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Tuning into the Israeli experience, one culturally loaded lyric at a time

A project of the Jewish Agency’s education lab Makom, Playlists seeks to demystify the country and its music by translating and interpreting a selection of tracks

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Illustrative: A man listens to earbuds in Tel Aviv on November 14, 2015. (Esther Rubyan/FLASH90)
Illustrative: A man listens to earbuds in Tel Aviv on November 14, 2015. (Esther Rubyan/FLASH90)

Want to understand the Israeli heart and soul? Listen to a tune by Ehud Banai. Or Ishay Ribo. Or Hadag Nahash.

That’s what Makom, the education lab of The Jewish Agency for Israel, wants listeners to do with its latest project, Israeli Playlists.

Organized by theme, the curated playlists feature selections of popular Israeli songs, along with explanatory texts and video guides that parse the cultural and societal contexts of each and every tune.

The project came about as the organization, which works with educators teaching about Israel, looked for different ways to translate and define Israel for those abroad who could not visit during the coronavirus emergency.

“We know that people are clearly interested in Israeli arts and culture, and we started to think that among the ways to see Israel is through the eyes of an artist,” said Abi Dauber Sterne, director of Makom.

Songwriter Ehud Banai on the cover of his latest album. (Courtesy Ehud Banai)

For now, Playlists includes protest songs from Hadag Nahash and others; spiritual music that made it to the top 40, like Yonatan Razel’s “Katonti;” songs about Israelis’ obsession with Europe, including two songs titled “Berlin” from Shmemel and Ariel Horowitz; and an entire section devoted to Ehud Banai, a beloved singer/songwriter who has been influencing Israeli music for decades.

Banai also happens to be a personal favorite of Robbie Gringras, the Makom consultant and translator for many of these works, who conducted a 20-minute video interview with the artist for the project.

Dauber Sterne worked closely on the project with Gringras, a British-born playwright and educator who has long been translating Israeli musicians’ work, first for fun, and then for professional purposes.

The Makom team began by translating 14 songs, but found that merely translating the words to English didn’t explain enough of the cultural nuances embedded in each work.

The key in any song translation, said Gringras, is first understanding the words, and then interpreting the cultural context to grasp the greater concepts. The songs in the Makom Playlists, then, become a conduit for understanding what makes Israel, and Israelis, tick.

In the Israel Playlists pages, each song has a video subtitled in English, as well as a text guide that opens as a PDF, and a video guide that looks like a PowerPoint with built-in narration.

Rather than annotate the songs stanza by stanza, the guides put the song in a historical and cultural context, while also giving a brief bio of the artist and their link to the ideas they put into the song. The style is less Pop-Up Video and more Powerpoint.

The guides for Yonatan Razel’s “Katonti” (I Am Not Worthy), for example, tells about Razel, his family and professional background as a singer and talented pianist, and the context for the song, which was written after the long recovery of his young daughter who was injured badly in a fall.

“Katonti” is a deeply spiritual ballad infused with Jewish liturgy, and Gringas dives deeply into the sources for the lyrics, which are based on biblical phrases and quotes from Psalms. 

He also explains why the song resonated so greatly the year that it won an Acum Prize, analogous to a Grammy in Israel, focusing on how both religious and secular Israelis found themselves in the music.

“You experience Israel through the arts and can explain the complexities and even the misery in an uplifting way,” said Gringras.

That vital mix of Sabra misery and entertainment was how he fell in love with hip-hop band Hadag Nahash, known for imbuing their songs with left-leaning political sentiments. Among their most popular songs is one with lyrics comprised entirely from bumper stickers.

Abi Dauber Sterne (Courtesy Abi Dauber Sterne)

After introducing the Jerusalem-founded funk band to British Jews at a Limmud UK conference 15 years ago, Gringras became the official lyric translator for Hadag Nahash.

“They’re protesting, and you’re shaking your booty at the same time,” he said. “And you can pack so much into three minutes of a song.”

It’s that deeper interpretation and meaning that Dauber Sterne wants listeners to access with Makom Playlists.

When choosing songs, Makom tried to focus on Israeli artists that non-Israelis are most familiar with, as well as songs that “have meat,” said Gringras.

“It couldn’t be just ‘I love you, you love me, let’s marry,’ which rules out many songs,” he said.

The songs of the religiously observant Narkis, for example, are all about love, but love for God, as Gringras found out from the singer, and not necessarily romantic in nature.

They also had to get permission from the artists and their labels to translate the songs and make them accessible to the public.

The general target audience for Makom’s playlists is educators, but plenty of non-educators are using it as well, said Dauber Sterne, who hopes a social media campaign will help further expand the reach of the project.

It also helps that the participating singers are completely on board, sharing the Makom translations on their official YouTube channels.

Robbie Gringras (Courtesy Robbie Gringras)

The next round of translated songs will include ditties revolving around COVID-19, women’s voices, and other themes that add complex elements to discerning life in Israel.

They have to be popular songs, said Dauber Sterne, songs that truly resonate on some level.

Dauber Sterne also plans on adding Israeli-created visual art to each of the songs, pairing an artist with each musical selection to give different artists a platform and a way for viewers to think about Jewish life through art.

She wants to expand the Playlists to other cultural sources in Israel, adding different kinds of contemporary voices, such as comics or one of Israel’s well-known satirical shows.

One of Gringras’s most popular translations during the coronavirus was of an Israeli mother, Shiri Keningsberg Levi, who ranted from behind her steering wheel about online learning during Israel’s first lockdown.

Unlike the songs, the video needed no cultural context to strike a chord with parents around the world and racked up views, earning Keningsberg Levi mentions in The New York Times, The Today Show and tweets and comments from celebrities.

Makom was created by The Jewish Agency Israel 15 years ago, in the hopes of trying out new methods of teaching about the Jewish state for a rapidly changing Diaspora.

“We like to think of ourselves as an Israel education lab, training educators on Israel and creating new models for doing that,” said Dauber Sterne. “There are challenges here and in order to really teach and really understand, we need to do things differently.”

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