The Story of “Am Yisrael Chai”

November 17, 2023 | Gary Rosenblatt
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On Tuesday, the Orange County Register published an article under the headline “Why chants like ‘Free Palestine,’ ‘Am Yisrael Chai,’ and ‘From the river to the sea’ are divisive.” The second of these is a very well-known Jewish song, meaning “the people of Israel lives,” and it should come as no surprise that there are sharp divisions between those who want the Jews to live and those who wish them dead. But the song itself is a relatively new creation. Gary Rosenblatt tells its story:

It was composed by Shlomo Carlebach (1925–1994), a popular hasidic “singing rabbi,” at the request of Jacob Birnbaum, the founder of the grassroots Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, who was seeking an anthem for the fledgling Soviet Jewry movement in the spring of 1965. Birnbaum and Carlebach knew each other, as did their grandfathers.

Besides the three words, “Am Yisrael Chai,” [suggested by Birnbaum], Carlebach had added three more words to the song, based on the biblical story (Genesis 45:3) of Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers. He immediately asks about the welfare of their father, Jacob, whom Joseph has not seen in many years: “ha-od avi ḥai?” (“Is my father alive?”)

Carlebach transformed the question into an exclamatory statement of affirmation: “od avinu ḥai” (“our father is alive!”).

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