Sacred sells for Israeli musicians

By Nathan Jeffay, July 2, 2009
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David D’Or, a leading secular musician, released a popular album of prayers after saying kaddish for his father

David D’Or, a leading secular musician, released a popular album of prayers after saying kaddish for his father

Given that she is one of Israel’s most popular musicians, Etti Ankri’s latest album may seem a little esoteric: it consists entirely of poems by the 12th-century philosopher, Rabbi Yehuda Halevy.

But Ms Ankri is not taking a gamble. In mainstream Israeli music today, sacred means sales.

Last year, a collection of songs based on the teachings of the 18th- and 19th-century Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslev reached gold album status, with buyers across the religious spectrum.

Shuli Rand, the artist behind the album, is a ba’al teshuvah who had already found religion when he came onto the music scene, while Ms Ankri became religious when she was already a star, back in 2001.

But it is not only observant artists who are making religious music successfully.

David D’Or, another of Israel’s leading stars, developed an interest in liturgy while saying kaddish for his father. He went on to release a collection of prayers entitled Shirat Rabim, or “The Songs of Many”. It reached gold album status within three weeks of its release last year.

Other secular artists simply want to explore their culture. Last year Shlomo Gronich, an icon of the Israeli peace camp, released “Journey to the Source”, which he describes as “a moving and unique journey by a non-religious musician to the ancient sources of his identity, offering a contemporary musical interpretation of the eternal words of the Bible”.

As well as drawing on ancient lyrics, he draws on ancient instruments, playing the shofar in some tracks.

This kind of music marks a stark departure from Israeli music of the past, which has mostly avoided Jewish subjects and focused on standard themes like love, personal expression and teenage angst.

Sometimes, Israeli music has actually mocked religious practice. One of the most popular Israel songs of all time was Shir Lashalom, or “Song for Peace”, which was written in 1969, but resonated well into the 1990s, particularly after a blood-splattered lyrics sheet was found in Yitzhak Rabin’s pocket after he was shot.

“Don’t say the day [for peace] will come; bring on that day,” instructs the song, pointing to the ineffectiveness of “songs of praise” and telling listeners not to bother “whispering prayers”.

Today, many Israelis across the political spectrum have concluded that it is impossible to “bring on that day” and that peace remains elusive.

The sense of uncertainty breeds a “tendency towards the supernatural”, says Haifa University sociologist Oz Almog, as does the “weakening of the previously very effective social glue of Zionism, which has left a vacuum, with people wanting something to connect them with some meaning of life”.

Accepting religious observance takes a major commitment, but music with a Jewish flavour — which he calls “kitsch” — means “you can be close to God just by the click of a button”.

And Israelis have become used to fusion in their music.

“It is part of a wider tendency of bringing styles together — just a couple of weeks ago the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra featured flamenco and sexy dancers,” said Edwin Seroussi, director of the Jewish Music Research Centre at the Hebrew University.

Another significant factor is the relatively recent popularity of music by religious-Zionist artists who use ethnic beats, simple rhythms, and, often, the tunes of Shlomo Carlebach, the so-called “Singing Rabbi” who died in 1994.

Just as this drew on the professionalism and showmanship of mainstream music, mainstream music is now mimicking its way of utilising religious texts, said Yonatan Razel, one of the leading religious-Zionist musicians. He describes the new trend as evidence that “the secular world is searching for itself in the religious world”.

    Last updated: 4:40pm, July 2 2009