Yafa Yarkoni and the songs of Israel


When Yafa Yarkoni passed away this Sunday, a eulogy posted at Ha’aretz noted that the legendary singer “was known as the singer of Israel’s wars, [who] entertained Israeli troops beginning in 1948 and was one of Israel’s most acclaimed artists.” The Jerusalem Post’s eulogy noted, however, that Yafa Yarkoni “detested” being described as “the singer of the wars.”

Given the fact that Yarkoni’s career spanned well over half a century, it is easy to see that she had good reason for rejecting this description with its narrow focus on just a few of her songs. Moreover, it would be wrong to imagine that her “war songs” were the type of songs usually associated with martial music.

Among Yarkoni’s famous songs is Bab el Wad, and when (ex-blogger) Yaacov Lozowick recommended it yesterday in a tweet as “perhaps her single most important song,” I thought this was finally my chance to mention Yaacov’s wonderful series on Hebrew songs. In the first post of this series, Yaacov wrote:

Songs – or are they poems? – are an extremely important part of Israeli history and culture. There is an ever-growing canon of songs, called Shirim Ivri’im (simply: Hebrew songs), without which one cannot understand how Israelis tick. Since the songs Israelis sing are so crucial, it has long been clear to me one way to tell the evolving story of Israel would be by following these shirim.

The series also includes one post on Bab el Wad, the song Yaacov recommended yesterday. Introducing this song, Yaacov wrote:

Many shirim ivri’im deal with bereavement. The mother of them all is Bab elWad. Bab elWad is the Arab name for the narrow pass when the road to Jerusalem first enters the Judean Hills on its way up from the coast: a perfect place to block traffic, if you’re of that mind. Which is precisely what the Palestinians decided to do in the early months of 1948, as the British control of Mandatory Palestine was winding down: bring the Jewish majority in Jerusalem to starvation. I suppose the assumption was that they’d then pick up and leave or something like that. Today this would be a major breach of international law and all that, but in 1948 it wasn’t anything special. The British allowed it to happen, but the [Jewish Defense Force] Hagana didn’t. Eventually a second road was paved, and then the Palestinians villages were conquered and the threat removed, but for a while in early 1948 100,000 Jewish civilians in Jerusalem were supplied by occasional convoys which managed to shoot their way through the pass. Remnants of the vehicles which didn’t make it are still scattered along the roadside to remind us not to take things for granted.

The translation of this and other songs can be found here; below the clip Yaacov linked to; and, last but not least, a quote from a just published tribute in Ha’aretz:

Lyricist Avi Koren, a close friend of the singer’s for 45 years, recalled yesterday that Yarkoni, an Israel Prize laureate, once said to him: “Look how I am fooling the entire world – after all, I have no voice.” “She may not have had a voice, but she was the voice of the country. My mother listened to Yaffa Yarkoni; my grandson listens to Yaffa Yarkoni; and she accompanied us, the members of my generation, all our lives.”


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