The Old-Country Roots of Zionist Music

Jan. 17 2022

In a new book on the development of Israeli songs, the historian David Assaf explains the East European, and often ḥasidic, origin of many classic tunes of the kibbutz and of secular pioneers. Allan Arkush, in a glowing review, notes that the book “is mainly about Hebrew songs, but Yiddish is rarely very far away,” and it contains a history of one of the most popular Yiddish songs of all time. Titled “Oyfn pripitshek”—a pripitshek being an old-fashioned stove used for heating as well as cooking—the tune owes its existence to one of the great Yiddish writers:

Sholem Aleichem was a friend and enormous booster of the composer of “Oyfn pripetshik,” Mark Warshafsky (1848–1907). But how, Assaf wonders, could the great Yiddish author write a realistic story like “Boaz the Melamed,” in which a hard-hearted ḥeder teacher brutalizes his pupils, while being an enthusiastic promoter of a nostalgic song featuring a melamed [traditional elementary-school instructor] who lovingly teaches his kids the “alef-beys”? The apparent contradiction, Assaf explains, expresses the ambivalence of many early 20th-century secularists who had a traditional ḥeder education.

At that time, many of the writers and intellectuals who had already left the small town and religious tradition behind them and moved to big cities had a deep feeling in their hearts that the decline of the shtetl in which they had been raised was almost a fait accompli. They also felt a certain longing for some old-world institutions, which they had come to perceive as bulwarks against assimilation despite all their failings.

This is the heart of the matter, but it’s only a part of the story. Assaf tells us where “Oyfn pripitshek” comes from—not just fond memories but a mid-19th-century French song that depicts a teacher sitting on a stump in a glade, teaching his pupils the alphabet—and where it very quickly went: Tel Aviv, where a Hebrew version likewise takes the children outdoors and focuses more on planting trees than learning one’s letters.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Israeli music, Jewish music, Sholem Aleichem, Yiddish


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount