High Culture, Popular Culture, Hebrew All Over

Summer, 2016

Source: Contact: Summer, 2016


 Contemporary Israeli culture ties its highest expressions to its most popular forms using elements of the Hebrew language in ways that convey an ongoing enthusiasm for Hebrew as the central medium of the Zionist enterprise and the culture of Israel. This was true at Israel’s founding and has continued through today. One pervasive way in which high culture is made accessible through popular forms is how Hebrew literature, whether from classical Biblical verses or that of modern serious poetry, is put to music by popular artists and enjoyed throughout Israeli society…

In the ensuing decades, whether it was Yehudit Ravitz putting Leah Goldberg poems to music or Yoni Rechter and Arik Einstein doing the same for the poems of Avraham Halfi, it would seem that Modern Hebrew poetry was often written waiting for music to take it in flight. The cadence, rhythm and rhyme of many contemporary Hebrew poets still lend themselves to music in ways that contemporary American poetry with its insistence on defying the repetition of form and meter does not. And consequently, the work of those poets who earn the respect and consideration of their field in Israel is known and accessed on a popular scale in ways that don’t happen in the US. And with that, a corpus of literature that purposely mines traditional language and sources while restructuring those sources in contemporary language and perspective moves popular culture in authentic ways…

In the past 20 years or so, various contemporary Israeli musical artists have introduced traditional cultural elements into their music in new ways that leave intact much more of the fabric of authentic traditional forms without necessarily completely reconstructing them as their predecessors may have done…

This phenomenon in Israeli art and culture comes at a time of new openness in Israeli secular society over the past decade to reclaiming elements of Jewish spirituality, religion and life. During this period, a range of “Secular Yeshivot” have opened. Young Israelis have evidenced all kinds of interest in expressing themselves through religious explorations on their own secular terms that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. The informal Hitchadshut (“renewal,” not be confused with the American Jewish Renewal) movement has been growing and it finds openness to religious forms on a popular footing where there was hostility in previous times. This exploration finds resonance in forms of popular culture perhaps because there has always been an Israeli inclination to treat the serious questions embodied in high cultural expressions in the arena of broad popular forms with an enthusiasm for playing with the Hebrew language which ends up being the constant barometer of Israeli cultural development and change.

Read the entire essay at Contact: Summer, 2016.

Rabbi David Gedzelman is President and CEO of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life

Updated: Dec. 08, 2016