Beyond Hava Nagila: How Israelis Fell in Love, Again, With Sing-alongs

In a throwback to the Israeli pioneers' love of joining together to sing war songs and patriotic ballads, community sing-alongs are seeing a revival, spurred, some say, by a need for togetherness following the second intifada.

After the second Palestinian intifada, two controversial Israeli legacies remain.

These are the separation fence and the revival of the communal sing-along.
Communal singing in Israel had at once withered, suffering from aging fans and local disdain. But for nearly a decade now, its rebirth has been nourished, with many new players joining the scene. They included singers such as Einat Sarouf; Moshe Lahav and his Big Tisch show; and the Zemereshet group which specializes in reviving rare and forgotten songs from the early years of the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine).

“This area was already dead, but with continued terror attacks came a desire to be together,” says Zafrir Kom, Moshe Lahav’s manager. “Troubles do wonders for one’s desire to sing. I remember coming to The Yellow Submarine club in Jerusalem at the height of the suicide attacks and being amazed at how many people showed up to see The Big Tisch. The attacks and the commotion gave communal singing a big push. It caught on, and soon the flame simply couldn't be put out."

At this year's Independence Day celebrations, Moshe Lahav and his show will be featured on the center stage.

Moshe Lahav, along with other performers, belongs to the post-communal singing age. Kom prefers the term "singing with others."

"This is no longer the same style of singing with handouts and a slide projector showing the words. Some performers such as Sarale Sharon and Gabi Berlin can still make this work, mainly in the older agricultural settlements. I encounter this style less and less. We are more of an updated version of Zionists, like a youth movement for grown-ups. At our performances, someone like Nancy Brandes can show up, and the audience then insists that he goes on stage and sings. Recently, the director general of the Defense Ministry came to one of our shows, bringing with him the Chilean Defense Minister, formerly the chief of staff. He really enjoyed it.”

To really get a feel for the diversity of communal singing events flourishing across the country, check out an impressive Facebook page called "Meitivey Leset" (a Hebrew pun on groups devoted to hiking, changed to denote devotees of singing). The page is edited by Baruch Shahar, who, as his colleagues attest, is obsessive about the topic.

“Communal singing is alive and well. It's really growing," Shahar says. When I ask him to count the number of events between Thursday and Sunday of this week, he leaves me hanging on the line, returning a few minutes later with the answer – no fewer than 73.

But Shahar does more than keep tabs on group singing events online. He also hosts them, restricting them to intimate groups of 30 participants. “I go over my participants with a fine-tooth comb. We have a secret cult that’s been meeting for a decade,” he says. He agrees with Kom that toward the end of the second Intifada, the terror attacks spurred an historic comeback for communal singing.

The two approaching holidays of Remembrance Day and Independence Day will see communal singing in Israel reach its peak. Crowds will gather at events across the country and lift their voices in joint recitation of war songs and historic Israeli melodies.

I ask Shahar if the phenomenon is perhaps the response of Israel's older, more-established population to the rise of Mizrahi pop culture, which has also flourished in the last decade.

"Mizrahi pop is great," Shahar says. "But, as my literature teacher always told me, it's fine to read Bill Carter as long as you can tell the difference between that and 'Crime and Punishment.'"

Another force in the drive to revive communal singing is the duo Bubizemer, which for a decade has been luring the younger generation to its events. Arbel Fischler, one half of the duo, doesn't think the intifada had anything to do with communal singing's rise.

"We are returning to Hebrew songs because there is a saturation of pop music," Fischler says. "I don’t think Eastern or Western pop is good music. I don’t like the commercialization that comes with it. Today, you can get software to write the lyrics. Young people come to our performances because they are looking for something with more value, for words that actually mean something. So, they turn to the past. Without a doubt, communal singing has become cool. But it's different now than what the older generation got used to, with an accordion on the kibbutz."

The Bubizemer duo performs together every three weeks, and each of them also does five solo shows a week. Arbel's day is packed.

“Today I had a memorial service, but I also do weddings, old folks’ homes and occasional shows for Holocaust survivors. At our events, about 50 percent of the audience is religious," he says. "I never used to see them at performances, but now they are the great Zionists. A lot of military people show up. They sing out of Zionist convictions. They have seen action from the inside, and when I sing a war song I can feel that they have memories of some secret mission, so that they connect to the song differently than others do."

Michal Fattal