A Cross Between Israeli Soft Rock and Hasidic Tunes

Singer Udi Davidi is a big star among the religiously observant, but his music fails to bridge the gap to secular audiences.

Singer Udi Davidi.
Rami Zarnegar

“Shalom Aleichem” (“Peace Be Unto You”), a liturgical poem set to music by the American composer Israel Goldfarb in 1918, is one of the songs most sung in Israel – by hundreds of thousands of people every Sabbath eve, before the Kiddush over the wine is recited. Its melody is simple but one never tires of it. Still, there’s a problem with the song: its rhythm is too slow.

This is not an artistic or spiritual issue. On the contrary: The rhythm suits the melody and heightens it. The problem is totally functional and involves the circumstances in which the song is sung.

It resembles an inferior scene from the Israeli sitcom “Sabri Maranan” (called “Your Family or Mine” in the American version), which revolves around a couple’s experiences at Sabbath-eve dinners. The men come home from the synagogue and the family take their seats for the meal. Everyone is starving. The religiously observant boys are impatient and restless, the boys who have lost their religion engage in a countdown, the grandchildren pounce on the soup nuts, the father of the family is tired and irritable, and everyone is united against the mother, who – at least in one particular family – hums “Shalom Aleichem” with intentionality and repeats the lyrics over and over at a turtle’s pace. The other family members will not allow her to keep going like that – she’s liable to stretch out the song for endless minutes. They join in at a much faster pace to finish and be done with it. It sounds awful. The beauty of the moment is destroyed. Forget liturgical poetry, bring on the chopped liver.

A faster melody for “Shalom Aleichem,” one that would restore the harmonious family condition for the moment before the Kiddush, is clearly a necessity. Consider, then, Udi Davidi’s version from his new album, “Orot Gevohim” (literally, “high lights”). The rhythm, which is faster than the Goldfarb melody, is emphasized by galloping guitar licks in the style of Ehud Banai, while the happy tone that pervades the melody makes it ideal for folk-dancing, too. There’s just one problem: the tune. It’s trite. It becomes tiresome even before the song ends and has no chance of enduring, given the high attrition rate of a weekly performance. With all due respect to perfect functional adaptation, we’ll stay with Goldfarb’s melody.

I’m joking, of course. Davidi has no pretensions of positing an alternative to the classic melody, nor is his decision to speed up the rhythm of “Shalom Aleichem” motivated by a desire to ease the Sabbath-eve suffering of impatiently hungry folk. Furthermore, the version of “Shalom Aleichem” is not the focus of Davidi’s new album. So it’s not fair to pick on this particular song. The thing is that the album bores me, especially in musical terms, and when you’re bored you look for an amusing angle.

Gold’s not always gold

Davidi is a big star among religiously observant Israelis, and even if his name is not necessarily a household word to others, he’s one of the few singers in the country whose albums almost always go gold (selling at least 15,000 copies). He released his first album in 2004, when the “Jewish” genre in Israeli music began to flower. It sold more than 20,000 copies, as did each of his next four albums. That remarkable achievement is even more amazing in light of the fact that Davidi did not become a professional musician until he was almost 30.

There are secular Israelis who refuse to listen to performers of the “Jewish” genre of music, because they object to works with a religious content or because too large a gulf separates their world and the singer’s worldview. Bridging that gap is usually difficult, though it can happen. The necessary condition is for the music to be excellent, for the quality of the artistic expression to override the disparity between the divergent tribal affiliations of artist and listener. Two outstanding examples in recent years are Yonatan Razel and Ishay Ribo. Not everything they do creates the bridge, but thanks to their gentleness and their musicality, along with the soft depth of their voices, the tremulous chords of their artistry are palpably audible.

In Davidi’s case, I’m unable to hear that soft and lovely sound. There’s no doubt that the chord of his faith is tremulous, but not in a way that speaks to me. There is no bridging effect. Or if there is, it’s only for a few seconds, when a fresh melodic note is suddenly struck (as in the concluding sentence of the song “Shema Koleinu” – “Hear Our Voice”). Davidi sings with intentionality and without showing off, and the arrangements are well done.

But there’s nothing distinctive about the music: it’s uninteresting and lacks originality. It sounds like a blend of Israeli soft mainstream (with clear influences of Idan Raichel and Mosh Ben Ari) and Hasidic music.

Given Davidi’s large support base and the broad range of the new album (personal songs of faith, rhythmic wedding tunes, folk-blues-style morality ballads, even a song that makes a match between Mediterranean and Irish music), it’s a safe bet that “Orot Gevohim” will reach the 20,000 sales mark, too. “All that glitters is not gold,” Davidi sings in a morality ballad. A variation on that saying came to mind after I’d listened to the whole album: Not all that’s gold is gold.

Coming full circle, it’s possible that the solution to the “Shalom Aleichem” problem lies not in composing a faster melody for the song, but in integrating secular foundations into the religious family. That sounds paradoxical, but let’s go back to the scene in which the family matriarch is trying to sing in the correct – slow – rhythm but encounters fierce resistance from her children and her husband. Will anyone come to her aid and prevent the liturgical song from becoming a caricature in fast-forward? Yes! It’s the secular son-in-law, the partner of one of the daughters. He didn’t grow up in a home in which “Shalom Aleichem” was sung, so he’s not tired of the song. He’s also quite capable of appreciating a beautiful melody. He joins his mother-in-law and with combined forces they subdue the disrespectful hungry folk. That’s real togetherness.