THE GREATEST ALBUM – AT 50
Hey, Boys and Girls! It’s time for “Show and Tell.” This is what we used to call ‘a record.’ It’s how we listened to music in the olden days.
And this is what some people call ‘the greatest record of all time.’ It came out exactly 50 years ago, in June of 1967, ‘the summer of love.’ It’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – by John. Paul, George and Ringo – the Beatles! It was probably the first rock n’ roll concept album. It was produced with innovative studio technology, mixing and splicing of multiple tracks. It featured varying styles – English music hall, classical, Indian, avant-garde, and psychedelic. It utilized a 40 piece orchestra (unheard of in rock ‘n roll). It was portrayed as being one long continuous performance. It showed the influence of the drug culture. And its cover was a new approach to album artwork.
Here’s two of its most famous lyrics:
“It was 20 years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play,
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile
So may I introduce to you
The act you’ve known for all these years
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
And here’s my favorite:
“What would you think if I sang out of tune
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key
I get by with a little help from my friends”
There was another album that changed history that same summer, 50 years ago. “Jerusalem of Gold: Songs From the Six Day War.” To understand why this album was so important, we need to go back to May, 1967. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan united to call for the destruction of the State of Israel. Three Arab Armies moved to encircle the Jewish state. Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, cutting off Israel’s shipping lanes, to the south and east. UN Peace-Keeping forces were removed. Rallies were held in Cairo, Damascus and Amman in which hundreds of thousands of Arabs screamed “Death to the Jews’ (this just two decades after the Holocaust.) France, Israel’s main supplier of arms imposed an embargo on weapon sales, and the United States, bogged down in Vietnam, offered sympathy, but no help. Things were so desperate in Israel that mass graves were dug in parks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
And then on June 5, war broke out. In just six days, the Israeli army destroyed the enemy’s air force, and conquered the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank from Jordan. Most significantly, Israel unified the city of Jerusalem, which had been divided for 19 years. Jews were able for the first time since 1948 to visit and pray at the Western Wall.
The album appeared not too long after. It contained 12 songs that expressed what the soldiers and the people of Israel were feeling following the victory.
Three of its songs became big hits. The first, is Sharm-a-Sheik – about the town on the Sinai coast that overlooked the spot where the blockade was broken:
“Morning dawns on the Coral Coast,
once again fishing boats sail the waters.
Evening falls, bringing with it a dream,
bringing on the waters – a hope for Peace.
Sharm-a-Sheik, we have returned…
You were always in our hearts.”
And then there was ‘Machar’:
“Tomorrow, we will sail on ships
from Eilat, to the Ivory Coast.
And on old battleships
oranges will now be carried.
This is not a fairy tale, or a dream
it’s as real as the mid-day sun.
All this will come to pass tomorrow –
And if not tomorrow, then the day after.”
But the most famous song on the album – maybe the most famous Jewish song of all time, was Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. It was written in May of ’67, weeks before the war, when things looked very dark.
“The water cisterns are all dried up,
the market place is deserted.
We cannot visit the Temple mount in the old city,
and in caves in the hills, the winds howl.
We cannot go down to the Dead Sea
by way of the city of Jericho.”
A few weeks later, the world had changed and Naomi Shemer had to re-write the verses to conform to the new reality:
We have returned to the cisterns,
to the Market, and the Plazas
A shofar calls out on the Temple mount,
in the old city.
And in caves in the hills
a thousand suns are shining.
Once again we can go down to
the Dead Sea, by way of Jericho.
Jerusalem of Gold and of Copper and of Light. To all your songs – I will be a harp.
The war, and this album, changed Jewish life. Before this, the biggest Hebrew song was “Tzena Tzena”, sung by the Weavers in 1950. Popular Jewish music was all in Yiddish, and was nostalgic for the world of Eastern Europe, like “Mein Shtetele Belz”. From this moment on, Israel was the focus – and not just when it came to songs.
In 1964, Look Magazine featured an article on “The Vanishing American Jew.” Its point was that Jews and Judaism were on the verge of disappearing. The image of the Jew was a Woody Allen joke: “I was walking down the sidewalk when I saw three Jewish accountants with briefcases coming towards me. Out of fear I quickly crossed to the other side of the street…
Now , being a Jew meant identifying with Israel – with pride, and strength, and self-reliance. Jews could now fight back and take care of themselves. We were no longer the eternal victim. Israel took its place alongside the Holocaust as one of the two pillars of modern American Jewish life.
Back in the old days, Jews in America would put their pennies into a Blue Box to buy a tree to build the land of Israel. Now, it seemed, Jews in Israel were doing more for us than we were doing for them.
When I started Hebrew School, back in 1960, we learned Ashkenazi Hebrew, with its “AW’s and ‘ESES.’ E-MAW HOLECHES EL HA-BA-YIS. But because of the Six Day war, we suddenly changed our pronunciation – it was no longer Eastern European Prayer Hebrew, it was now modern Israeli conversational Hebrew – with its ‘AH’s and its ‘TEE’s: E-MA HOLECHET EL HA-BAYIT!
And the Six Day War had an even greater effect – if you can believe it – on Soviet Jewry. Prior to 1967, they were, in the words of Elie Wiesel, the Jews of Silence – forbidden and afraid to express their Jewish identity. But after the war, Soviet Jews defiantly wore Stars of David. They broke the law and learned Hebrew. They applied for visas to move to Israel, and heroes like Natan Sharansky and Ida Nudel ended up in prison. The courage and persistence of the Refuseniks eventually led to their freedom, and over a million made their way to Israel.
This record album is a reminder of a pivotal moment in Jewish history, and how much changed because of that moment. But the songs are also a reminder of what didn’t change. Back then, we thought that Peace was just around the corner. We were invincible, and since our enemies couldn’t destroy us, they would come to accept us and live with us in harmony. But it didn’t happen – “not tomorrow,” as the song promised nor the day after. It’s now been fifty years, and tomorrow never came.
Right after the War, Moshe Dayan the Israeli Defense Minister, famously said: “We’re waiting for a phone call.” Meaning, we’re ready to sit down and make a deal with the Arabs. The consensus was that Jerusalem must never be divided again – but everything else was on the table. The Sinai had beautiful vistas, and was a buffer zone, but if the Egyptians wanted peace, it could be returned. If the Syrians could be trusted not to use the Golan Heights to fire down at Northern Israel, then it too could be given back. About the West Bank, there were mixed feelings in Israel. Some said that the Jewish people had a long historical connection to this land – here, after all is where our Patriarchs and Matriarchs lived, and were buried. Others said: Who wants to rule over a million and a half hostile Arabs? But before the Israelis could make a decision, the Arab nations made it for them. They gathered in Khartoum in September of ’67 and declared: No Recognition of Israel, No Negotiations with Israel, No Peace with Israel.
There’s a long history of the Arabs saying No. Back in 1947, when the United Nations said there’s only one solution to the conflict – Partition. One state for the Jews – Israel, and one state for the Arabs – Palestine. Though most of the land the Jews were given then was in the Negev desert along with a strip of land along the coast from Ashdod to Haifa, and even though Jerusalem was to be an international city, right in the middle of the Arab state, the Jews said Yes. The Arabs said No, and five Arab countries invaded Israel intending to push the Jews into the sea. They said No again in ’67. And No again in ’93 despite the Oslo accords. And No again to President Clinton in 2000. And No again to Prime Minister Olmert on 2008.
The Arabs demanded Israel’s return to the 1967 borders. And, the right of 800,000 Arab refugees from 1948 – and their descendants – to return to their homes inside of Israel; and East Jerusalem – including the Western Wall – to become the Capital of Palestine.
While the Jews were waiting for the Arabs, settlements began to appear. The first ones were security outposts – along the Jordan River, in the Golan, in the Sinai & Gaza – to serve as a front line defense in case of the next war. Then religious Jews began to establish settlements in places with Biblical significance. And finally, Israelis who felt that it was too crowded or too expensive to live in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv moved across the Green Line. Today there are 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank and another 300,000 in what was Eastern Jerusalem – amidst two and a half million Arabs.
Do Jews have the right to live in their ancient ancestral homeland? Absolutely. Is it wise for them to live among hostile Arabs? That’s the million dollar question.
The truth of the matter is that the “occupation” is bad for the Arabs, and it’s bad for the Jews. But Israel is faced with a no-win choice: Safeguarding its security vs. safeguarding its soul.
The Israeli army patrolling the West Bank, and manning check-points keeps terrorists out of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (as does the ugly concrete separation wall that snakes throughout the West Bank). Ben Gurion Airport is less than five miles from the West Bank. Without rigid security control, no plane could take off or land safely.
But the notion that an 18 year old soldier has to check a pregnant Arab woman – to make sure her “bump” is really a baby and not a bomb – only causes resentment and humiliation from the Arabs, and has to make the young Jews either loathe themselves for what they have to do to others, or hate the Arabs for forcing them into such an unpleasant role. There’s no simple solution here; take down the checkpoints and demolish the walls – and buses and cafés will be blown up, and Jews will be stabbed or run down.
Let me tell you a story. I’m in my back yard barbecuing when my neighbor’s pit bull breaks through the fence and tries to attack me. First, I try to run away, but he chases me. Then I try to speak softly, thinking I can calm him down. No luck. Then I try to stand my ground and bare my teeth and yell at the dog – but that only makes him angrier. Then I think: If I give him some raw meat off the grill he’ll be happy. But he’s more interested in my throat than a hamburger. Then I think: What if I tried to reason with him: “Listen dog – why can’t we all just get along? I mean you no harm. I’m no threat to you. There’s plenty of room here for both of us. But the dog just wouldn’t listen. Then I remembered my cell phone and tried calling the Town’s Animal Control hot line, but it was after five and no one picked up. The pit bull was getting angrier and closer, and I felt like my life was in danger. I picked up a tree limb and whacked the dog on the side of the head. He was momentarily stunned, but came back at me even more determined. I felt terrible, but I smacked him again. He went down and rather than kill him, I put my foot on his neck. He struggled and wrestled and tried to bite me, but I put all my weight on him. And it came to me – if I keep my foot on him, I’m torturing him. But if I take my foot off his neck, he’ll rip me to shreds. What did I ever do to him? Was he just a mean, wild animal – or was it possible that in his brain, I was trespassing on what he understood to be his territory, maybe he was protecting his home, his owner, his puppies? But none of that mattered now. We were trapped in a no-win situation. It was either him, or me.
I admit this is a terrible analogy – I’m not trying to say that Arabs are vicious wild animals. What I am trying to say is that we’re trapped in a terrible situation, and there may be no easy way out. Our side is willing to make compromises. The other side – is not.
Are the Arabs interested in Justice, or our destruction? Why does Hamas continue to call for the end of Israel? Because of the Israeli settlements in Gaza? Israel evacuated all its settlers 12 years ago, yet three times since then, Hamas has gone to war, knowing it cannot defeat Israel militarily, but hoping that Israel will kill Arab children which will turn world opinion against the Jewish State.
Why does Hizbulah have over 100,000 rockets ready to be launched at Northern Israel whenever Iran gives it the green light – because the Israeli army invaded and occupies Southern Lebanon? Israel withdrew its forces back in the year 2000, yet in 2006 Lebanon unleashed its rockets.
Syria has slaughtered a quarter of a million of its own people – imagine what it would do to the Jews if it had the chance.
Iran has made it clear that it will create nuclear weapons, sooner or later and that the “Zionist entity” will be wiped off the map. Tel Aviv is a thousand miles from Teheran; Israel isn’t interested in occupying Iran.
And what about the Palestinians in the West Bank? Some would no doubt like to live in peace with Israel. Some, no doubt have been brought up to believe that the Jews are a western colonial power who have stolen their land and who oppress their people. And some, no doubt, have been taught that Jews are the descendants of monkeys and pigs, who rejected the prophet Mohammed, and cannot be allowed to rule a land that is a Muslim trust. Some, no doubt, have suffered the loss of homes, and loved ones in wars with the Jews, and can only dream of the restoration of their honor – and revenge.
In my opinion, the Arab – Israeli conflict is not about justice, about borders or settlements. Israel has demonstrated that when peace is at stake, it is willing to adjust borders and remove settlements. The essence of the conflict is simply this: Whether the Arabs are willing to acknowledge and accept that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. How much of the Land of Israel will be a part of the State of Israel is open for negotiation. But to deny the right of the Jews to create a Jewish home in the land – is not. The Palestinians do not accept that King Solomon built a Temple on the Temple Mount, and that the Jews worshipped there for close to a thousand years. They refuse to believe that the Western Wall has any Jewish religious significance. To them, that wall is sacred only because Mohammed tied his horse there before he ascended to heaven.
The Arabs will say that the Conflict goes back to the record album – to June of 1967 and when Israel occupied their land, giving it to Jewish settlers. “Go back to the borders of May – and there will be peace”. Most countries in the world hold the same opinion. Including the United States. But they forget those hundreds of thousands of Arabs screaming ‘Death to the Jews’ even before the war began. This album celebrated our survival. And our strength.
This album’s most famous song reminds us that our connection to Jerusalem and Israel go back before the 1967 war - 50 years ago; before the UN vote on Partition in 1947 - 70 years ago; before the Balfour Declaration in 1917 – a hundred years ago.
The album’s biggest hit reminds us that Naomi Shemer borrowed her words and images from Jewish history.
Her phrase – ‘To all your songs, I am a harp’ comes from the Spanish Jewish poet Judah Ha-Levi, who famously wrote ‘I am in the West, but my heart is in the East’ – in Jerusalem. In 1141, according to legend he was killed by a crusader as he at last reached the Western Wall.
The title of the song, ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ comes from a story of the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva, who was executed by the Romans in 135 CE. As a poor man with virtually nothing, he told his wife Rachel, ‘If I could, I would give you a Jerusalem of Gold’, a tiara engraved with the skyline of the holy city.
The words ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem’ come from the Book of Psalms and were first recited by Jewish exiles, in Babylonia, after the destruction of the Temple in the year 586 BCE.
And the songwriter tells us: ‘In the heart of the city, there is a wall’ that is the last remnant of the temple built by King Solomon, son of David, sometime about the year 900 BCE.
That’s how far back – and how deep – are our connections to the land of Israel, and to the city of Jerusalem.
And finally, boys and girls: One more Show and Tell. This is a “book”. Long before the Kindle, this is how we read. And this book is one you all have to read. It’s “Israel – A Concise History of a Nation Reborn”, by Daniel Gordis. The author was an American Conservative Rabbi, who made Aliyah. He takes us on the incredible journey of the return of the Jewish people to their homeland. We see the rise of the Zionist movement, the establishment of a State, the struggle to build a country, the heroic efforts to gather in almost two million immigrants, the tragedy of nine wars in 69 years. And the difficult challenges – both external and internal – that Israel faces every day. This telling brings the perspectives of all sides – the Right and the Left, the Religious and the Secular, the Ashkenazim and the Sefaradim – and the Jews and the Arabs. You will not only be enlightened by this book – you will be inspired.
And at a time when Israel is attacked from all quarters, it’s critical that we know our story. As Gordis tells us in his last lines, what’s at stake is not just a country; what is truly at stake is the very future of the Jewish people. The Six Day War taught us 50 years ago: Our fate is tied to the fate of Israel.
As long as we know who we are and as long as we sing our songs, then “Am Yisrael Hai’ – the Jewish people will ever remain strong.