Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Speak the language of the Hebrew man

Ehud Banai won three top honors at this week's Ami Awards, Israel's equivalent of the Grammies: Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Lyricist of the Year.

Banai's music blends much of the best of Israeli popular song, combining rock, folk and blues with an ethnic twist. His lyrics similarly draw on modern language as well as ancient Jewish texts. Banai himself is something of a hybrid, a proud part of one of Israel's most prolific families of entertainers, and also a ba'al teshuva, having returned to Jewish observance in recent years.

I'd like to focus on Hebrewman, one of the hits from Banai's recent album, Anneh Li. The song is bilingual, though mostly in English. You can find the lyrics transliterated into Hebrew or English (PDF).

On the surface, the song is an ode to the Hebrew language. The chorus: "Speak the language of the Hebrew man!" But something feels wrong about it from the start. For one thing, the musical style is reggae. For another, most of the lyrics are in English. Odd for an ode to the Hebrew language.

On further consideration, the song is layered with irony. Perceptive listeners will realize that many of the episodes referenced in the lyrics in fact had nothing to do with the Hebrew language!

"It is the language of the prophets / Of the sign upon the wall."

The writing on the wall was in Aramaic.

"You know Abraham spoke the language of the Hebrewman / And also Jesus from Nazareth and Maria Magdalene."

Jesus and Co., of course, also spoke Aramaic.

These could be dismissed as the songwriter's ignorance. But the next line gives the game away:

"Einstein, Jeremiah, the Dylan and the Cohen, / They know something about the language of the Hebrewman."

To me, at least, it's clear by now that for Banai "the language of the Hebrewman" is not to be identified with the Hebrew language per se. It is, rather, the Hebrew ethos, some set of shared cultural qualities which characterize the Hebrew nation, or at least its shining lights. Regardless of whether they speak Hebrew, Aramaic or English; whether they are prophets, artists or scientists; whether they play klezmer or reggae; whether they are religious Jews or religious rebels.

(Anyone know who "the Cohen" is? Sounds like a pop culture reference to me.)

Is there really any such ethos? For that matter, is there a "Hebrew nation", distinct from "the Jewish people"? Maverick first-generation young Israelis in the 1950s founded the Canaanite movement, positing that modern Israelis should return to their roots in the Middle East and the ancient Land of Israel, even to its pre-Israelite Canaanite times. They saw themselves as part of a material culture of land and culture, aspiring to somehow skip over the millennia of Jewish religious development. They wanted to build the land and the society, avoiding the religious aspects of their heritage. (Banai refers to this movement in another of his current hits, Blues Canaani, his tribute to the late singer Meir Ariel.)

On the other hand, the Hebrew half of the song draws on traditional religious texts to envision a messianic future in which "the whole world will know one language". That language, it seems, is Hebrew not only in ethos but also in vocabulary. There is implied criticism of those Israelis - or all Hebrews? - who dilute their speech with foreign lingo.

Is that Banai's real game here? Draw Israelis into a foreign-sounding song, with English lyrics and a reggae beat, only to comment on the absurdity that this is what attracts so many Israelis today? That scions of the great Hebrew nation shun Hebrew language, culture and religion? That even the language (so to speak) of Jesus is too Jewish for today's neo-Canaanites?

Do the one-worldist verses, precisely in the Hebrew part of the song, undermine the whole premise that there is something uniquely Hebrew to preserve, calling instead for the harmony of all peoples? I think the reverse is the message. Jews are easily drawn to one-world intercultural messages. Banai validates such a vision in theory, but only in the context of the traditional Jewish approach: that all the world will eventually be united, but not in Lennonite love and atheism, rather in the spirit of the Hebrew prophets and biblical religion.

Any other thoughts?

(For help decoding the song's reggae references, see blogger Eliyahou from Tsarphati. Reggae - both the music and the culture - is very popular among today's Israeli youth.)


Reb Yudel said...

Great post on a great album by a great artist! (I downloaded it the week it came out from NMC's Songs.Co.Il web site.)

I've assumed that "the Cohen" is Leonard Cohen.

Banai's irony is underscored by his Hebrew song, "Brooklyn".

Cosmic X said...

Reb Yudel beat me to it. "The Cohen" is probably Leonard Cohen.

Soccer Dad said...

Who is Leonard Cohen? I was thinking that it was Ali G.

Zman Biur said...

Leonard Cohen - that must be it.

I'd thought about mentioning Brooklyn - another fascinating song.

Thanks guys!

jlmkobi said...

I am surprised that you did not know leonard cohen. Originally form montreal - considers himself a jew-bu. Some of his songs have great jewish references - especially 'who by fire' which is a loose rendition of unetane tokef.

gtamir613 said...

In my opinion, Ehud Banai is saying that the one thread that connects ALL the Jewish people together (remember, Jesus and Mary were Jews) is the Hebrew language.

Indeed, language is probably the strongest identifier of "a people". We were called "Hebrews" a long time before the word "Jews" (as in from the land of Judea) was placed upon us.

While the everyday spoken tongue of Jews is as vast as the countries around the world, it is our use of and connection to Hebrew that defines us as a people.

Glenn Tamir
Avtalyon, Israel

Kadesh said...

Cohen are temple priest. I've been guarding Torah, for a 1 1/2 years and learning the Alef Bet and picking up hebrew words here and there. So I'm new at this. But I'm glad it is in English. The song is inviting those who want to come into their Hebrew roots with a common knowledge between those who speak it, referencing it by Avraham, Yahshuah, Mary Magd. Is not Aramaic ancient Hebrew? "the whole world will know one language" comes from Tz'fanyah/Zep.3:9. Great song. I love your Kodesh city,I hope to live there one day