Blurring the Lines Between Religious and Secular in Israeli Music
What makes Israel simply magical is its unique fusion of ancient and modern, spiritual and mundane
In a land so often divided over matters of religion, the unifying power of popular tunes with holiday themes blasting on the radio is remarkable. The Jewish month of Elul has begun, and Jews worldwide have begun the countdown to the upcoming High Holiday season of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It’s a time when Jews traditionally examine their deeds over the past year, striving to do better in the future.
Recently, Israeli singing star Ishay Ribo released “Seder Ha’avoda,” a song that recalls the service of the high priest on Yom Kippur. It is a central part of the prayer service on Yom Kippur. Most of the lyrics of the song come straight from the liturgy.
Specifically, the song discusses how the high priest would approach God on Yom Kippur, begging forgiveness for the people’s sins. In Ishay Ribo’s version, however, he also recalls all of God’s kindnesses and miracles at the same time. The way I read it, Ishay’s reminding us not only to focus on transgressions this High Holiday season, but also to remember everything for which we’re grateful.
What I find remarkable about this song is not so much its message, but rather its reach. There are plenty of religious singers out there, singing about God, holidays, and faith. However, they typically reach a religious audience, who prefer to listen to religious music.
Ishay Ribo has achieved super-stardom in Israel. His music reaches way beyond the religious crowd, and his religious-themed songs are well known among both religious and secular. This song, I expect, will enjoy heavy rotation on Israel Army Radio, Kan Gimmel, and other “mainstream” radio stations.
Israeli music for the holiday season
That’s the thing about Israeli music. Whether or not you believe in God – whether or not you plan to observe the holidays – whether or not you consider yourself “dati” (religious) or “hiloni” (secular) – you can’t help but be swept up by the holiday season. Just as Christmas music becomes mainstream in December in the USA, music reflecting the themes of upcoming holidays is blasted in the streets of Israel throughout the year.
Most mainstream Israeli songs – and most of the artists who sing them – are as secular as can be. But every so often, the lines are blurred between religious and secular in a way that is uniquely Israeli. Take, for example, “Matanot K’tanot” (Small Gifts) by Rami Kleinstein (see above video). The song describes the beauty of a typical Friday night in Israel. However you choose to spend your Friday nights, you can certainly relate to the sights, smells, and sounds of a Sabbath eve in cities throughout the country. Rami even includes words from kiddush, the prayer over wine recited in Jewish homes every Friday night.
Or consider “Mi She’ma’amin” (he who believes) a huge hit for Eyal Golan in 2010. The song speaks about strong faith in God, referencing popular Jewish melodies that have been a significant part of Jewish culture for many years. While I’m fairly certain Eyal Golan does not consider himself “dati” (religious), the song strikes a chord among many who may believe in God, but don’t typically participate in daily Jewish rituals. Both songs were huge hits, promoting overt Jewish themes in mainstream Israeli music.
“Mi She’ma’amin” – Eyal Golan
Do religious themes have a place in mainstream Israeli music?
Which begs the question: does Judaism belong on Israeli radio? Should Israeli music, generally, remain a haven for “separation of church and state?” Or is it okay for Jewish themes to be forced upon the general music-loving public?
I would argue that these themes DO belong on mainstream Israeli radio. What makes Israel simply magical is its unique fusion of religious and secular, ancient and modern, spiritual and mundane. Is it the only place in the world where a secular Jew can “feel” Judaism everywhere, while not necessarily feeling pressure to observe the traditions. Israeli music can help draw listeners closer to Judaism and its rituals, while refraining from “preaching” to those less inclined to live an observant lifestyle. It also brings together Israelis of different backgrounds, helping to unify a nation often divided over religion.
Ishay Ribo’s massive mainstream success is all the proof you need that it can work.
This article first appeared on www.myisraelimusic.com