Alfassi Books Department of Services 2015 catalog

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Einstein, Morocco, upstate New York and the power of song

I wrote this article and a post a little over a year ago, a short time after the death of Israel folk singer Arik Einstein and American folk singer Pete Seeger. In retrospect I understand how much learning about their lives and works affected me as an artist. They died a few months from each others, both leaving a remarkable influence and legacy to their cultures. I’ve dedicated the second Magic Bagel book in memory of Seeger, who lived in Beacon, NY as well and we used to see hime in festivals around town, singing with five year olds. I highly recommend “The Power of Song”, a documentary about Seeger’s life. And as for Einstein, there’s not much about him in English, and that’s part of why I wrote this post. I hope you’ll enjoy reading.

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Einstein, Morocco, upstate New York

During my army service I had a certain lip balm that had a very specific taste. Even many years later, when I come across a similar semi-strawberry flavor I right away feel like I’m a soldier again, with everything that this feeling arouses in me. I have a similar, or rather an opposite reaction, to the voice of Arik Einstein. When I hear his voice I feel comforted, I feel at home.

Einstein is credited as the first one to create Rock music in Hebrew but he wasn’t a great philosopher, poet or activist. I love him not like an idol but more like a friend, a mentor. His voice often accompanies me with me with an advice, a feeling or a story that are usually very meaningful, simple and often wise.

“sitting in San Francisco on the water (…)
It’s so beautiful in San Francisco on the water
It’s too bad you’re not here with me to see,
you’d say you’ll never come back..
Suddenly I want home (…)
Give me a piece of the Tabor mountain,
A piece of the sea of Galilee
I love to fall in love with the small land of Israel
Hot and wonderful”

Lyrics : Einstein, Music : Shalom Chanoch

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Homesickness. Israel, the sea of Galilee where Jesus walked on the water and mount Tabor, I still remember how in love I was when we hiked there together (she wasn’t that much into me). We had tea on the way down, met some Bedouins who hiked there as well. It was many years ago.

Like Einstein, I also love to fall in love with places. I even managed to fall in love with a small town in upstate New York. I love the mountain here and I love the river and I really love the people here. If I live elsewhere I’ll miss all of those, I might even write some songs about them.

The exiled Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said that homeland is like a suitcase. I guess for some it is a suitcase, for some it’s the melodies and for some, like me, there is no clear definition of what homeland is. For Einstein, who was born in 1939, homeland was what he called good old Israel, pre-skyscrapers Tel-Aviv, idealism, and some innocent sense that he had as a child and maybe Israel had too. Besides being an incredible performer, that might be what made him so popular among so many Israelis who yearned to similar things.

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Israelis don’t talk a lot about where they came from. Zionism, the Jewish national movement that was born at the end of the 19th century and eventually established Israel in 1948, intended to bring Jews from different cultures from all over the world and unite them in Israel under the new national umbrella that was inspired by the ancient Jewish state at Biblical times. The Zionist greatest myth, the “Sabra”, is the Israeli Ashkenazi native Hebrew speaking male who was born in Israel and is actively building the country from vacuum while structuring the perfect society that will occupy it. The new Jew that would finally have a homeland of his own and would be the mirror image of the Jew from the diaspora.

During the attempt to bring this dream to life languages disappeared, people didn’t find their place and some communities are still looking for their common identity. The Sabra wasn’t supposed to look back much, like a famous saying of Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister – “From Tanakh to Palmakh” – From the Bible to the Jewish combat units. As if nothing happened in between. As much as I know how destructive this myth was for so many people, when I hear Einstein’s voice I believe it, like a child listening to a story. A good story, where we are the good guys and we go through lots of trouble until the happy end.

“Jewish autumn
In the land of my ancestors
Send me hints of Elul (…)
Shofars will blow open
Heaven gates
And Jewish faces from the diaspora
In sad grayness
Will fly in front of the chair of
The master of the world
Requests, begging, sparks
Deep in their eyes”

        Lyrics : Abraham Chalfi,  Music : Yoni Rekhter

Einstein was a sabra, musically he might have been the first one, or probably the last one. More of a lover than a fighter but still a sabra, maybe even an ultimate one. This song, in which he sing a poem by Avraham Chalphi, is the only one I know of from Einstein’s hundreds of songs in which he sings about Jews who don’t live in Israel. The poem describes them almost as ghosts, flying with mysteriously sparks in their eyes, not really sure what they have to say to the average Israeli.

With Einstein, it seems like the Sabra project worked. His figure and beautiful voice seem to be born out of the sand of Tel Aviv, like the city itself that claim to rise up from the sand. Einstein doesn’t seem to be interested too much in Jewish history prior the establishment of Tel Aviv and if he sings of Historical events it’s either of Zionist history or of Biblical characters.

After his death, I learned many new things about Einstein. Many Israelis shared stories about his beautiful friendships, his professionalism, his shyness and extreme humbleness. Living on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, I consumed many of these stories through the internet and felt a kind of mourning I couldn’t explain. I didn’t learn anything, however, about Einstein’s grandparents or parents. They must have immigrated to the land of Israel from somewhere, but Einstein, besides singing this song, never says a word about almost two thousands years of Jewish Diaspora.

Like the United States, Israel too is inspired by lots of idealistic dreams. The reality, however, is often a bitter awakening from those dreams.

One of the few memories I have of my grandfather is his old radio that used to constantly play music in Arabic. This was more than forty years after he immigrated to Israel from Baghdad, leaving his dreams, his career and few other things there as well. He wasn’t a Sabra.

I know very little of him, mostly from stories my mom told me. I don’t remember him speaking much, I do remember new year cards from him, written in what I still think is the most beautiful hand-writing I’ve ever seen. Later on I realized that the horizontal shape of his Hebrew letters is actually very similar to Arabic letters.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if as a child I would have sat on his lap and he would have told me stories in Iraqi dialect Arabic. Would he have felt more capable of telling me stories in his mother tongue? would he have laughed with me had I understand Arabic? Maybe he’d tell me about the market in Baghdad, maybe we’d even live or visit there and he’d take me on walks, to his synagogue, to his grandfather’s grave.

I lost his cultural inheritance. I don’t speak his language and I know very little of the culture he came from. I just have a vague image of an old sick man that seemed bitter and out of place, always accompanied by a distorted melody out of an old Radio. Like Einstein who sings so beautifully Chalfi’s words, Jewish faces of the diaspora often appear in my visions too.

If there was any battle between Einstein and my grandfather, Einstein won by a knock-out.

West Jerusalem artist Neta Elkayam decided to sing in Moroccan dialect Arabic, the language of her beloved grandmother. Like other Israeli artists before who chose to sing in Yiddish and in other languages, Elkayam is searching for roots and doesn’t find them in the myth of the Sabra. I know Neta and her artwork for more than twelve years but listening to her singing in Arabic is like meeting a new Neta for me, an even more beautiful Neta, with something extra, or rather something raw, more open to pain and to love. I think I understand her better now, even though I have no idea what she’s singing about. I find myself just enjoying the language, the intonation and the performance and the story behind the music is very exciting to me. There is a certain magic in listening to music in a language you don’t understand – the lyrics can mean anything but they function like an extra musical instrument and has no intellectual background to them.   I wonder how would it be for me if I haven’t understood Einstein words but have only his voice and the music to enjoy.

Picture

“Baba Gurion”, Neta Elkayam. Israeli first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion

is holding a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary and having a glass of Arak

Together with her partner Amit Hai Cohen they created a show in which they sing songs of Moroccan Jewish musicians who were culture heroes in their homeland but Zionism never really noticed them. Some of these musicians, whose songs are still listened to and being taught as essentials of modern Arab music, died in poverty after having a hard life in Israel with very little recognition of their talent.

For Jews, singing in any Arabic dialect in Israel is also a dramatic political statement. For many Israelis the sound of Arabic is threatening, even though Hebrew and Arabic are very similar and about half of them had some level of Arabic in their home, like I had with my grandparents. Neta is gifted with a voice that like Billie Holiday and Oum Kalthoum can take the listeners into another world, regardless if they understand what she’s singing about.

Recently, Neta and Amit performed at a famous music festival in Morocco where they had an incredible success. They also perform regularly in Israel and their work brings out a lot of interest. Culturally it is one of the most interesting things that are happening in Israel right now and inevitably it raises many questions about Jewish and Israeli identity. Their journey might have started with hearing Grandma as children but led them through Tom Waits, the Lower east side, Tel Aviv, Existentialism and many more stations, but eventually they got back and sang songs that grandma would have loved.

While writing these words I’m waiting for my daughter Maayan to be done with her ballet class and to take her to a show of Gina Samardge, her favorite musician who will probably sing her favorite song – “This land is my land, this land is your land”. While I’m waiting, a few other parents discuss whether it’s better to get a real tree or a fake tree for Christmas.

The De-hollizing project

   One of the most reasonable ways to end the Israeli Palestine conflict is to declare the Holy Land as not holy, as just a regular place. It may sound unreasonable, but I think that for most of the Jewish people this had already happened. Many if not most Jews don’t see the “holy places” as holy in the traditional sense of the word. Many poets and writers had already said that there’s a lot of sacredness in the casual and regular events and places, in everything, so this idea is not even be a big change of mindset for most people. If religions would start to consider the whole wide world as holy, including all of its residents and natural treasures, I think it’ll be great for everyone. Maybe then humanity would be able to use the incredible power of organized religion for good causes. 

   Today, February 25th, is the 20th anniversary of the cave of Patriarchs massacre in which an American born Jewish doctor killed 29 Palestinians while they were praying where Abraham, Jacob and Isaac are supposedly buried. The city of Hebron knew an even more terrible massacre in 1929, in which 67 Jews lost their lives and the rest escaped from the city. Many of the holy places in Israel-Palestine had some bloodshed in them. What we now recognize as the wailing wall plaza in Jerusalem used to be a the 800 years old Mughrabi Arab neighborhood that was demolished a few days after the 1967 war, in order to flatten the area for Jews to pray and gather there. Such actions, I believe, take away whatever holiness was in a place. 

    I don’t have a specific way to make such idea (I call it de-hollizing but maybe there’s a better name for it) a reality, if such idea is even a good idea. Adam of Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center had already showed a lot of excitement for managing a holy site in case the Jewish world would decide to de-hollinize Jerusalem and transfer its holy spirit to the beautiful retreat center in Connecticut (he was actually freaked out by the idea, I understand him). I imagine that a petition of many Rabbis declaring that they see holiness in every place and in each creature on earth and not only in few places or some graves might have a huge impact, but I’m neither a Rabbi nor an organizer. “De-hollinaizing”, like disarming, like dislike something that does very little to benefit a more peaceful future.

Demolition work of the Moroccan quarter

 in order to create the wailing wall plaza,1967

  Rabban Yokhanan Ben Zakai, which we named our son Zakai after, is famously recognized for transferring Judaism into an era of prayer and study from an era of sacrifying animals in the sake of worshiping God. His teaching during the distraction of the second temple that loving-kindness equal to sacrificing animals in its importance is one of my favorite quotes from the Jewish literature. Just saying. 

Anyway, regardless of all that, this is the peace pole project, in which tens of thousands of poles were placed in more than 180 countries around the world with the sentence “may peace prevail earth” ישרה שלום עלי אדמות written on them in many different languages. I love this inspiring project. 

About a dentist

Him, a fascist. Me, a lefty. A hot summer day, a small town in America. He knew I’m an Israeli right away, I wore sandals, he assumed I was from a kibbutz. It was about two years since my last dental care. My last dentist was a Palestinian guy, who I used through the public health care service in Israel. A nice guy, really. My guilt feelings about the Israeli occupation of Palestinians, that brought me to learn basic Arabic, didn’t impress him much.

No pain no gain, the fascist one told me as he prepared his tools. He was a member of the Kahana party, who believed it’s a good idea to deport the natives to other countries. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

Probably the most popular graffiti in Israel is “Kahana was right”, often accompanied with a Jewish star. I once printed a bumper sticker, “Kahana was wrong”. I floss regularly.

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