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At first glance, you would have thought it was just another Hebrew sing-along. Hundreds of people packed the Tzavta Auditorium in Tel Aviv on a Friday evening a few weeks ago. On stage was a singer with a guitar and, behind her, a large screen which displayed the lyrics of popular songs. Accompanied by singer-guitarist Noga Eshed, the audience sang for three whole hours.

But this was no sing-along: It was billed as a prayer service. And the auditorium echoed with Hebrew classics composed between the early Zionist pioneer era and the founding of the state in 1948.

The person who first described this kind of gathering as a "prayer service" was a seasoned scholar of songs of that era, Tel Aviv University musicology Prof. Shai Burstyn. In fact, he was sitting in a corner, sometimes joining the audience but mostly taking notes.

Burstyn is a member of the group that organizes such evenings, called Zemereshet, which was founded to rescue classic Hebrew songs from oblivion. The group's members offer a wealth of information about such songs on their Web site, including recordings, the actual music and scholarly articles.

Burstyn, born in 1939, is an internationally renowned musicologist who has published many articles in scholarly journals, and lectured at major universities worldwide. He strives to sustain the enthusiasm of young Israelis who have fallen in love with Hebrew songs that were composed and written before 1948, offering a scholarly and scientific dimension to their enthusiasm. Specifically, his research focuses on the ideological phenomena that gave birth to these songs, and led them to flourish and later decline.

"Hebrew classics sprang from the grass roots, from kindergarten teachers who demanded, even as early as the 1920s, that local composers create a uniquely modern Hebrew repertoire," he explains. "In the wake of this demand, a new musical style was produced."

Burstyn says the first conference on the subject, which was held in 1942 at Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, reflected the ideology that gave birth to this new style of Hebrew melodies. Its participants, he explains, "were calling for drastic action: They wanted to turn the songs into the musical mother tongue of the younger generation. Binyamin Omer (Hatuli), a musician and educator, said then: 'We must prevent infants in their cradles listening to Western music.'

"Ironically, he was well-versed in European classical concert music and loved the great composers; nevertheless, he believed that such an extreme measure was warranted. It was clearly an ideological position, and a rather drastic one at that," Burstyn adds.

Thus, it seems that research about Hebrew classics is actually research about Israeli culture. Yet a decade ago, when TAU's musicology department proposed a new course by Burstyn about ideology and Hebrew songs from before 1948 - it caused an uproar.

Burstyn is actually known for his extensive research on medieval and Renaissance music, and happened to conduct an ensemble of musicians who played historical music on antique instruments.

I was amazed to learn you study and teach Hebrew songs from before 1948. This strikes me as a real revolution.

Burstyn: "Actually, I have a strong connection to these songs. First of all, I have always been deeply involved with such songs and with the accordion. I started off my musical career on the accordion. In 1957, for the first time in my life, I went abroad, as an accordionist, to attend the "Conference of Democratic Youth Movements" held in Moscow.

"Modern Hebrew composers hated the accordion, because it is a folk harmonic musical instrument and because it symbolized the very culture they wanted to erase. However, I played the accordion differently. I added alternative melodies to certain songs."

He takes out his accordion to demonstrate: "I did not use the accordion's usual chords. I did not want its traditional harmonies, which run contrary to the melodic structure of modern Hebrew songs. Instead, I wanted to create counterpoint, abrasive tones, a single-voice melody and more complex chords.

"That is why I was invited to join [the trip to Moscow]. We traveled from Haifa to Turkey by boat, and then we took a series of trains through Eastern Europe. At every train station, from Jassy, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria and until we reached Russia, Jews would come to see the Israeli delegation. They would dance in circles. I accompanied them with my accordion."

He says he began playing that instrument by accident: "When I was 8 years old, my father took me to a violin teacher. The teacher looked at my hands and said they did not suit the violin. He said I should play accordion. And that is how I became an accordionist."

'Unique characteristics'

During his military service, Burstyn accompanied the musical troupe of the Israel Defense Force's Northern Command, and can be heard in the troupe's popular recordings of familiar songs. He has accompanied singers and dance troupes alike. While studying music in New York - first composition and later musicology, in which he received a doctorate from Columbia University - he accompanied well-known Israeli singers including Ahuva Tzadok and Osnat Paz, wrote symphonic arrangements for their songs, conducted and oversaw the recording sessions.

"In my research on medieval and Renaissance music, I found a connection between high-brow, artistic music and folk music," he explains. "What interests me is not musical analysis for its own sake, but rather discovering things that can help us understand how musical creations are rooted in a culture - why they are produced, how they are absorbed or rejected, how they flourish and when they or the musical style they represent decline.

"I study the unique musical characteristics of these creations in order to find out how they reflect that context. In my research, I have encountered different versions of the same song and I have asked myself, 'Why do pieces written with musical notation change over the course of time and while being copied and recopied?'"

One conclusion Burstyn reached when he studied musical and historical manuscripts in their original Latin was that people heard music differently in different eras.

"Listening to music is not a matter of the physiology of our sense of hearing, but rather the comprehension of what we hear," he notes. "And that changes from one generation to the next. We hear music differently from people in another era who hadn't heard anything louder than thunder and were not familiar, as we are, with the works of Mozart, Bartok and Stravinsky."

One of his articles focuses on this topic, which, along with the connection between artistic and folk music, he considers applicable to Hebrew classics: "The pre-1948 Hebrew songs were written long enough ago that we can study them objectively. Thus, it seemed rather pointless to me to travel to London, to spend days or even weeks in the British Library, in a small room suffused with the ultra-violet light needed to decipher ancient medieval European manuscripts, when the gold is right here, in the streets of my own city, in the very culture I live and breathe - and, I might add, in a culture where I am both a scholar and the subject of scholarly research."

When did the era of Hebrew songs, such as those written by Mordechai Zeira, Daniel Sambursky, Emanuel Amiran and Nahum Nardi, begin to decline?

"In the late 1950s, this style began to wane and a new one emerged: the music of Naomi Shemer and Moshe Vilenski, with styles imported from abroad - American folk music, the French chanson and the cabaret. The struggle to prevent foreign influences became more vigorous, and the Beatles were banned from appearing in Israel for that very reason. But it was too late, because radio broadcasts began here in 1936 and you could hear 'ballroom music' on the radio. In Tel Aviv, you could attend musical revues and dance the foxtrot."

Burstyn is now writing a book on Hebrew songs composed before 1948, which explains these processes in a language that suits laymen. "Ideology is reflected in a particular musical style, in the invention of a tradition, and in the means used for conveying that tradition to the public," he explains. "Music is only one example of an approach that can be found in other fields as well. Zionist indoctrination also operated through mathematics and geography instruction. It sought to create a new Hebrew idiom from a tabula rasa and to stealthily penetrate the psyche of the people here. Even Bialik speaks about unconscious learning. However, as we can see in the paintings of [Reuven] Rubin and [Nachum] Gutman, you cannot erase the mindset with which you were born."

In addition to Zemereshet and his book, Burstyn is working on a recording project in collaboration with the Education Ministry: CDs of 50 pre-1948 Hebrew songs, along with lesson plans for teaching them.

"There are kindergarten and elementary school teachers who cannot wait to hear these songs," he says, "and this is a way of compensating for the lack of depth and quality, without resorting to the old methods of brainwashing and fanaticism."

Concerning his young partners in this musical endeavor - Evyatar Cohen, Efrat Yitzhak and Barak Paz, who are all in their 20s - and his somewhat older partners - Avivit Applebaum, Gali Nahman and Yair Even-Zohar - Burstyn says: "In my opinion, their attraction to this material stems from a deep need to retain a connection with their culture. Sing-alongs are sometimes expressions of nostalgia, of longing for something that no longer exists, of fond memories. However, these young people have nothing to look back at nostalgically; they simply want to fill a cultural vacuum, to feel solid ground beneath their feet, to sense that they come from a clearly defined place, that they have a tradition - even if it is only 80 years old."

"That is part of the answer," Barak Paz says, "because it is possible to have fond feelings and a sense of nostalgia for a world - perhaps this is a fantasy of some sorts - that we never personally experienced but with which we are nonetheless familiar through our parents, grandparents, history lessons, films and so forth. However, I believe that what is going on here is primarily a desire to return a debt to the people who created the infrastructure for a musical culture here. People who wrote songs not because they wanted to sell albums, but because they were cultural pioneers who were willing to make huge sacrifices. They devoted themselves to this task and could not even imagine what its results would be; in fact, we still don't know what the results will be. However, we have a debt to them and we must therefore revive what they created."