Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A brief (non-political) musical intermission

Occasionally when I am convinced that everyone is sick of hearing
about current events and news atrocities, I comment on what I think
are interesting non-political aspects of life in Israel.

On more than one occasion I have noted that I regard Israeli music
to be the greatest cultural achievement of modern Israel. Israeli
theater is mediocre. Israeli television is a human rights atrocity.
Israeli literature is sometimes okay, but you need to ignore the fact
that almost all the writers are far-leftist moonbats. Israeli cinema
invariably reeks, except the recent "Footnote" movie was pretty good.
But Israeli song is delightful and incomparable. There are a dozen
different kinds of Israeli music, from Oriental to religious to pop,
to old desert/camel music, to Russian revival, to folksy. And it
captures and incorporates musical themes from all over the world, from
Greece to Russia to Brazil to Italy to Bukhara, and also Arab music.

A particularly excellent strand of Israeli music involves
Yemenite performers, my own all-time favorites being the incredible
(late) Zohar Argov, and the much-alive Daklon.

And I want to tell you the story of one particular Yemenite song,
which I think exemplifies so much of what is fascinating and
enchanting about Israel. The song captures the complex richness of
Israeli society.

The song is named The Boat Song (Shir Ha-oniya), although is more
familiar as "I am Gedalia." Its melody is a striking one based on
traditional Yemenite musical themes. But the words are the most
fascinating part of it.

Yemenite Jews in Israel have by now been largely gentrified and the
bulk are middle class or yuppies today. But when they first arrived
in the 1950s (with some waves of immigrants who came earlier), they
were at the bottom of the "social ladder," like Ethiopians are today.
Yemen was and still is one of the most primitive places on earth. And
its Jews were very much a product of conditions there. They
nevertheless developed their own strong and unique set of religious
traditions (for example, often Yemenites read Haftara portions that
are different from BOTH those of Ashkenazim and Sephardim). And
Yemenite Jewish education was so deeply devoted to the works of
Maimonides (the RAMBAM) that even today I suspect the average Yemenite
blue collar worker knows more Maimonides than most professors of

In any case, the song I want to introduce to you describes the
adventures of one such working-class uneducated Yemenite youth living
in the 1950s. The working class life of the naive and innocent youth
is described in beautiful and flowery Hebrew, containing Biblical
expressions and images and literary language. Basically, it is a
monologue of the young working class Gedalia, who decides to give up
his life dragging heavy sacks about and go to sea as a seaman. He
travels the world while writing letters to his father. He describes
his journey as searching for the lost 10 tribes and the messiah. One
sentence that touches me personally whenever I hear it is where he
describes his life as traveling the seas eating pita and tomato
together with his small siddur or prayerbook. I kind of like to think
of myself as having a bit of Gedalia in me, wandering the world with a
small siddur, although in my case it is more with hotel room service,
a laptop, and Boeing jets..

The song of the life of the Yemenite youth and the powerful
Yemenite melody however contain a surprise. Both were composed by
Ashkenazim, having not so much of a drop of Yemenite blood in them.
The author of the words was the great Israeli poet Natan Alterman (see
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Alterman) while the melody was
composed by the great composer Moshe Wilensky

I would like to invite you to listen to the song, which can be heard
on youtube at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcwuUV9vEs4 (also at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPc5JAwsAlE). You will not be sorry
you listened.

If you read Hebrew, then you can read along with the lyrics appearing
here: http://shironet.mako.co.il/artist?type=lyrics&lang=1&prfid=326&wrkid=5542

You can also see the Hebrew transliterated into English letters here:

There seems to be no English translation of the lyrics, so here is my
own translation, although this really does not do justice to the
lovely Hebrew lyrics:

The Boat Song

I am Gedalia, but a quarter of a man
But I am growing,
If I have no home, at least I have the road
And above the road the moon shining.

I have one side curl and another one
Together Payot (payos)
I have dragged enough sacks already
And run hither and thither
Now I want the distant horizon
I want to go to sea

For the world is so very large
And one has to see it all,
The cities and the market places
And the Ten Tribes
To see the wild ox of the Messiah (tradition that this will be food
eaten when Messiah comes – SP)
The whale (leviathan) and the slivering snake (images and terms from
books of Job and Isaiah -- SP)
I will glance at it once or twice
And then Sail on, Sail on, my boat.

I shall take with me some tomato,
A small prayerbook, and some pita
While from the deck of the boat I look out.

The captain comes by to ask me
Where are traveling to, Gedalia?
America is over here to the left,
And to the right is Australia.

And I respond: Sir,
All places are beautiful,
The entire world belongs to the Almighty God,
While all men are brothers.

For the world is so very large
And one has to see it all,
How everything in it is arranged,
Where it is hot and where it is cold.

And what is evil and what is beautiful in it,
And who is doing the floor mopping,
And I will see it once or twice,
Then Sail on, Sail on, my boat.

Then when the day arrives, I tell the captain,
Get prepared,
It is here that the ocean ends,
And time that we return to the Yarkon (creek in Tel Aviv)

Then in the port, the crowds are cheering,
And the wind instruments thunder,
My father is singing thanks to God,
Gedalia, sit and rest.

And he weeps and then he laughs,
And asks me, where have you been?
Oh how far away I have been, father,
Lift your eyes and see.

I was in the world so large,
And saw everything in it,
On my life I swear to you that
It was worthwhile

For the world is beautiful, Ya Father (oh father),
And there is room in it for everyone, Ya Father,
I will glance at it once or twice,
And that is the song of the boat.

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