Posted by Orit Arfa
At the risk of sounding like a disloyal Zionist, especially writing this on Israel’s Memorial Day, on the cusp of Israel Independence Day, I’ve been thinking lately that Israel could improve upon its anthem, “The Hope.”
It’s a beautiful poem set to a beautiful melody, don’t get me wrong, but no other national anthem that I know of has been written in a minor key. Minor keys lead to pensive, sadder melodies. Contract to the “Star Spangled Banner,” written in happy, triumphant major. The Americans co-opted the melody of a British drinking song for an anthem about political freedom. Israel put the words (below) by the English Zionist poet Naphtali Herz Imber to a melody based on a Moldovian folk song.
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope - the two-thousand-year-old hope - will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem
Some might say Israel has a rather pensive anthem because of the many tragedies the Jewish people have experienced. I can’t help but wonder that if Israel had a prouder anthem, one that spoke of confidence and certainty in the Jewish quest for freedom, rather than plaintive hope—with that confidence and certainty expressed in the melody—there’d be fewer tragedies.
There is a great tradition of Jewish songwriters and poets, starting with King David and going to Irving Berlin (who penned, ironically, “White Christmas”) to the great contemporary pop writer Dr. Luke (whose Jewish roots I explored last year). If I could have recruited a modern Jewish (well, half-Jewish) songwriter to have written Israel’s anthem, I’d have approached Carly Simon.
Last week, on April 18, she was awarded at the 2012 ASCAP Pop Music Awards with the ASCAP Founders Award, the performing rights organization’s highest honor. Born to a Jewish father, Simon gave a master class the next day at the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo to a conference room full of aspiring songwriters at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel. She spoke about overcoming her childhood stutter by singing; the ideas and inspiration behind her major hits; and her struggle with breast cancer.
Days after the Expo, I kept replaying in my car the Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Award winning song, “Let the River Run,” which served as the theme song for the film Working Girl starring Melanie Griffith as a struggling secretary in Manhattan. The song deserves a much better platform than the entertaining but forgettable movie. The climactic phrase beckoning “the New Jerusalem” might have been inspired by Simon’s Jewish roots, which perhaps she’ll discuss at more length in her forthcoming autobiography. The words have the quality of a psalm, and the ascending melody befits a song about dreams, overcoming adversity, and triumph.
Watch the video here, with the chilling image of the World Trade Center in the background, but then imagine it set to the backdrop of Zionist pioneers crossing the Mediterranean and Jordan River into the land of Israel. Then listen to Simon discuss the genesis of the song. Below, I’m going to give a Zionist twist to “Let the River Run.” Wouldn’t it make a good Israeli anthem?
Let the JORDAN river run,
let the dreamers OF 2,000 YEARS
wake the nation.
Come, the New Jerusalem.
GOLDEN cities rise,
the morning lights
the streets that meet them,
and THE SHOFAR calls them on
with a PSALM.
It’s asking for the taking.
Oh, OURS heart ARE YEARNING.
We’re coming to the LAND,
running on the JORDAN,
coming through the fog,
OUR sons and daughters.
We the great and small
stand on a star
and blaze a trail of HOPE
through the dark’ning dawn.
It’s asking for the taking.
Come run with me now,
the sky is the color OF AZURE
you’ve never even seen
in the TASSELS of your TALLIT.
Let the JORDAN river run,
let the dreamers OF 2,000 YEARS
wake the nation.
ZION, the New Jerusalem.
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April 24, 2012 | 3:49 pm
Posted by Orit Arfa
When I was covering the forced expulsion of 9,000 Jews from their beautiful, established homes in Gush Katif, the “Harvest Belt” of Gaza, in the summer of August 2005, it amazed me how supporters of the “Disengagement” plan were so glib about the destruction of these homes, despite what they viewed as humanistic reasons for supporting it. Couldn’t people realize a happy home is the lifeblood of a person, the roots of someone’s character?
No political argument, no logic, no plea really worked to make the majority of Israelis empathize with the happy homes of the families in Gush Katif—the memories they lost—although the predictions of the Gush Katif “refugees,” as they have come to be called, have been vindicated by the turn of events in Gaza.
But maybe a song will have an impact, almost seven years later.
When a friend forwarded me the video of the Grammy-award winning country song “The House that Built Me” written by Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas that solidified Miranda Lambert’s career, I cried. The song is about a young woman knocking on the door of the home she had left as a child, occupied by another family since. Since leaving, she’s not the same, and by returning to the “house that built her”, to “touch or feel it,” she hopes to heal the brokenness inside her. Watch it here.
I always think of the people of Gush Katif when I listen to it, only they can’t go back to the house that built them.
Allen Shamblin, a successful Nashville songwriter also famous for “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt, understood the universal power of music from a young age. At a master session he gave the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo, a weekend conference for music creators, that took place from April 19-21 at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel, Shamblin recounted his rise to success, and the theme of returning “home,” spiritually and literally, is a constant in his life, a message the resounds beyond songwriting.
A petite, modest, unassuming, man, his Southern roots quickly became apparent with his “y’all” greeting. Raised in Austin, Texas to a Christian family (the impact of his faith he discusses here on the Christian Broadcast Network), he realized at age 25 that he wasn’t destined for his then career as a real-estate appraiser.
“I prayed the shortest prayer ever: ‘God, would you please help me be a songwriter.’”
The prayer worked. A series of “chance” encounters with music industry professionals brought him to Nashville, but when he got to the capital of country music, he no longer wrote from authentic raw emotion, but from authentic fear that he wouldn’t make it.
“The initial impulse was love—love for music,” he said on stage, in a talk sprinkled with evangelist-like wisdom.
That’s when “The House That Built Me” might have been born, at least subconsciously. A friend told him to go back to Austin, to remember the man who wrote the songs that initially got him noticed. So he took that advice, and upon returning to his Nashville apartment, he penned “He Walked on Water,” his first number one single, cut by Randy Travis.
But again, success soon expelled him from his spiritual “home.”
“Having a hit song is probably the most powerful drug you can experience….you’ll do almost anything to have another hit—to your detriment..”
He was a hotshot in the music world, but a terrible husband and father, living a stressful, unhealthy life.
“Music will ask you lay your children on the altar.”
He took a step back and noticed how the hitmakers around him weren’t necessarily happy.
“I thought if I ever do get inducted into hall of fame, or reach my pinnacle, I don’t want to be standing there without my kids. So I pulled away. People were confused….I honestly thought there was a strong possibility my career was over because I wasn’t playing by the games, the rules.”
So he made building his house—his home—a priority.
“An odd thing started happening, I kept getting cuts—not as a many—but good cuts.” Today, his oldest daughter is a freshman in college; his twins are juniors in high school. “I can look back and say, I didn’t miss my life. Music comes from life….Don’t miss your life.”
“The House that Built Me” is like a tribute to Shamblin’s life, but he’s lucky he could visit his old hometown, and still does, sometimes, as he explains in the video below.
The people of Gush Katif can’t return to their home—ever. Their houses have been bulldozed, and even if they were still standing, the people living in Gaza now wouldn’t dare let them come back inside to “touch or feel it” or “take a memory.” Today, many “refugees” continue to live in government “caravillas,” just scraping by, desperately trying to remember where they came from, holding onto faith of the “house that built them.”
So as we celebrate Israel’s Independence Day on April 26—yes, we should celebrate Israel’s major achievements—its thriving hi-tech industry, the economy, its contributions to art and Hollywood. But let’s also remember what’s most important about Israel—the reason it was created—for the freedom for Jews to build their homes—and keep them—on ancestral land they love and earned. And as Israel rises up the ladder of success, let her not forget her foundation—those embodied by the Zionist pioneers of Gush Katif who built their homes with a deep tie to Jewish heritage, ethics, and the land of Israel—the House that Built…Israel.
And for all you songwriters (and creators) out there, here are a few inspiring quotables from Shamblin:
“Live from a place of abundance….God’s got all the good ideas.”
“Run to the roar. Whatever you’re afraid of, run to it.”
“Don’t get mad at the people that reject you. There are so many reasons that come into play that day.”
“You have to be absolutely tenacious learning your gift and your craft, but sometimes the final thing that pushes everything over to where the dominoes start falling, is when you’ve give everything over. Then God steps in.”
“Songs are written. Great songs are rewritten.”
“When I have blocks in my writing I’m usually avoiding something that emotionally big.”
“Great songs in my opinion are not written by willpower. Great songs are written by yielding and serving the idea.”
“If your baby needs a diaper changed—embrace that moment—that’s where the songs are.”
“Love music, but don’t make it your idol.”
April 23, 2012 | 11:41 am
Posted by Orit Arfa
I don’t easily get sucked into the hype around popular young adult novels and their ensuing movies. I tried reading Twilight; the bookmark is still stuck inside somewhere. The story about a weepy, clumsy girl who pines for an unavailable vampire essentially 100 years her senior simply couldn’t grab me. I tried to justify my shallow fixation with the movies, however, with a Jewish interpretation. The European, pale, refined vampire Edward represents the Ashkenazi tradition, and his rival—the rugged, dark, earthy werewolf Jacob—represents the Sephardi tradition. I know, pathetic attempt.
But after multiple recommendations of the next craze, The Hunger Games trilogy, I caved—and I’m hooked. Author Suzanne Collins has presented a feisty, smart, strong heroine who is a welcome contrast to the romantically-addicted Bella Swan of Twilight. Kantiss Everdeen grows as a warrior with an ethical conscience who rises above hunger, poverty, death, and totalitarianism through her wits and skills as an archer.
The novel is set in the nation of Panem in a post-apocalyptic North America. Its people are divided into twelve Districts ruled by the glamorous, scientifically-advanced Capitol that fixes laws to ensure its hegemony. The Hunger Games is a national reality show—think Survivor meets Truman Show meets Gladiator—in which two teenagers, a boy and girl, from each District fight to the death for fame and fortune. A national celebration, the Games are a tool to get the Districts to submit to the Capitol.
In an interview, Collins related how she conjured the premise while surfing TV, and footage of reality shows and the war in Iraq began to blur. She looked to the Greek myth of Theseus as the basis for the story, and this time, I don’t have to force a tie-in to Judaism.
Essentially, The Hunger Games portrays child sacrifice. The children of the Districts are not masters of their own fate; they’re pawns of the state. The elites of Capitol are the “god” they are forced to worship. (This anti-authoritarian theme is much more apparent in the book than in the movie.)
Child sacrifice is a form of idolatry detested by the Hebrew Bible. The God of Israel categorically rejects killing one’s child for His sake when he stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac on the altar. This moment defines the theological thrust of Judaism: the Hebrew God seeks life from his people—not death—and presents a system of laws and statutes meant, in theory, to safeguard life on this earth. This philosophical tradition explains the re-flowering of modern Hebrew society, Israel, as a country that overall respects individual rights, science, and real peace. The longing for Zion—Jerusalem—is the longing for life. Let us call Zion the Jewish “Capitol.”
The majority of Israel’s neighbors, on the other hand, worship a god—Allah—that demands “Islam,” which literally means “submission.” Through a political system adhering to shariah law, subjects are encouraged to sacrifice property and individual self-determination to his glory. The “Palestinian people” have been conceived by Allah’s priests to fight against Zion. They are like Allah’s “chosen people,” the celebrated and exemplary worshippers of this death-loving deity. While Mecca is the traditional capital of Islam, Allah’s “chosen people” have adopted a new capital for the state they desire: al-Quds—the Arab name for Jerusalem—the Islamic “Capitol.”
The “Districts” of al-Quds consist of Palestinian “refugee” camps whose squalor is perpetuated by Arab leaders and the United Nations, just as the squalor of the Districts of Panem are perpetuated by the Capitol to keep them in check. Al-Quds trains the children of these Districts—young men and women—to volunteer as “tribute” to the Islamic Capitol, with terrorist training camps commencing at the pre-school level. But while tributes in The Hunger Games must fight to live, the Palestinian tributes fight to die to achieve honor for their Districts, with arenas, sports teams, and streets named after the fallen. Muslim child sacrifice was at its height during the Second Intifada when Palestinian youth routinely blew themselves up in Israeli busses, cafes, and hotels, shouting “Allah is the Greatest” minutes before the bomb belt exploded. The vocal outcry in the Arab world at these massacres was minimal, if non-existent.
Unfortunately, many Israelis have been dragged into these Hunger Games by believing the lie that Zion is the Capitol oppressing the Palestinians.
In 2005, Israel unwittingly sanctioned the Palestinian “Hunger Games” by expelling 9,000 Jews out of the District of Gaza and destroying their homes. Instead of exposing Palestinian terror for what it is—child sacrifice to al-Quds—and combating it, Israel appeased the Palestinian “cause” and ran away. Some argue that the withdrawal was done for the sake of security—ultimately, for the sake of Zion—but then Israel has essentially used a tactic of Allah, although nowhere nearly as brutal or bloody, by treating the Jews of Gaza as political pawns who are forced to sacrifice their lives, their property, their dignity, for Zion. The immoral means of the withdrawal, we know now, have not achieved the much hoped for peaceful ends.
A year later, Israel responded to Hezbollah’s fatal attacks and kidnapping on the Lebanon border with conventional warfare—at the outset a justifiable act of self-defense. But as a national investigative report revealed, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent men into battle grossly unprepared. In August of 2006 Olmert proclaimed that a victory would provide momentum for the now defunct “Consolidation Plan” to expel Jews from Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank), a move that would hasten a Palestinian state. This implies he sent ill-trained IDF soldiers—18 and 19 year-olds—into battle not to save Jewish lives, but ultimately to sacrifice the Jewish “settlers” to al-Quds.
I just started reading the second book of the trilogy, and thus far Kantiss Everdeen is an admirable character who questions immoral authority, takes risks to save innocent lives, and cleverly outwits an oppressive regime, eventually triggering uprisings against the brutal Capitol. So I’m pleased with the Hunger Games craze. Now if only it would catch on in the Arab world to trigger uprisings to overthrow al Quds and embrace instead the Capitol of life: Zion.
Orit Arfa is the Executive Director of the Western Region of the Zionist Organization of America. She holds an MA in Bible and Jewish Thought from the Schechter Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com.