Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Everything's Gold

The writer and poet Haim Heffer  a bastion of secular Israeli culture from  the “Palmach generation”, passed away yesterday and today they are playing his songs on the radio. When I first arrived in Israel and began to distinguish a few Hebrew words in the songs I was hearing on the radio, many of them were his. I also cut my teeth on the maqamas  that he wrote in Yedioth Aharonoth, in which he’d comment in rhyme on current affairs – a form that seems hopelessly outdated now but was taken seriously then. Even someone taking his first steps in the language could recognize that Heffer was a master wordsmith with a prolific output. But, for me, the sentiments expressed in many of his lyrics belonged too closely to the 1948 generation, to times and places before my time, that were foreign to me.   .

Not so with one song that I loved from the start : Hakol Zahav  (Everything’s Gold). Heffer wrote the lyrics for the singing troupe Ha-Tarnegolim  (The Roosters) under the direction of Naomi Polani. Since the  Tarnegolim, who became wildly successful, started appearing only in 1960, I prefer to think that the song's upbeat message was not intended to lift the nation’s morale but rather to simply lift the human spirit in general  in the wide-eyed style that the Tarnegolim were perfecting.  

You can hear the original version here 

Hakol Zahav’s music is the work of another master, the much loved composer Sacha (Alexander) Argov. Argov’s intricate but unforgettably jaunty melody and Heffer’s childish, irreverent wordplay meshed to create an Israeli classic. The message is simple : everything around you is beautiful if you have the eyes to see it. This pre-dates the Beatles  “There’s nothing you can see that can’t be seen” by almost a decade.

Heffer niftily plants the word ‘gold’ throughout the song, almost creating the illusion in the mind of the listener that his/her own world is composed entirely of sunbeams. It also helps that the Hebrew word for orange ‘tapuz’ is an abbreviation of tapuah-zahav (golden apple). And then comes the C part where Heffer writes (in rough unrhymed translation)

"Not everyone  who goes out into the street
Sees what his eyes meet
Mostly, a person goes out into the street
Distracted by his own concerns 
I feel like getting up close to him
And telling him with a a big wide grin
What a night! What a sea!   
What shade! How hot it is!
Go crazy you idiot!
Do nothing with everyone else! 
Ring bells for no good reason!
Look around you man - everything is gold!"

(It sounds better in Hebrew)

Hearing these yelps of wonderment at the everyday ordinary, with lyrics that could almost be taken from from "Hair",  Ha-Kol Zahav, which had been recorded a decade before I heard in, say 1973, stood head and shoulders above the sentimental, patriotic fodder of the time. And while I was conscious that someone who had heard Hendrix  play live should not be enjoying a song with an 'umpa umpa' rhythm accompanied by an accordion, it was too late, I was hooked.... Looking back, it might not be too much of an exaggeration that Ha-Kol Zahav was an important part of my integration process, an Israeli song that seemed, somehow, to resonate with the "counter culture" that I was familiar with..  

And maybe, in the  rebellious universality of the message,  also lies the secret of the endurance of Ha- Kol Zahav as new generations of musicians cover it in different  styles.  

Here’s a clip from an Israeli film called 'Danny Hollywood' where the singers start off by parodying the original and then launch into a rock version (You may have to copy it. Blogger doesn't want to insert videos)

Avi Adaki did this “indie version” a few years ago, changing the jolly umpa umpa rhythm to an Arabic beat and turning the “C” part into reggae.

Photographers too are always on the lookout for the sort of golden light that lifts the spirit and think themselves lucky if is they stumble across it..    

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Changing places

We've recently returned from two weeks in the USA visiting family and had the good luck  to exchange the Rooftop for a fortnight with Paula Derrow and her husband whom we met through a house exchange site. So while Paula and R were discovering the charms of Neve Tzedek, A & I were wandering around the  Upper West Side. And while they  were enjoying the beach here at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, we were riding bikes down the Hudson River Greenway, all the way to Battery Park.

Central Park

Apart from the financial savings, people who exchange homes do so in order to simulate  the experience of living as an "ordinary" person in a foreign place. Living in an apartment block and not in a hotel, means that you get to meet the neighbours in the stairwell or the lift; you visit the local grocery store, buy in local shops and eat in local restaurants.     
Everywhere we went in New York, people were kind, courteous and patient. What happened  to the brusque and gritty New York of old we wondered? Where did all the fast-talking hard-bitten New Yorkers  with no time for tourists go? But time and again people went out of their way to direct us or help us in some way. We also noticed that neighbours greeted each other more generously than in Tel Aviv. That people acknowledged each other and seemed more open to some sort of social contact than in Israel.     

Times Square?

When we got home and started exchanging notes with Paula, she shared her blog 'The 49th Year'  where she'd written some posts about her stay. After praising the virtues of New Yorkers, it was somewhat startling to read her impressions of Israelis (mainy Tel Avivians). Fo For example people she was introduced to , took the time to show her around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, something that a New Yorker would never do. And there was more...  

"One thing that's so nice about being a tourist in this town is that all these people take you right into their world--they are not jaded about tourists the way New Yorkers are but are genuinely interested about where we're from, why we're here, what we've done. (Imagine listening to a Times Square tourist with such interest and enthusiasm.)"   

How is that Paula was able to strike up numerous conversations in which complete strangers  expressed genuine interest in her  when in my experience that  is a fairly rare occurrence in Tel Aviv.     

Amish (?) cheese seller and attractive clients, Farmers Market, Union Square    

"And about the Israeli character, so often described as pushy, money grubbing, arrogant:" wrote Paula  "Yes, we've seen some arrogance, but mostly we've seen warmth, eagerness to help and happiness that we've come to their country, despite trouble brewing with Iran. Kind of like misapprehensions about New Yorkers."

This cynical Tel Avivian might suggest that, "happiness that we've come to their country, despite trouble brewing with Iran," could be also construed as amazement  that anyone would be so foolhardy as to visit a city that could soon find itself under a barrage of missiles.  In the two weeks that I was in new York, Iran was hardly mentioned in the news while in Israel the threat of war had been headlining for weeks, driving us all  to the verge of hysteria. So Paula, (I'm admittedly speculating now) was probably vaguely aware of tension with Iran while the  people she spoke to were all too keenly aware of it, not to say truly afraid and naturally assumed that she would would be too. We might live in global village but, unless you really look for it, the news is still doled out in local flavours, sometimes leaving the tourist in a state of blissful ignorance.        

Crossing the street in Manhattan. Aristocratic locals? Visiting Austrians? 

Meshane makom meshane mazal (Change your place and you'll change your luck) goes the Hebrew saying. In New York, exuding the relaxed, vibrations of  befuddled tourists, we may have prompted some of the kind and polite reactions we got there. Paula and her husband, both undoubtedly charming people, may have elicited a similar response here. A response   reserved, to an extent, for outsiders? 

Street musician and Omaba supporter, playing for change

See Paula Derrow's blog here (scroll down for her Israel trip)
More photos of New York City and Connecticut  here 

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