Conversations With God Cross Into Israel's Musical Mainstream

Singles by Ahuva Ozeri, and Shye Ben Tzur and Jonny Greenwood remind us of the beauty, humility and joy that can be expressed in a song of prayer.

Shye Ben Tzur performs with the Rajasthan Express.
Victor Muper

Contemporary Israeli pop music loves to look to the heavens and speak to God. A decade ago, the trend was mostly confined to singers involved in the “Jewish” genre of reviving liturgical music. These days conversations with God are occurring all over the Israeli musical mainstream.

It’s happening with the young religious singers who’ve made their way into the heart of the mainstream, like Hanan Ben-Ari and Yishai Rivo. And it’s even more widespread in Mizrahi pop, in which a song that is a declaration of faith is practically mandatory on every album. It’s no wonder that many of these songs have come to sound quite formulaic: “If we erred in our ways, forgive us dear Father / If we focused on petty things instead of what matters / Now we want to get close to You, to the true path / We fervently hope it’s not too late” (from “You are the King” on Eyal Golan’s new album).

'You are the King,' from Eyal Golan's new album.

But there are also some good songs of prayer and of the turning to God. Two fine examples were recently released: “Bi Nishbati,” the first single from Ahuva Ozeri’s new album (any new album from Ozeri is already cause for celebration), and “Modeh” by Shye Ben Tzur and Jonny Greenwood (you may have heard about his new album with his main band Radiohead). These two songs won’t unseat Shuli Rand’s “Ayeka” as the ultimate musical conversation with God from the past decade, but they do bring back what most of the “my God” songs of recent years have failed to convey: the beauty, humility and joy that can be expressed in a song of prayer.

Full of gratitude

Ozeri's, and Ben Tzur and Greenwood’s songs differ in the basic stances they adopt. Ozeri’s song is a deeply felt plea to God not to abandon her. This kind of feeling has always been present in Ozeri’s music, and has yielded tremendous songs like “Kol Koreh Li Bamidbar,” whose raw power the new song does not try to approximate. Ben Tzur and Greenwood’s song is one of praise and thanksgiving. The plea to God was already made, and answered, and now they are gushing with gratitude.

Ahuva Ozeri's 'Bi Nishbati.'

What these two songs have in common – something you don’t find in most prayer songs of recent years – is the understanding of both the artists and their producers that the best way to express faith in God and love for God in a song is to give much more weight to the musical side than to the lyrics. The text should be concise and modest, not overly wordy and chatty.Faith and emotion should be expressed through the sounds.

Both songs have long instrumental sections, quite a rarity in Israeli music. About half of Ozeri’s song is an instrumental with an Arabic flavor, and the ensemble that plays it is superb: Zohar Fresco on percussion, Nasim Dakwar on violin, Amir Shahsar on ney (Persian flute) and, of course, Ozeri on the bulbul-tarang. The standard section of the song, when lyrics and music are intertwined, is sung by Dvir Cohen Eraki. He’s not an exuberant singer like Shai Tzabari, for instance, but there’s a pleasing reserve to his presentation that also enables the listener to imagine Ozeri singing the song herself.

Unlike the restrained tone of Ozeri’s song of supplication, Ben Tzur and Greenwood’s song of thanksgiving naturally brims and overflows musically. The large and excellent Indian ensemble backing up Ben Tzur, the Rajasthan Express, creates a dense, colorful and rhythmic clamor – a wonderful, joyful clamor. And it fits just right with the melody, which is based on a short and arresting mantra. The only thing that bothered me slightly was the way Ben Tzur keeps repeating the word “modeh” over and over. But that’s a minor quibble with a very appealing song.

Ahuva Ozeri – “Bi Nishbati”; Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and Rajasthan Express – “Modeh”