How much of Israel's cultural heritage is actually Russian?

In a reflection on the late Yafa Yarkoni published in today’s JC, I examine the origins and antecedents of her songs, many of which form a core part of Israel’s cultural heritage and national identity.

One, in particular, turns out to have been a 1943 Russian song, which was lifted lock, stock and schmaltzy cliché and transformed by Ben Gurion’s propaganda department into one of Israel’s most-played War of Independence songs. Here’s Yaffa singing Be’Arvot Hanegev.

I haven’t been able to find an original Russian recording – and would be grateful if anyone could send it in – but here is a Yiddish translation from the original Russian text, sung by the unforgettable Theodore Bikel.

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  • Mr. Lebrecht,

    Thank you very much for this beautiful post. I am going to guess that the Russian songs, translated into Hebrew and Yiddish, first came into the world as Yiddish songs, perhaps from Moldavia, Galicia and Ukraine (Odessa). So, these may have been restorations, rather than translations.

    As you know, a number of nice Soviet Jewish boys survived Stalin & Co. by composing iconically popular music, especially for film, in an existence bizarrely parallel to that of the nice ex-Russian American Jewish boys. So Israel’s Russian heritage, from what I can gather, is Russian-Jewish heritage. And even then, the “Russian” part is more a function of nomenclature: the best Jewish musicians were permitted to leave the Pale to study in Moscow and St. Petersburg even before 1917. During the Soviet era, many gifted Jewish youngsters from the “republics” obtained first-rate training in the capitals, making the spread of what we refer to as ” Russian music” inevitable. This pertains primarily to popular music, of course. Alfred Schnittke would hardly qualify.

  • Indeed, building modern Israel in the middle of a desert after the exhaustion of the Holocaust and the British internment camps on Cyprus necessitated some slap-dash “hurry up, we need some nationalistic songs” to be created. I mean, what else were they going to sing in order to galvanize the people during such a difficult time? Even their national anthem “Hatikva” is unabashedly lifted from Smetana’s Moldau,Prague being another source of large Jewish immigration. Modern Israeli culture is certainly an amalgamation of many sources from the diaspora. I had the good fortune to know a number of original members of the Palestine Symphony when I was with Israel Philharmonic and they were instructional to me in pointing out the old-world melodic sources of their popular songs. Thanks for looking at this interesting topic, Mr Lebrecht.

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