Nowadays Mizrahi music is dominating Israeli popular culture – but people still prefer to listen to the music they were brought up with, writes Elad Massuri in Jewish Journal.
Eyal Golan: popular with Jews with Mizrahi roots
I interviewed Shlomi Shabat, one of the most famous Israeli singers to come to L.A. in recent months.
If we want to compare him to American singers, Shlomi Shabat is our Stevie Wonder.
He is a “soul singer” in that his songs are an inseparable part of the
Israeli music and his music is widespread in the different sectors of
the Israeli society.
With excitement, Shlomi told me of his experience performing in front
of Israeli audiences, and he shared with me that during his concert, he
saw different kinds of people from different ethnicities in the audience
— religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi.
The audience variety at his concert exists because Shabat, a Jewish
Israeli with Turkish roots, found during his career a certain formula
for songwriting that draws influence from different Jewish cultures.
In his songs are some European elements that came from the Ashkenazi
diaspora, some elements from the Mizrahi diaspora, and from Israel and
from the Middle East.
While I was talking with him, I was trying to understand what exactly
is “Israeli music.” Does it even exist? After all, Israeli Jews are a
mix of Jewish people from all over the world.
In the past five years, Israeli music went over a few speed bumps.
The Ashkenazi music, which dominated for a few decades in Israeli
mainstream music, had played on radio stations almost exclusively.
But in the past five years, things changed and Ashkenazi music lost its
popularity — it became much less played on the radio, and it no longer
dictated the agenda of the Israeli music.
At the same time, after years of social isolation, when Mizrahi music
was not played on the radio and the singers worked only at small events
such as weddings and bar mitzvahs to make a living, Mizrahi music
suddenly became more popular.
Today, Mizrahi singers are dominating the Israeli music scene and they
earn a lot of money from concerts in Israel and worldwide.
There still isn’t a nice way to say it: You are more likely to find a
Mizrahi audience at Mizrahi singers’ concerts and an Ashkenazi audience
at the Ashkenazi singers’ concerts.
This division is not because of an aversion to certain singers’ roots.
Music is a product of culture, and people who grew up in a certain
culture learn to know and love the music that was played around them.
We connect with music that reminds us of home, with melodies that were
played during our childhoods and with lyrics that talk about familiar
That is what’s happening, naturally, in synagogues in Israel and Los Angeles — most
Mizrahi Jews will want to go to Mizrahi synagogues so they can pray in
their own familiar way, and it is exactly the same for Ashkenazi Jews.
It is impossible to turn back the clock and change the cultural
influences that each generation is steeped in; the faith and music of
one’s childhood is inextricably linked to their parents and their
synagogues. They will probably influence their own children the same way
by imparting their own tastes onto the next generation’s psyches.
It is important for us, the Jewish public, to be exposed to a variety
of Jewish music so that we won’t lose parts of our culture.
The music that the Jewish and the Israeli communities in Los Angeles are exposed to today will become the music of tomorrow.
A Jewish-American kid with Mizrahi roots who is exposed to the music of
Golan, and at the same time to the music of Kleinstein, will not be
able to distinguish between them, and, to that kid, both will be
This way we could remove the barriers between the two cultures and we
could create a single Israeli music that tells of our different cultures
— for example, as is being done by artists such as Boaz Sharabi, who
uses melodies from the Yemen-Jewish diaspora but also Western musical
instruments such as piano and violin, and whose lyrics address topics
that every Israeli can feel connected to.
The same principle exists with Shlomi Shabat, who wrote songs that
became Israeli anthems, and Idan Raichel, who combines world music with
ancient, almost biblical Hebrew words.