many remarked, the end of an era.

 

 

The song (from the War of Independence),  tells of a soldier, on his way down south, where the army of the infant State of Israel was fighting to save the Negev, who meets a young girl, with her hair in a long braid. After the soldiers have moved on, the girl remembers that the soldier forgot to ask her name. Months later, the same soldier – now mortally wounded – is brought to the hospital where the girl is serving as a nurse. He asks her if she remembers him and she replies in the affirmative. They talk for hours, no-one knows about what, but in the morning, after he has died, she recalls that once again, he had forgotten to ask her name.

The chorus, freely translated (by myself) goes like this:

He did not know her name, but that braid
Went with him all the way,
And he knew the day would come when they would meet suddenly,
With a shadowy dawn or with the evening sunset.

 

Another song which is so firmly anchored in the Israeli musical canon that it is probably the “most-played” on Memorial Day, was written in 1949, in the closing stages of the War of Independence by Haim Guri (the “Two Haims”, Haim Hefer and Haim Guri, were responsible for many of the popular songs of that era). This is the song “Friendship” (הרעות – Hare’ut), set to music by (once again) Sasha Argov. In 2008, the year of Israel’s 60th birthday, Israel Army Radio (Galei Tzahal) ran a poll among its listeners and this song was chosen as the most popular, outstripping even “Jerusalem of Gold”. The late Yitzchak Rabin often remarked that this was his favourite song, and after the Prime Minister’s assassination, the song became associated with him and was sung at all the ceremonies and gatherings in his memory.

Because of the words of the chorus – “We will remember them all” –  which have become the motto of the Ministry of Defence’s Memorial Department, this is probably the song which, most of all, symbolises Memorial Day.

 

The song, performed here by the Nachal Troupe, eulogises the comradeship which unites the fallen and those who have survived.

It’s been a year already, we scarcely noticed
How time flew by in our fields.
It’s been a year already and few of us are left.
How many are those who are no longer with us!
But we will remember them all…
Because friendship such as this
Will not permit our hearts to forget…

 

Note the march rhythm of the chorus. This is a song about soldiers – yet the words are not a song of victory but rather of comradeship, loss and remembrance.

The bond of friendship – this time, the friendship between individuals – is the theme of this next song also, which tells of two young men who grew up in the same village, courted the same girls (but always laughed about this, since, in the end “it’s all in the family/village”),  went off to the army together, served in the same unit, fought in the same wars and, after one of them was eventually killed in battle, his friend brought him home for burial to the village, where nothing else has changed.

You see, here we are in the village.
Almost everything is the same.
I pass through a green field
And you are just beyond the fence.

And on Friday nights,
When a soft breeze blows
Through the black treetops,
Then I remember you.

 

The song is by the inimitable Naomi Shemer and sung by Dudu Zakai, himself a kibbutznik, many of whose songs reflect the innocence of the early days of statehood.

It is interesting to note the changing mood of these songs. The earlier songs, besides the grief of loss, also mirror the belief that a better future is not far away, that peace, if you will, is just around the corner.  In the midst of the Yom Kippur War, Haim Hefer (again!) could still write, to the music of Dubi Selzer:

In the name of all the tank men, with their dusty faces
Who went through all the fire and the pounding,
In the name of the sailors….
Their eyes heavy with the salt and waves,
In the name of the pilots…
Burnt by rocket and ack-ack fire.
In the name of the paratroopers,
Who, ‘twixt lead and smoke,
Saw you, like an angel, above their heads.
In the name of the artillerymen … the medics and doctors….
The signalsmen…
In the name of all the fathers who went to a terrible battle,
Who want only to come home to you…
I promise you, my little girl,
That this will be the last war.

 

 

I swear, I cannot sing this song without breaking down and crying.

The little girl to whom Yehoram Gaon promised that the Yom Kippur War would be “The Last War”  and the thousands of others born in its aftermath – “The Children of Winter 1973″ ( ’73 ילדי חורף – Yaldei Choref  ’73) – were no longer so optimistic by the time this next song was written by Shmuel Hasphari and performed, to music by Uri Vidislavski, by the Special Education Corps Troupe of the IDF, on Israel TV’s Channel 1 on Independence Day 1994.

 

 

We are the children of winter 1973.
You dreamt us first at dawn, at the end of the battles.
You were tired men, who thanked their good luck.
You were worried young women and you wanted so much to love.
And when you conceived us with love, in the winter of  ’73,
You wanted to fill with your bodies what the war had wiped out.

When we were born, the country was wounded and sad.
You looked at us, you hugged us, you were trying to find comfort.
When we were born, the elders blessed with tears in their eyes.
They said: “May it be that these children won’t have to go into the army.”
And your faces in the old photo prove
That you spoke from the bottom of your hearts
When you promised to do everything for us
To turn an enemy into a friend.

You promised a dove,
An olive leaf,
You promised peace at home,
You promised spring and blossoms,
You promised to keep your promises,
You promised a dove …

We are the children of winter 1973.
We grew up and now we are in the army,
With weapons and with helmets on our heads.
We, too, know how to make love, to laugh and to cry.
We too  are men, we too are women.
We, too, dream about babies.
Therefore we will not pressure you,  therefore we will not demand of you,
Therefore we will not threaten you.
When we were young, you said promises need to be kept.
If you need strength, we will give it,
We will not hold back.
We just wanted to whisper -
We are the children of that winter of 1973.

You promised a dove,
An olive leaf,
You promised peace at home,
You promised spring and blossoms,
You promised to fulfill promises,
You promised a dove …

 

There are some people, on both the Right and the Left of the political spectrum, who see this song as an indictment of Israel’s political leadership for failing to do everything necessary to bring peace. But it is possible to understand the song another way. When the Children of the Winter of 1973 sing that now they are grown men and women, who dream of the same things their parents did, and that for that very reason, they will not pressure them or threaten them, it is as if they are acknowledging that, however much the older generation is sincere in their desire for peace, they – the younger generation – understand, at last, that peace does not depend solely on their parents and that, however many  concessions Israel may have made – and continues to make – for the sake of Peace, that longed-for Peace can never come until the other side truly desires Peace as much as we do.

In spite of all that, I do not want to end on such a note of despair, so I will leave you with yet another song by Haim Hefer and Dubi Selzer, from 1970 (i.e. before the trauma of the Yom Kippur War) – “We Shall Yet See Other Days”  (אנחנו עוד נראה את הימים האחרים – Anachnu Od Nireh Et Hayamim Ha’acherim), performed by the Central Command Entertainment Troupe (soloist: Shlomit Aharon). I wonder how many have, like me, considered the similarity between the words הימים האחרים – Hayamim Ha’acherim – the Other Days, and the words אחרית הימים – Acharit Hayamim – The End of Days (ie. The Days of the Messiah).
I pray we won’t have to wait that long.

 

Happy Independence Day!

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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2 Responses to In a Minor Key

  1. mysending says:

    I can’t even read this without tears coming to my eyes, even before listening to the beautiful music. יהי זכרם ברוך

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