The Songs of a Nation

Nurit Hirsh Wins Israel Prize for Hebrew Song and Folk Art

'It’s good that MKs from across the spectrum are congratulating me, because I write for everyone and target everyone,' says prolific composer.

Israel Prize winner Nurit Hirsh.
Daniel Bar-On

One of Israel’s most prolific composers, Nurit Hirsh, has been awarded the Israel Prize for Hebrew song and folk art. One of her best-known songs, “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” won the Eurovision Song Contest for Israel in 1978.

“Nurit Hirsh is the good old Israel,” said Education Minister Naftali Bennett, announcing the prize earlier this week. “The Israel that during its difficult moments is able to hum her works and remember who we are and why we are here.”

The prize committee, headed by Dr. Natan Shahar, noted that Hirsh “is one of the most prominent and talented Hebrew composers. Her musical activity focused on writing songs, and the State of Israel’s soundtrack is scattered with her songs. These include ‘Bashana Haba’a’ [‘Next Year’], ‘Oseh Shalom Bimromav’ [from the Kaddish prayer], ‘Ah Ya Raab’ [from the film ‘Sallah Shabati’] and ‘Makhela Aliza’ [‘The Cheerful Choir,’ a children’s song].”

Hirsh, 73, is a Tel Aviv native. She has written the music for more than 1,500 songs, as well as scores for movies and television, including “The Policeman” (“Hashoter Azulay”) and “Close Relatives” (“Krovim, Krovim”). She was the house pianist for Habima Theater and a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music; she furthered her music education at UCLA.

Last month, she received the 2016 EMI prize from the Israel Union of Performing Artists for her life’s work, while earlier this month she won the ACUM Prize for her special contribution to the arts for children. Hirsh has written hundreds of songs for children, and since 1992 has worked with Michal Hazon to produce a dozen videotapes and DVDs of songs and games for children.

Speaking to Haaretz, Hirsh was at a loss to explain how she has become such an awards magnet. “This indeed has been a year full of prizes, unlike previous years. I have no explanation for it,” she said.

Asked how it feels to be congratulated by people across the political spectrum, Hirsh said she didn’t make distinctions. “I’m apolitical,” she said, “and it’s good that MKs from across the spectrum are congratulating me, because I write for everyone and target everyone.”

Hirsh explained that she was influenced by a wealth of musical styles. “I like Arab and Iraqi music, and in my eyes [Egyptian diva] Umm Kulthum is the best singer in the world. I spent a lot of time in synagogue in my childhood, so I also write songs in a cantorial style. I studied jazz in the United States, so I write jazzy songs. And I grew up with opera, so there are operatic excerpts in my songs. Then there’s the Yemenite step rhythm from the folk dancing of my teens, and I like world music, pop, and disco.”

And what song would she like to hear them play at the Israel Prize ceremony? “Maybe ‘The Ballad of Policeman Azulay.’ There are others I love, but that’s what came to my mind first.”