Everyone Talks About War Songs, No One Talks About Lullabies

With many children finding it hard to sleep for fear of the alarm sirens, lullabies could be the answer. A lovely new album of old Jewish cradle songs does a splendid job.

Eyal Tal

Operation Protective Edge triggered a media debate about war songs. Can such songs be written in the present era? Should they be written? These questions were pondered at length in television and radio broadcasts. But no one talked about another category of song that is sorely needed in wartime – lullabies. Over the past month, the routine of hundreds of thousands of children in Israel has been seriously disrupted. Many are afraid to go to sleep at night for fear of the sirens. Lullabies are the polar opposite of alarm sirens, and children are more than ever in need of the caressing and loving tranquillity they provide.

The paucity of Israeli lullabies is a painful subject, and one that would make a fascinating topic for a research paper. One explanation for the lack is the notion that the safer and more comfortable life is, the less need there is for lullabies. But recent events have undermined this concept. In any case, in order to listen to a medley of lullabies it’s necessary to travel from the present back into the past and out of Israel to the Jewish diaspora. This is now possible thanks to a splendid new album of old Jewish lullabies from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The world that these songs represent was obliterated or forgotten many decades ago, but the pertinence and beauty of the songs remain intact, and the new renditions by Yair Dalal and Lenka Lichtenberg succeed in gently bridging between yesterday and today.

The new album, titled simply “Lullabies from Exile,” came into being by chance. Baghdad-born Dalal, a prodigious musician who finds it difficult to blip on the crude radar of Israeli culture, and Lichtenberg, a Jewish Canadian singer who performs Yiddish songs, met at a festival in Slovakia. As they sat together, she sang Mordechai Gebirtig’s lullaby “Yankele” and he sang Saleh al Kuwaity’s “Wien ya galub.” To their surprise, they found that the two songs flowed naturally into and out of one another. That improvised interweaving was the genesis of the new album, which consists mostly of two-song medleys. An Iraqi song is juxtaposed to a Yiddish one; the two songs “speak” to each other and, for a few minutes at least, share a common destiny.

That said, a review of the new CD is probably best begun with one of its two stand-alone songs, namely “Dremlyn feygl” (“Drowsing Birds”), which was written in the Vilna Ghetto by Leah Rudnicki (lyrics) and Leyb Yampolski (melody). Lichtenberg sings it in Yiddish. You can read the translation in “The Songs they Sang – A Musical Narrative of the Vilna Ghetto” (www.thesongstheysang.com).

This song, perhaps because of the harrowing events it intimates, remains alone on the album, not partnered to an Iraqi lullaby. But it does not remain only in the Jewish Eastern European world where it originated. Of course, its core character is preserved thanks to Lichtenberg’s singing and transparent guitar accompaniment. Yet, at the same time it is transported to a completely different East. Dalal’s oud and the frame drum and tabla of the percussionist Erez Munk color the song in new hues, though with a musical sensitivity that averts the danger of shallow fusion. And then the loveliest thing of all happens: Dalal adds his violin and plays a melody that soars higher and higher through quarter tones. The violin is of course one of the primary symbols of Eastern European Jewry. But the violin in a different tone, as played by Dalal, was also the instrument played by the great Jewish musicians of Iraq, whose successor Dalal is. So much forgotten history, so much lost culture, all in one gentle melody.

Lichtenberg and Dalal (whose photos as infants being held by their mothers appear on the CD cover) gave a great deal of thought to the choice of the medleys. Along with the sensitivity and lyricism of the performances, that is the key to the album’s success. In some cases they juxtaposed a Middle Eastern song with an Eastern European one because of a particular rhythmic affinity. An example is “Thadini” and “Ej, od buchlova,” the latter a folksong from Moravia. More often they interwove an Iraqi and a Yiddish song because of textual interconnections. Thus, Itzik Manger’s famous “Oyfn veg shteyt a boym” is paired with “Rabbetack a zrairoun hassan,” because both are about sons who want to free themselves from their mother’s embrace.

There are also two songs in Hebrew on the album. “Orcha bamidbar” is not exactly a lullaby, but its rhythm bears a baby-lulling potential. “Sigala” is probably Dalal’s most famous song. “Your kind eyes / I saw before / By the light of the morning star / In the desert / And I’m longing” – those are all the lyrics, set to music with marvelous delicacy by Dalal. The song appears on one of his earlier CDs but is also perfectly suited to this wonderful album.

Sebastian Cook