Israeli Folk Music

The music and lyrics expressed the dreams of a new nation.

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Throughout world history, music has served political purposes. Plato's Republic describes the ability of music to calm the passions, thereby allowing for the building of a harmonious society. In 17th-century France, Louis XIV commissioned new large-scale musical works for every social occasion or political event; the grandeur of those musical works was to reflect the grandeur of the monarch himself. American revolutionaries adopted songs that spoke of freedom and national pride to unify them in their quest for independence from Britain. 

Fostering a Love of Israel

Music played an equally important role in the spread of Zionism in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The Zionist movement from its beginnings posited that the Jewish people had a common attachment to the ancient land of Israel, beginning with Abraham's departure from his father's home in Mesopotamia, and lasting to the present day, even after thousands of years of exile and dispersion. But the actualization of such a profound common love of the land required creativity and work. The pressing question for the early Zionists was how to bring the Jewish people together, to rekindle their love of their common heritage and especially of Israel.

guitar playingMusic is in many societies an expression of common experiences and values. Participants in the early Zionist movement reversed this process: they created, almost instantaneously, a "folk" music, in order to unify Jews throughout the world around their cause.

The early Zionists were by and large Socialists, and their approach to music reflected their politics. Music, like almost everything else in life, needed to be dedicated to and related directly to the common good. It needed to serve as an inspiration for the new olim (immigrants to Israel), both in its topics and in its musical characteristics. The topics of Israeli folk songs are as disparate as love (for example, in "Erev Shel Shoshanim"--"Evening of Lilies") and the physical construction of the new state (as in "Havu Livenim"--Carry the Bricks). But the unifying characteristic of these songs is their description of the experience of living in Israel and fulfilling the national destiny.

During this time, music created in the Land of Israel was for the express purposes of identity-building and furthering the goals of Zionism. (It was not until the era of World War II that large numbers of classically-trained composers began to arrive in the Land of Israel, allowing for the growth of "art music" there.)

From Biblical Text to Popular Song

From early in the 10th century, there were songs composed not only to texts descriptive of life in the Land of Israel, but also to texts from the Bible. This is not to say that many of the early olim were religious; indeed, many saw life in the Holy Land as a substitute for religious practice. But the use of biblical texts for popular songs emphasized the common experiences of the Jewish people throughout history, their common "folklore."

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Dr. Rebecca Cypess

Rebecca Cypess graduated with honors in music from Cornell University and holds a Master of Music degree in harpsichord from the Royal College of Music in London. She has pursued Jewish studies at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. She has a Ph.D. in music history from Yale University, and is a musicologist and performer at the New England Conservatory.