Many years ago a friend of mine went to Egypt for a visit and came back and told me that Israel could not last because, as the Egyptians told him, “it has no authentic culture.” How ignorant and untrue. I thought of this when we went to a presentation of Israeli songs given by Ilana Walsh at AACI Netanya. She presented video clips of Israeli songs which she divided into four categories.
1. Authentic Hebrew songs. Rachel the Poetess (Rachel Blustein) was born in Russia in 1890 and came to Turkish Syria (as it then was) in 1909 and lived by the shores of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and worked in the fields. She never married, although she had several lovers who became famous. She developed TB and came to Tel Aviv for treatment in 1924, where she died in a sanatorium in 1931 (all before either Palestine or Israel was founded). She wrote plaintive Hebrew poems, the most famous of which is “Perhaps,” also known as “Kinneret sheli” (My Kinneret), “Perhaps all this never was, Perhaps I never rose at dawn to till, The garden by the sweat of my brow?….Oh Kinneret, did you truly exist? Or were you only a dream?” Other poets such as Haim Nachman Bialik, Saul Tchernikovsky and Yehuda Amichai, wrote Hebrew poetry, some of which was set to music. Also, there were many Hebrew songs adapted from prayers and biblical quotations. Some songs reflected the desire and need to settle and develop the land. These songs were more stirring and idealistic, such as the Horah, the national dance (that was influenced by Romanian dance), “Tzena, Tzena,” “Hava Nagila,” “Am Yisrael Chai” (the people of Israel lives) and so on.
2. Popular Hebrew culture. The Israeli Government had a policy of supporting Hebrew culture and songs. On the national radio networks they sponsored sing-alongs, that were very popular in the early days of the nation. Also, the Army had singing groups in each command. Popular songs were about life, love and being in the army, which was a national experience. Popular Hebrew song-writers include the famous Naomi Shemer, who wrote the iconic “Jerusalem of Gold” (Yerushalayim shel zahav) and Ehud Manor who wrote the peace song, “Next year” (Bashana haba’ah) “Next year we’ll sit on our balcony and count migrating birds...” Among popular Israeli performers are Shoshana Damari, Yossi Banai, Arik Einstein, Ofra Haza, Chava Alberstein, and many more.
3. Songs derived from immigrant groups. The two most influential groups were the Ashkenazim, with many Yiddish popular songs and nigunim (tunes sung at the dinner table) which were translated and sung in Hebrew. Also, Klezmer music, that stirring, frenetic music featuring the clarinet, is still performed at Ashkenazi weddings in Israel. Later the Mizrachi immigrants brought their own culture from N. Africa and their songs entered the Hebrew popular culture from the 1970’s onwards. Much Israeli popular music today is in this vein and might be confused with Arabic music to the untrained ear.
4. External influences. There have undoubtedly been external influences, such as Greek music, that some Israeli popular music resembles, and also Brazilian music. Finally one must admit that a lot of current Israeli popular music today is influenced by American popular music, and this is evident from the Israeli submissions to the Eurovision song contest, including by such singers as Dana International
Perhaps reflect on this. There is no authentic Egyptian culture, their culture is Arabic, that was imported from the Arabian peninsula hundreds of years ago. The earliest Egyptians were converted to Christianity and their descendants are the Copts (now ca. 10% of the Egyptian population) who are the only group that preserves their original language and culture.