Muzika Mizrahit, Rock and Roll, and Israeli Identity

January 20, 2013 2:16 am 0 comments

Bob Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues. Photo: Wiki commons.

As far as the music that makes my heart go pitter- patter, it’s always been bouncy, beat driven, three-chord rock ‘n’ roll for me. Happiness is a catchy opening riff, snappy verse, harmonized chorus, dramatic electric guitar solo and back again – all condensed into a three-minute sonic blast.

Rock ‘n’ roll, rooted in African American blues, jump blues, country and gospel music, has long filled a basic need among the young and young at heart for excitement, dancing, and freedom from societal constraints. No other style of music can compete with rock ‘n’ roll’s singular power and visceral simplicity.

The temptations of a sweet, blond haired blue eyed preacher’s daughter can be fought off by a strong, proud Jewish man; the appeal of shrimp scampi, cheese burgers and other prohibited foods can be easily countered by citing a few age-old laws first outlined in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. But how can someone who seeks to assimilate into Israeli culture contend with the intoxicating influence of American rock ‘n’ roll?

I have opened my mind and ears to Israeli music in all its myriad forms yet my MP3 player remains loaded up with hundreds of songs by non-Israeli artists. And while such homegrown talents as Ladino singer-songwriter Yasmin Levy and popular Mizrahi singer Shlomi Shabbat are certainly appealing, my attraction to them is intellectual rather than emotional; Ms. Levy is renowned for her distinct, emotive style; Shabbat’s musical versatility is impressive. Yet, my musical inclinations remain thoroughly Western: are they destined to remain in exile?

In the throes of an identity crisis, peace of mind came by way of a chance encounter my wife and I had a couple of months ago at the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem. While taking care of the paperwork required to turn our sabra baby girl into a Yankee Doodle Dandee, we happened upon a young man who was busily filling out an application for a U.S. passport. Obviously struggling with the English, we helped where we could with translating the document into Hebrew. Amazingly, this thoroughly Israeli man’s father had moved to Israel decades ago from the United States. Within one generation any trace of any American connection had been erased: the poor kid couldn’t spell I-S-R-A-E-L and didn’t even know his mother’s “Christian” birthday.

A father’s long ago decision to eviscerate his pre-aliyah identity, apparently equating ‘American’ with ‘Pagan’, had far reaching consequences: a son severed from his cultural DNA; a young man denied the joys and beauty of the deceptively simple English language, “…an accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time…the free and compacted composition of all.”

And what a shame! Since the 1880s, Jews the world over have embarked on new lives in Israel, influencing their adopted homeland’s culture, language, education and, perhaps most significantly, Israeli politics. Over the last 20 years the Start-Up nation has absorbed 9,000 scientists from the former Russian Satellite States including 4,500 in industry and high-tech.

Returning to the airwaves, it is interesting to note that today’s most popular Israeli brand of music, Mizrahi,  was up until relatively recently restricted by the national government since it was not considered ‘authentic Israeli.’ The penetration of Muzika Mizrahit into the Israeli mainstream was the result of pressure by Mizrahi composers and producers , the overwhelming, undeniable popularity of the style and the gradual adoption of elements of Muzika Mizrahit by popular Israeli artists.

Listening to rock ‘n’ roll to my heart’s content doesn’t make me any less Israeli, it makes me more interesting since I’m indulging in a small passion; jogging around Gan Sacher while listening to Subterranean Homesick Blues (technically folk rock but mind-bending nonetheless…)only goes to show that I’m a bit of an old soul with a genuine fondness for the stylings one Robert Allen Zimmerman.

Getting turned on to Israeli music, cinema, sports and other aspects of the culture is a nice bonus but not a necessary component of what it means to be “Israeli”.

After all, many Israeli cinema buffs feel a much stronger connection to the films of Steven Spielberg than to those of Assi Dayan. Does such a preference in any way dilute these citizens’ “Israeliness”?

Listening to Jim Morrison belt out Wintertime Love last week as I merrily trudged through the surprisingly snow covered streets of Jerusalem crystallized a central point: life set to the right soundtrack enhances both the life and the soundtrack.

This article originally appeared in the Times of Israel.

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