Let Jerusalem beat to the rhythm of a hip-hop song
The Israeli group Hadag Nachash delivers particular insight into true nature of the holy city.
With a seemingly constant stream of news about Jerusalem (this week it’s a controversial project creating a road linking the northeastern settlements to the city center), it seems we need to think more deeply about what the city means.
At exactly 4 minutes long, Israeli hip-hop band Hadag Nachash’s hit single Hine Ani Ba (Here I Come) gets me through the tricky 14-18 minute mark during my regular workout. But it’s more than just a catchy tune with an edgy World Music beat. And though it was issued in 2006, I think it’s as relevant as ever for thinking about Israel’s capital and its possibilities.
Literally meaning the snake-fish (and a play on the phrase “new driver”), Hadag Nachash is known for pop songs that poke fun at the politics permeating Israeli life. Perhaps best known for their popular Shirat Hastickerim, a riff on the cacophony of political and religious bumper stickers that dot Israeli automobiles, it’s Hine Ani Ba that has, for me at least, lately been suggesting some more subtle questions.
The song tells the story of the culture clash between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that has come to characterize Israeli society. Like the fabled city mouse and country mouse, Israelis can be classified as to whether their heart is lodged in Jerusalem’s ancient stones or bouncing along Tel Aviv’s sand, surf and nightlife.
But it’s the first four lines of Hine Ani Ba that deliver insights into Jerusalem with the sharpness that only a well-timed hip-hop rhyme can do.
“Jerusalem, a city worth a bang. Stroll along the midrachov (pedestrian mall), feels like a kibbutz/an ingathering of the exiles. A thousand cultures. Everyone has a brother and nine sisters. Arabs are OK (in order), the ultra-Orthodox are in heder...and everyone’s got the God vibe.”
Though dismissed by its detractors as promoting violent materialism at worst, or vapid mindlessness at best, rap is the genre perfectly poised to capture conceptual tensions. Its stop-start phrasing means you can pause on one idea before being quickly propelled to the next, which in turn changes the meaning of the first.
In Hebrew, the ingathering of the exiles (kibbutz galuyot) shares the first word of the phrase with that capstone of Zionist pioneering efforts, the kibbutz.
So which is it? Is Jerusalem like an old village, the kind that famed Israeli photographer David Rubinger told me he longs for when he allows himself to feel the sort of “silly nostalgia” - as he put it - for a time, before 1967, when walking the city’s streets felt like congregating in a small town?
Or is Jerusalem the center of the ingathering of the entire Jewish people, holding all the hopes and dreams of a religious-national-ethnic people that see the city as theirs, and only theirs?
But there is a third option. Is Jerusalem indeed the place for a “thousand cultures” (as the song says) to gather in common worship of the divine? Is it the city where brittle borders between ethnicities and religions dissolve, and Yerushalayim lives up to its Hebrew name (Ir Shalem / City of Wholeness and Peace)?
The song’s later phrase about the Arabs captures this tension. Are Arabs beseder (A-OK), or beseder (all in order)? Is everyone chilling, happy in their ethnic and spiritual pursuits? Or is the majority keeping the minority in line?
In one unforgettable photograph, Rubinger captured so poignantly the hopes and dreams of average Israelis before the country was overtaken by the explosive nationalist-Messianic fervor regarding the holy city.
As Rubinger told me in an interview last spring at his German Colony home: “I was asked, is it true that you cried? Yes, and I’m crying today because I cried then.”
“Jerusalem is not united; it will be united only when it’s divided again,” he added.
These three visions of Jerusalem speak to three very different faces: one closed and clubbish yet intimate; another striving to be an exclusive abode for the exiled sons and daughters of the Biblical nation of Israel, and still a third: a city worldly-open and embracing of global possibility.
The character in Hadag Nachash’s song is pulled by the sparkling allure of Tel Aviv, only to come home again. Beyond the “walls” and the hummus that we know is “verifiably” delicious, we won’t ever know to which Jerusalem he’s returning. The city of gold, copper and light can be many things, as the hopes and dreams of at least two peoples are reflected in its walls. Will Jerusalem be closed and exclusive or open and embracing?
“The most important thing is to be happy,” the song concludes, to which we can add: If not now, when?
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