A month ago, as my partner, Jay, was looking for a fun way for us to close my 53rd birthday celebrations he came upon an advert in the “Akbar HaIr” (“City Mouse”, a local Hebrew language entertainment & local events magazine) asking “Nahum Haiman at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center?”. The advert poked fun at the fact that even though the composer Nahum Haiman and the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin held very different political views from one another, they shared a common love for Hebrew song and music. Jay and I, both socialists, were drawn into joining the fun and decided to attend the concert.
As we entered the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, a beautiful ultra-modern building facing the Old City of Jerusalem and set into the side of a low slope on the Hinnom Ridge, we overheard some of the audience members making right wing comments about the current situation in the region. We quietly commented to one another that it was very easily possible that we were probably the only socialists in the crowd! We weren’t discouraged because we’d come to enjoy an evening celebrating Hebrew song and music. Walking into the auditorium, we were greeted by the site of Nahum Haiman, sorting out how to get what he had on his computer up onto the screen. The computer refused to respond to the commands he keyed in, as he begged our forgiveness for running late, he called upon his piano player, Tzlil, to come and assist him. Soon the computer glitch was resolved and we were on our way! Knowing that Nahum Haiman is a prolific and well known Israeli composer, the 2009 Israel Prize Recipient for Hebrew Song and the Chairman of the Hebrew Song Heritage Association, Jay and I were expecting a serious concert with intellectually stimulating commentary. Instead Nahum at 76 decided he was taking all of us “young people” on a fantastically entertaining sing-a-long tour of every Israeli child’s songbook.
Nahum Haiman lecture
Alright! This was fast becoming the perfect ending for my birthday celebrations! I had spent part of the day listening to songs from the soundtrack of my late mother’s life and now I was part of an audience that was about to be treated to the soundtrack of our Israeli-born children’s childhood! Nahum began by sharing some of his own early life. He had been born in Riga, Latvia in 1934 and had immigrated to Pre-State Israel (aka “The British Mandate for Palestine”) with his parents in 1939. Almost as an aside, he mentioned that after spending three years in an iron lung and surviving polio he went on to live at Kibbutz Na’an because of his parents divorce. There he began playing the accordion as he could no longer play the piano following his polio. After that very adult introduction to his late 1930’s world without skipping a beat Nahum introduced the first song: “Uga, Uga, Uga” (“Circle, Circle, Circle”): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DSJIyKT0DQ&feature=related. Nahum didn’t need to encourage us, we just joined in and sang along with him a song which may be considered the Hebrew language variant of and parallel to “Ring around the Rosie”. The difference is that unlike “Ring around the Rosie” where “we all fall down” in our song “we sit and we stand, we sit and we STAND!” I definitely felt that this was an inspirational song for Nahum: yes, childhood polio had knocked him down but he sure did stand up again and in standing up he gave us many wonderful musical compositions as well as the melodies to most of our best loved children’s songs!
For close to two and half hours we listened to Nahum and enjoyed ourselves looking at the drawings and pictures he had brought to illustrate the history and songs he shared with us. As well as singing along with the recordings or accompanying Tslil as he played the piano for us. We sang rhyming songs by the Israeli National Poet Chaim Nahman Bialik and by the beloved Israeli poet Leah Goldberg. We listened as Nahum explained that the reason that these two and other Israeli poets wrote children’s songs was to encourage the rebirth of the Hebrew language. He shared that these poets had taken the stilted phrasing and structure of Biblical Hebrew and via the invention of children’s rhyming songs and other poetry had helped to turn it into our vibrant modern language. Nahum patiently and subtly took us from Pre-State times up until today sharing and showcasing our musical and poetic history in a politically neutral manner, constantly reminding us what we have in common as a people. At the end of the evening each of us walked out into the crisp Jerusalem evening humming this or that children’s song definitely in touch with our own inner child!
(All photographs for this blog post are original works by Isa David-Ben-Rafael and are owned by IsraeLightly)