Poem of the Week / Hebrew Soldiers Have Arrived!

In honor of Israel’s Independence Day, the true history of the rousing Israeli favorite ‘Tzena Tzena.’

Wikipedia

Tzena Tzena

From the Hebrew of Yehiel Haggiz

Come forth, come forth,
Come forth, girls, and gaze:
Hebrew soldiers have arrived!
Please don’t, please don’t
Please don’t run and hide
From the brave military guys!

We are, we are
All such charming fellows,
Buttons polished to a shine.
We’ve come, we’ve come
With a lot of gumption,
Fire blazing in our eyes.

Come forth, come forth,
Come forth, girls, and gaze:
Soldiers entering your place!
Come see, come see!
Come and show your face --
We have vim and melody.

We are, we are
Each of us courageous,
Throbbing hearts in manly frames.
We’re here, we’re here,
Bringing lots of brio,
Flowing vigor hot as flames.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

***

If you happen to be in Israel on Independence Day, you’re sure to hear, or even dance to, “Tzena Tzena.” The Weavers’ version is the only Israeli song ever to reach number 2 on the American hit parade, which it did back in 1951 when, on campuses and elsewhere, Israel was considered “a revelation to the left.”

To the music composed in 1942 by Issachar Miron, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays sound convincing in Hebrew, possibly thanks to the two Jewish members of the quartet, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. The English lyrics by Gordon Jenkins invite “people from every nation” to join “dancing in the city square.” In some performances there was also a stanza about dancing both the (Jewish) hora and the (Palestinian) debka, and in 2000 Seeger and Miron together created a trilingual English-Hebrew-Arabic version as a song of peace.

However, all this bears no resemblance to the Hebrew written by Yehiel Haggiz in 1942, which is more or less reproduced in the translation above. (Geography note: In line 3 there was no way to work in the word “moshava” – a rural settlement – but the word “Hebrew” has been inserted to give that purely local touch; “your place” substitutes for “city” – a translator’s petty crime committed for a ditty’s near rhyme.)

Haggiz wrote the lyrics for his fellow volunteers in a Jewish company of the British army that later formed the core of the Jewish Brigade founded in 1944, which fought the Germans in Italy and in turn provided personnel for the various prestate militias and officers for the nascent Israel Defense Forces.

Nowadays, even in Israel, the original Hebrew would probably be deemed sexist and militaristic, but context often trumps political correctness and consigning “Tzena Tzena” to oblivion would be like dismissing Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” as racist and chauvinist.

Like much Hebrew verse, “Tzena Tzena” contains a biblical reference: “Come out [girls] and gaze” –Tzeina ureina – is from the Song of Songs 3:11. There’s also a joke on the part of the new “Hebrew” at the expense of “old” Jews. Tzeno ureno (in the Ashkenazi pronunciation) refers to the Bible with commentaries in mamaloshen (Yiddish) for women, risible to the Hebrew ear; in the Diaspora, only men were expected to be literate in loshen koidish (Hebrew).

*Bonus:

The best joke of all is Arlo Guthrie’s Irish version.