"Over the honey, over the sting"

How one song morphed from a "settler" song to an informal anthem, and what that tells us about Israel. (In honor of what would have been Naomi Shemer's birthday)

One of the many things that struck me when we moved to Israel twenty-something years ago was how many songs people here knew. Old people, young people – it made no difference. Visit a youth group or a bunch of young adults on a pre-army study program or people camping with their kids in the desert; wherever it was, people would hand out pages with folk songs or more current songs, and it seemed that virtually everyone knew the words and the melody to all of them.

Zionism was a highly literary revolution. Its leaders, especially in the pre-State era, produced many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volumes, and without doubt, tens of thousands of articles, essays and poems. It was a revolution about an idea – it was about creating a new Jew, a Jew who would no longer be victim, a Jew who would no longer live tenuously in some land until the host’s welcome expired. Zionism was a vision, a vision of the Jew who would return “home” and recreate the grandeur of Jewish life of yesteryear, of Biblical times, when Jews lived in their ancestral homeland, spoke their own language, determined their own fate.

It was through books and articles that the elite debated the myriad issues that arose. And it was through song that they sought to inculcate in the masses the passion for their project.

There was a genre called zemer ivri (the rough translation, “Hebrew songs,” doesn’t capture the ideological valence of the phrase). They were the “oldies but goodies,” ideological songs that romanticized the land, celebrated the farmer, valorized the defender, on which generations here were raised. Those songs sound a bit quaint, even naïve, today. Still, almost everyone still knows them.

Today’s American college kids no longer know the words to every Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song like my generation did. But in Israel, those old songs still live. They’re probably not what people are listening to as you see them on the street with their AirPods, but they know them … and at the right moment, sing them fairly unabashedly.

For all its divisiveness, despite Israel’s relentless Sturm und Drang, there’s actually a kind of innocence that still prevails here, an embrace of the ideology of the founders (some of whom are still alive) that people actually enjoy tapping into now and then.

So today, on what would have been the birthday of Naomi Shemer, one of Israel’s greatest songwriters, a brief celebration of a sliver of Israeli music – and of Naomi Shemer herself – and most importantly, of what that music tells us about Israel’s DNA.

It would be hard to overstate the impact that Naomi Shemer, 1930-2004, had on Israeli music. She’s the author of “Eucalyptus Forest” (here with fairly decent English subtitles), a romantic ode to Israel’s days of old. She wrote “Jerusalem of Gold,” which became the anthem of post 1967 victorious Israel, and is now sung across the Jewish world (the song’s origins are the subject of a bit of controversy), Lu Yehi, a Hebraicized version of the Beatles’ “Let it Be” (here with subtitles) and many dozens more. She was, without doubt, the grand dame of Israeli music.

Today, I want to focus on the way that one of her songs, and its reception, speaks volumes about the complexity and DNA of Israeli life, which is, of course, the whole point of Israel from the Inside.

The song is called Al Kol Eleh (“Over All of These”). She wrote it in 1981, by which time she’d taken a turn to the political right. Though the song was intended to comfort her sister who had recently lost her husband, it was also widely seen as an ode to the settlement project.

Part of the lyrics read as follows (translation from here, with minor emendations on my part):

Over all these things, over all these things

Please stand guard for me, my good God

Over the honey and the sting

Over the bitter and the sweet

Don't uproot what’s been planted

Don't forget hope

May You return me, and may I return

To the good land

Guard, my God, over this house

Over the garden and the fence

From agony, sudden fright and war

Guard over the little I have

Over the light and the children

And the fruit that hasn’t ripened and the ones already picked

On the surface, it’s a parent’s prayer that life stay good, that we not lose what we treasure most. Just beneath the surface, though, it’s a prayer “not to uproot what’s been planted” and a pledge to “return to the good land.” Given Shemer’s political views by that point, one can easily see why many people saw it as a not-so-subtle ode to settlements.

It’s worth noting, by the way (just as we did in the posting about President Herzog’s inauguration) how deeply Jewish “secular” is in Israel. (It means “non-observant,” but not distanced from Jewish content.) Just a few examples: “Over all of these” appears twice in the Bible, in Ecclesiastes 11:9 and Jeremiah 2:34. “Do not uproot what has been planted” is an obvious riff on “for everything, there is a season” in Ecclesiastes, with its “A time for being born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted.” "Return me and may I return” is based on Lamentations 5:21, which traditional Jews will read this coming Saturday night in observance of the Ninth of Av. Even the “honey and the sting” theme is from a rabbinic text, in which Balaam is said to have begged God for an opportunity to bless the Children of Israel instead of cursing them, to which the response was, essentially, “spare Me” – “None of your honey and none of your sting.”1

But here, I think, is the real question about the song, and what it says about Israel. If the song was widely seen as an ode to settlements, how did it become so popular?

How do we know it’s so popular?  Watch this video, which includes excellent subtitles to the entire song, when it was sung at a Koolulam event (another Israeli popular-song-based huge phenom). It was at a celebration of Independence Day a few years ago. Look at the crowd (12,000 people singing the song; that’s not a typo!) – religious and secular, young and old, soldiers and civilians, people of every color, belief, background … and you get a sense of the sheer love for this song. How did it get to be that popular?

We’ll come back to that, but first watch it (just over five minutes):

So, how did this possibly “rightish” song become something close to a national anthem?

Years ago, I joined a group of American visitors on a visit to a major settlement in the West Bank. The person from the settlement who spoke to them was a woman, probably in her mid-30’s, secular. “What in the world are you doing moving out to that place,” she told us that her grandparents asked her, regularly. “When did you become such an extremist?”

Her grandparents, she said, lived not far from Karmiel, a small Israeli city in the Galilee, more or less midway between the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean.

Nothing in this country is simple. Even geography is complex. Saying that one’s grandparents are from Karmiel isn’t like saying that your grandparents are from Omaha, or Denver. Everything here has history, and her throwaway line about her grandparents being from Karmiel was loaded.

Why? Because that area of the Galilee was not included in the UN’s map for the Jewish state (voted on in November 1947), but rather, was captured in the War of Independence, and is now part of Israel’s heartland. [See pink arrows in the maps below.]

“No one talks about our leaving that land,” she was essentially pointing out. And to her grandparents, she told us, she says this: “How can I live ‘out there’? Because I believe in precisely what you believed in, because I’m doing exactly what you did. It was a war, one we didn’t want and one we didn’t start. The purpose of the war was to destroy us. We didn’t lose; we won, and we gained more territory. And as we’ve always done, when we got the territory in wars we didn’t ask for, we started to build. That’s the only reason we have a country. Why do you give me a hard time? You should be proud of me.”

Note that Karmiel (pink arrows on the right) is in the area that according to the UN map (left) would have been the Arab state had Israel’s enemies not unleashed what became the War of Independence. [Maps taken from my ISRAEL: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (Ecco/HarperCollins}]

I’m not taking a stand on what she said, or on the settlement project. What matters here is that especially those who are adamantly opposed to the project and can’t figure out why Israel doesn’t just shut it down should understand how complex all this is. The settlement project, even for those for whom it’s controversial or objectionable, touches something deep in Israel’s DNA.

Don’t uproot what has been planted.” That’s the plea not just of settlers, but of Israelis everywhere.

Don’t give up on hope” – it’s no accident that the name of our (real) anthem is “The Hope.”

May You return me, and may I return to the good land” – that’s Zionism, in a nutshell.

Seen that way, it’s not hard to understand either how it was the Labor governments (yes, the Left) that launched the settlement project or why Israel’s in the stalemate about settlements that it is. Deep down, even those opposed to the settlements can’t help but feel that something about the project touches the very essence of how this country was built in the first place.

To be sure, one can understand all that, and still be opposed for moral, political, geopolitical, military, demographic or democratic reasons. To appreciate the complexity of the issue, though, all we need to do is witness the passion in that video for Naomi Shemer’s song, and ask ourselves why it speaks to so many people.

A quick note about the photograph at the very top of this column. When we lived in Los Angeles and our kids were young, we put them to bed, after story time, with a recitation of the Shema and a brief prayer called Ha-Mal’akh. But we had our own twist, and from the time that our eldest was a baby, we also sang to our kids Naomi Shemer’s Al Kol Eleh, the song above.

You do really have to be careful about what you sing to your kids. At that time in our lives, ending up in Israel was nowhere on our radar screen. It was a long transformation, but now, I wonder if singing, night after night, year after year

Don't uproot what’s been planted

Don't forget hope

May You return me, and may I return

To the good land

worked its magic on us, too. Perhaps. Do we live here now, in some measure, because of Naomi Shemer? It’s not as crazy as it might sound. Those early Zionists who believed in the power of songs to shape the masses were onto something.

As for the photograph … A few months ago, my wife and I took our eldest granddaughter away for a few days. Putting her to bed, we decided to watch with her (and Fluffy, her stuffed animal) the video of the song we’d sung to her mother so many thousands of times. So out came the iPad, the video we saw above, and Naomi Shemer’s words.

Our granddaughter speaks Hebrew, of course, and was mesmerized. So, with thanks for all that Naomi Shemer’s genius did to enrich Israeli life, and on her birthday, here’s hoping that her magic speaks to our grandchildren’s generation with the same power that it speaks to the generations who came before her.  

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In preceding episodes, we posted two interviews, each with a woman who lives in Lod and who experienced the horrible events of May 2021, as Arab residents of the city unleashed violence at their Jewish neighbors. There was, sadly, another dimension of those days— Arabs who lived in fear of Jewish violence, most particularly in East Jerusalem. 

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I wasn’t aware of the midrashic source about Balaam until I read this column by Rob Scheinberg in Times of Israel. It’s a great piece.