Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Koya-san : My Birthday Pilgrimage

So, I have decided to spend the night of my 27th birthday on mount. Koya, one of Japan's sacred mountains. It belongs to the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism, and their many temples on the mountain offer lodging for travellers and some insight into the lives of the believers. I have been curious for some time about the inner world of the Buddhist temples in Japan, and decided it was time to do something about it. I made reservations through this English site that connects you to ryokans and hotels all over Japan (very effective and useful, considering that many hotels don't have websites of their own, even in Japanese) Highly recommend - they offer plenty of information. respond quickly and, can only understand the joy of seeing the English language used properly after living in Japan for a while. My train trip, with the usual exhausting connection in Osaka was sleepy and uneventful, but I found myself enjoying both the easiness with which I can now converse with Japanese information workers, and the luxury of travelling with no luggage. Pretty much all I had in my backpack was - as "The Hitch hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" advises - a towel.

From the train station a cable car ascends to the top of the mountain, almost vertically. I love cable cars with a kind of juvenile passion, can't explain it. Most of the passengers were foreigners, moreover - tourists, and they were getting rather chatty and friendly with each other - exchanging information about sightseeing in Tokyo and Kyoto and what not. I decided to ditch those people before they cramp my Zen, and got off the Koya city bus at the most deserted looking station, having barely taken a look at the map.
However, a five minute walk brought me to my first destination - Kongobuji Temple, the main temple of Koya Shingon association. It was spacious and ellegant, resembling a Zen temple with its serene wooden corridors and sand and stone gardens, but more colorful - many beautifully painted sliding doors, depicting scenes from the life of Kukai (Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon), and also natural scenes in distinct Chinese style.
Tea with local sweets was served in a big reception hall covered with red carpets and decorated with mandala paintings by Shingon artists and a portrait of Kukai. There were only a few other guests in the temple, something that would never happen in Kyoto on a weekend, so I was able to soak in the atmosphere. The aesthetics of Shingon temples won me over at first sight, as have the artifacts and quirks such as this altar with decorations of fruits and vegetables... In the temple grounds visitors can also observe the kitchen used by the monks and so on. The feeling of the place is rather warm and majestic, not quite as ascetic as one might expect. Outside it was a beautiful sunny day, and light was streaming through the corridors and in through the attic windows.

I wondered through another temple complex with buildings and pagodas that were beautiful, but not unfamiliar to a resident of Kyoto. In fact I found the very Japanese mixture of styles (various Buddhist and even Shinto influences in the architecture) kind of confusing. But, the lines and colors were still dazzling against the sunny sky, and the mountain air chilly and free of city noises, so I was in a good mood. I was walking towards the temple where I made reservations for the night, on my way passing many of these "lodging temples", all of which looked like any zen temple, usually with a stone garden or a natural sculpture of some sort visible from the gates. The city itself is very small, flat, and not at all touristic. The only souvenirs sold were of strictly religious nature, and at 4 pm almost everything was closed and quiet.

I was to stay at the Rengejo-in, one of the bigger temples which, upon approaching, seemed completely deserted, dark and, well, anything but a hotel. At the entrance I was ordered by signs in English to take off my shoes and change into slippers before I go in. Those slippers, which I've met with many times before while exploring the insides of Japanese temples and castles, have made my list of "most idiotic ways to leave this world" as they are slippery and hold on to nothing, fretting at all times to fly off your feet or off the stairs along with you...
So after standing in the empty hallway for a few minutes I was invited into a little Japanese style room where the priest and two old men were sitting. In one of those situations where I can't imagine what they would do with a non-Japanese speaking costumer, I was asked to fill in forms and pay and so on. Then, allowing me to observe this "office" for long enough to notice a Mac and a Russian matryoshka doll on the desk before which he was kneeling, the priest lead me up to my room, on the way explaining me the schedule of the meditation, dinner, and bath time.

The third floor ( I believe I stayed on the third. Can't be sure as while climbing the steep stairs I was concentrated on trying to hold the slippers with my toes), unlike the entrance, looked like a perfect Japanese style hotel (ryokan) - brightly lit corridors, smell of new wood and sliding paper doors. The inside was fancier than any ryokan I have been in - the golden painted sliding doors, the private kotatsu table ( I turned it on and spent all evening under that blanket, and left my clothes inside for the night...brilliant invention) The room also had an air-conditioner and a TV, which I found to be excessive. But then again, these days the temples and the city probably depend on tourism, including that of barbarians from the west.

The 40 minutes meditation practice was held in a ceremony room that was almost completely dark, only above the altar candle light reflected in gold and near us on the floor big gaz heaters opened their red eyes. On my way there I noticed how the sand in the garden sparkles in the freezing darkness. After all, I have never before seen a zen garden at night.
It wasn't my most successful try at meditation, as I've been having problems with my knees lately, and far from assuming the lotus position, bending my legs in any way for 40 minutes made me too uncomfortable to concentrate. But I gave it my best and so did the other guests (all but one foreigners), breathing in the scented air, thinking about everything and nothing in a dark room of a temple, high on a mountain in a foreign land.

Later, dinner was served in a dining room that also resembled that of a ryokan - you sit on the floor with your personal little table, being served food on many little plates...Food in Koya temples is completely vegetarian, and the dinner was very filling and colorful - 3 or 4 types of tofu (different levels of of them i found edible), tempura (deep fried vegetables) beans, pickled...something, rice, soup and even slices of fruit for dessert. Young boys were serving the meal - shaved as monks but dressed normally. I later learnt that they were graduates of Shingon studies who did not belong to priest families and had no temple to go back to. They served at temples on Koya-san until they were adopted into temples without heirs all over Japan.
This and more I learnt from the mother of the head priest of Rengejo-in, a youthful woman of at least 80 years old, who came to talk to us after dinner. She studied English in Tokyo before the war and ever since became a valuable asset on Koya, helping the temple families to communicate first with soldiers and then with tourists. She indeed had probably the best English I heard from a Japanese person, although pronunciation of words such as "wordily" and "splendid" should probably be forbidden in Japan. She told us about the history of the mountain - since Kukai was led there by a Hunter deity and his 2 dogs and chose it as the base for his sect, through the years of war and hunger, until today.

I went back to my room, treated myself to some green tea (another ryokan perk - there is always tea in the room). Then I couldn't resist the opportunity to change into yukata robe, specially since this time I got a warmer winter robe to put over it. I made my slippery way to the public bath, and as I guessed it was empty. Western women are not that into soaking naked in boiling water surrounded by strangers. I however love sentos and onsens (specially the outdoor ones of course), and having such a big bath all to myself, being able to practically swim and dance around in it totally made my night. Back in the room I almost fell asleep under the kotatsu blanket, but at midnight my cellphone was awakened by birthday greetings. And when I finally got into my futon (which was spread in the room during dinner) I realized that having loud foreigners behind paper walls was not the ideal combination. Why don't more people travel to these places to enjoy the atmosphere and to shut up, I wonder? So between their talking, snoring and packing and my own not necessarily temple-appropriate thoughts I slept about an hour that night. A new enlightening day was approaching fast.
.....To be continued.....

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Sights and Psyches of Kyoto Autumn

The autumn has reached Kyoto in all it's glory. I guess, living in Japan, one can't help catching on to the locals' obsession with seasonal changes. And while I don't quite support the Christmas decorations being displayed on the streets two months too early, I have been for some time observing the trees anxiously, waiting for the slightest change in colour, and having those very Japanese conversations with people as to when do they suppose the "koyo" will begin. This was partially due to the visit of my parents that has just ended. I wanted them to see the city in its most magnificent colours, and though the said "koyo" appears to be late again, we spent two very eventful weeks touring Kyoto's temples and gardens and witnessing this celebration of nature.
But then, my reader knows me too well by now to assume I'm going to dedicate the entire post to such touristic pleasures. The world is out there for all to admire, and has no need in my testimonies of its beauty. And yet it is beauty, and its power over the human soul that I was thinking of for the past few days.

Beauty will save the world, said Dostoevsky. And while it sounds like a rather vague premonition involving two wide and undefinable concepts, in the micro cosmos of our everyday lives we can witness this phenomena taking place. When I started thinking about this, it brought up a memory from my first days in the army. I was 18, alone in a new city and in a new job with heavy responsibilities which nothing in my life had prepared me for. All that, along with the continuous lack of sleep and such, was keeping me on the verge of depression. Since my home was too far away, after work I would go back to an army base which, not to give out any strategic information, was located in rather uninspiring industrial surroundings. One day I was walking home, tired as usual. The road was wet after another rainy day, and I caught myself admiring the reflection of the sky in a greesy puddle. Then I knew I was still ok. And in my university years, in deepest moments of crisis and loneliness I used to go out to the common balcony of the dormitory building on Mount. Scopus and watch the sun setting and the sky changing colours above the walls of Jerusalem. And as long as I could be touched by these I knew I was still ok.
These days I don't have to look hard. My friends and I draw strength from the beauty of this city to cope with the many challenges of living in a strange society, studying in a foreign language and so on, as well as the usual things life occasionally throws at one wherever he might be residing. So when we have some time we go to a temple to see the maple leaves, or go to the river, to enjoy its serenity and whatever is blossoming or occurring on its banks at the moment. I have had conversations about it with some of my friends, and we agreed that the only two things keeping us sane were having each other and having Kyoto. But it is not really the place, I believe, that makes the difference. What will save you, (and, by association, the world), is the ability to see beyond yourself and your own troubles. Only then do you have a chance to see beauty and be saved by it, as I hope to continue to be saved time and time again.

Monday, September 10, 2007

My Teachers

I don't seem to get to blogging about my trip home...hopefully it will come. Meanwhile, as autumn approaches Kyoto slowly, biting on the already scarce hours of sunlight, back home it is the most crucial time of the year for one's soul. With the New Year (Rosh ha-Shanah) celebrations, begins a 10 day period called (apparently, in English) "The Days of Awe", that culminates with the fast of Yom Kippur. During this period the fate of each person for the coming year is written in the Book of Life, according to the way he carried himself through the previous one. So it is high time to repent your sins, make amends, and generally clean up your act before God.

But do not fear, reader, I am not about to start listing my sins in this post. Don't want my ailing Internet connection to die of boredom. Trying to keep my soul-searching positive, I turn to Japanese culture where, surprisingly, apologising and giving thanks is the same thing. One of the most common words for apology in Japanese - "Sumimasen", can also be used for expressing gratitude, as it literary means "it is not over", as in "I can never repay / make it up to you". It is really a shame that in modern Japanese society the original profound meaning of some expressions is lost in the jungle of protocol politeness. So today I will be giving thanks for the numerous gifts of wisdom I have received in my life an cannot ever repay, to my teachers, who, sometimes unknowingly, helped my journey through this world. And here we go:

Things I've learned from my parents:

-A sense of duty that would not shame a samurai.

-The importance of friendship over pretty much everything.

-Similarly, that pretty much everything in the world is more important than money.

-That the secret to a good marriage is having a sense of humor.

-The importance of learning history, that for my father is the one true religion.

-That the only sure way to get your children to do what you want is to have them respect you and care about your opinion. It took me at least 25 years to ever think of revisiting any of my parents' ways.

-And the only way of earning anyone's respect is by being a person worthy of respect, as simple as that.

Things I've been taught by my friends:

-To enjoy things I'm not good at. Such as sports, or cooking. A revolutionary concept for me. It was mostly my friend Noa in Israel who taught me by personal example the joy of little everyday activities, and my friends in Japan got me on a bicycle, into the karaoke room and so on.

-That people are different (from me), and I should get over my prude self and support them through the paths they chose if I call myself their friend.

-About fashion, cool places, pop-culture, the ways of the world in the practical sense. Being a person so invested in my inner world I had very slim chances of surviving in the outer one on my own. For example, without my friend Lisa I wouldn't know where to eat either in Jerusalem or Kyoto.

-To speak if I want to be heard. Still working on that one, to stop expecting people to read my mind. But at least now I can stop myself from getting angry at people who don't.

What I've learned from the men in my life:

-That it is absolutely not true that men only want one thing. Or I keep meeting the only ones who want more. Which would also kind of make sense - for God knows they could get that one easier elsewhere. And if there was one thing all men want, I'd have to say it was something diferent than usually assumed. In general, I have this theory that the greatest human desire is having someone to listen to you. Not sex, or fame or anything else. Although I am yet to figure out a strategy how to take over the world by being a good listener...

-About music. It has become an established rule that men come into my life armed with Cd's and (I am that old) cassettes. Again - I'm not in touch with reality enough to find my own, with the exception of my favourite songwriters who get my attention with their lyrics.

-To invest more in getting to know them. Exploring a real person can be a lot more interesting than exploring whatever elaborate fantasy that I construct in my head. Who knew!!!

-There are men in this world who are impossible not to fall in love with and equally impossible to do anything else with. I gradually learned to be their friend and pity the girls who date them. Tell me if you think of a better solution.

-Trying to "save" someone by loving them is an idea not only futile but narcissistic, and plain stupid. Next time I get it I'll hit myself on the head with a frying pen.

What I learned from living in Israel

-That there are ways one can only love his country if he comes to it by ship. I suppose that the patriotism of emigrants is a thing well-known, but it's more than that. Finding a place in the world that fits you like a glove is not something that happens to everyone. Not even people who live in countries that are more prosperous, safer and more comfortable to live in.

-The feeling of the High Holy Days. Maybe it's easier to feel the pulse of the country that small, if only by the changing direction of the traffic jams on the country's only highway with the beginning and the end of a holiday. In Japan, you see the Matsuri, festivals, on the street, and the seasonal holidays mostly in the shops. In Israel you can feel a change in the air, the weather itself when a holiday approaches. In fact even while I'm here in Japan, sometimes I find myself thinking "this feels like a Friday evening in Israel" .

-What really matters. Israeli culture is the opposite of Japanese in the way it values essence over appearance, results over effort, frankness over politeness and so on. Israelis think of themselves as a rude people, which i wouldn't say is completely true. But they are definitely less concerned with saving face and maintaining harmony. I do enjoy more refined manners, believe me. But I also believe that the one time in life you may need help from a stranger on the street is worth years of putting up with thy neighbor's pushy, loud and unceremonious attitude.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I'm Going Home

Going home to Israel for a month the day after tomorrow. Haven't been there over a year now, or out of Japan for that matter, and as the last days fly by I'm beginning to wonder...

Is there really anything out there? It my be the island thing, or the homogeneity of Japan's population, but it seems that I've caught whatever it is that makes some of the Japanese not quite worldly. I cannot imagine being anywhere out of this country. Imagining myself going out to the streets of Amsterdam (where I have a few hours in between flights) and the air would be cool (and, hopefully breathable, unlike the insane humidity of Kyoto's summer), the people blond (and big) and the city so different. I've been to Amsterdam in 2002, liked it a lot.

Even less can I imagine being back to Israel. It's not like I have lost contact. Through the miracles of modern texhnology I was able to keep record of whatever our neighbours were dropping on us where, and which of our heads of state was inolved in what scandal. But - Israel is a state of mind. Once you are out of its limits - you only think you know.
Ok, time to move. Sincerely hoping to write a lot about the trip. Sayonara, Kyoto!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My Sad Songs

What is your ultimate sad song?
That is a question someone might have asked me during some (drunk, perhaps) conversation , thus eliminating the need for this post.But, unlucky for you, reader, no one did. So here it goes. Thing is, I don't do sad songs. Not as a music choice, but mostly not as therapy. I don't listen to sad songs when I'm sad. I really don't understand people who do...Is it because I'm an escapist? I've been told many times by my girlfriends that the process of wallowing in depression and self pity to the appropriate soundtrack is something to be enjoyed and cherished, but I fail to do that. My life would make a very weird movie where the character's darkest moments of grief and anguish would be accompanied by some outrageously upbeat body shaking Latin tune.

I'm telling you this because that is what makes my ultimate sad songs so special. Cause they have managed to overcome my instinctive objection to anything trying to tell me how sad life is. I have thought a lot about these songs I chose, and they have one thing in common - they are songs that tell a story, with eloquence that, like a good book, like art is supposed to, gently erase the boundaries between your private world and everything else in the universe. So I invite you to listen to them with me. (Unfortunately, the player embedding didn't work, so just press the twango icon with the right button and open in another window)

The first one might be considered somewhat of a cliche, and comes from way back from my impressionable youth. Unlike, I suspect, the other two, this one is probably well known to my readers. The song is "Vincent" by Don McLean . It is about Van Gogh, and the lyrics make use of the images in his paintings to create an atmosphere. Another thing I like about it is that the writer, rather than shouting out his on pain, as more "conventional" sad songs do, is actually thinks of something outside himself and his world, something we all should be doing much more of:

Don Mclean - Vincent - Twango
"Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They would not listen they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do
But I could have told you Vincent
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you..."

Aw Gawd.....

Next one is a Spanish song, by the great singer-songwriter Joaquin Sabina, who's art has pretty much dominated the last 3-4 years of my life. While Spanish lyrics occasionally tend to be very emotional and explicit, every Sabina song is an independent universe , and while I don't understand some of the cultural allusions (not to mention, am nowhere near this level of Spanish) they are incredibly real to me. This Song - "Con la frente marchita"- is a very familiar story of love, interrupted by geographical distances and cultural differences, between our Spanish author and a woman from Argentina. I have no real reason to identify with the story, and it is the little details that make it one of my ultimate sad songs. For a long time it was the one song i didn't dare to defile by translation attempts, but I really want to share it with you:

06 Joaquín Sabina - Con la frente marchita(1) - Twango

"Sentados en corro merendábamos besos y porros
Y las horas pasaban deprisa entre el humo y la risa.
Te morías por volver "Con la frente marchita" cantaba Gardel
Y entre citas de Borges, Evita bailaba con Freud.
Ya llovió desde aquel chaparrón hasta hoy.

Iba cada domingo a tu puesto del Rastro a comprarte
carricoches de miga de pan, soldaditos de lata.
Con agüita del mar Andaluz quise yo enamorarte,
pero tú no querías más amor que el del Río de la Plata."

"Sitting among friends we exchanged cigarettes and kisses,
and in smoke and smiles the hours flew by.
You were dying to go back, "Con la frente marchita" sang Gardel,
And amidst quotes from Borges, Evita was dancing with Freud.
And the rain came down pouring from then until now...

Used to go every Sunday, to that place at the market to buy you
Pastry chariots, soldiers of tin.
I wished to concur you with the sea water of Andalusia,
But you needed no other love than Rio de la Plata"

Just so you know I have tears in my eyes while translating this now in the middle of Kyoto university library. Specially when i get to the end (skipped a few verses)

..."Te sentaba tan bien, esa boina calada al estilo del "Che".
Buenos Aires es como contabas, hoy fui a pasear,
y al llegar a la Plaza de Mayo me dio por llorar
y me puse a gritar: "¿Dónde estás?"

Y no volví más a tu puesto del Rastro a comprarte
corazones de miga de pan, sombreritos de lata.
Y ya nadie me escribe diciendo: "No consigo olvidarte,
ojalá que estuvieras conmigo en el Río deLa Plata"

..."And you looked so well, in that beret in the style of Che.
Buenos Aires is just as you've told me. I went for a walk,
When I got to the Plaza de Mayo I broke down and cried,
And I shouted and called "where are you?"

And I never went back, to that place at the market to buy you
Pastry hearts, little tin sombreros,
No one writes to me anymore, saying "I cannot forget you,
How i wish you were here by my side at the Rio de la Plata".

Now, those of you who haven't lost interest by now, we come to the ultimate song. This on unlike the others is very personal to me, and people who know me won't need help understanding why I identify with it. The song is "Amelia" by Joni Mitchell. It is dedicated to Amelia Earhart, the lost pilot, but it talks about many many things, and despite its serene melody is a monsoon of meaning and emotion, at least for me.

02 - Joni Mitchell - Amelia - Twango

"I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain.
It was the hexagram of the heavens,
It was the strings of my guitar.
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons if it gets through to you.
Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture-post-card-charms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm"

Once in my dorm appartament in Jerusalem I spent one of my extremely rare Bridget Jones moments playing and singing this song over and over again over a bottle of white wine. Talk about things you didn't know about me, reader.

"Maybe I've never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm..."

P.S. If any of my readers, specially the blogging ones, want to share their song choices with me, I'm very curious!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Leaving Egypt : Spring for Japanese and Israelis

The spring has finally come. Is it the nature of spring, to always come "finally" and never "too soon"?

The cherry trees are in full bloom, and I shall later perform my duty and share some photos from all the "hanami" - blossom viewings I have attended. But let me tell you first this little secret - the blooming sakura tree is most beautiful not when you come to view it, armed with a camera and the intelligence provided by weather broadcasts, but when you come upon it unexpectedly - a shimmering cloud floating over your head in the dark, as you climb over the closed gates of your university at 3 am., on your way from a wild salsa night. Appearing, breathtaking with it's unearthly purity of colour, in some spot of your everyday life, seen by you alone.

As I have witnessed this year, spring in Japan is all about blossoms and graduation/entrance ceremonies, as it is also the end and beginning of the academic year. Walking around the Kyoto University campus I was able to observe Japan's finest youth going through the various changes the season invites: first, the gorgeous, colorful hakamas of graduation ceremonies. The graduates proudly prancing around with bouquets, accompanied by excited parents and taking group pictures in those familiar Japanese poses...The proud graduates soon change into suits and go searching for jobs, faced with the rather depressing prospect of becoming a "shakaijin", productive member of society, rather than the president of "ghost stories" club or whatever. But the nest doesn't stay empty for long - the entrance ceremony, coinciding with the cherry blossoms, fills the campus again with hopeful freshmen with their shiny suits, and all those annoying club representatives, spreading invitations and wasting the rain forests and my patience as I try to make my lonely gaijin way in the crowd.
(As a tribute to the entrance ceremony only one of us was attending, our controversial Israeli - Malaysian trio also decided to bring out the suits)

In Israel, the main event of the spring is the Pesakh, also known as Spring Holiday or the Freedom Holiday. It is the ancestor of the Christian Passover, and commemorates the Jews leaving Egypt where they had been enslaved and tortured by the Pharaoh. Leaving not before performing various miracles and tricks including covering Egypt with frogs and cutting the Red Sea in two, since the Pharaoh, unlike many other rulers of the world, wasn't excited by the prospect of getting rid of the Jews. The holiday is one of the main pillars of the Jewish calendar, and in the modern Israeli society it is the day of getting all the family together, allowing them to fight over all the small grudges they have been holding for a year, and cooking insane amounts of food. That food then has to wait, so appetizing, while the family sits to the table to read (how Jewish is that) the story of the salvation from Egypt, and whatever our ancient philosophers had to say about it.

One of those comments in the scriptures caught the eye of the host of the Pesakh ceremony conducted by the Israeli community of Kyoto. It said that on this day, each of us must think of himself as he was the one leaving Egypt, and moving from slavery to freedom. Our host (far from an Orthodox Jew, father to a beautiful half Japanese baby boy) noted, that the Hebrew name of Egypt - "Mitzraim" comes from the root "narrow", a space closing on you and slowing down your movement. He suggested that it can be looked upon as a metaphor to all the things in our life that are holding us back, denying us our freedom and progress.

Sometimes we are too attached to our own flows and weaknesses. Too comfortable in the narrow spaces we confine ourselves to. It was with doubt and with mutter that the people followed Moses from the familiar slavery into the vague hope. And, after the glorious triumph over the most powerful ruler of his time, leading his people out of Egypt, he had to walk the desert for 40 years (a miracle of its own if you are familiar with Middle Eastern geography) to take Egypt out of the people. And that is the lesson we are called to remember and to pass on - chances might be handed by the sky, but changes come from within.

So, once the cherry petals glittering in the wind settle down, and the air clears for a new year, my last year on the current Japanese adventure, it is time for me, and possibly you, reader, to put some effort into freeing ourselves of some of our fears and inhibitions, doubts and prejudices, and become more ready for the journey.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Sounds of Israel - 1

A friend from home came to stay with me recently, and her presence, combined with the fact I haven't gone home in almost a year and wont be able to until the summer, made me miss Israel more and more. This specific project I started thinking of (quite different than "working on") after me and my girlfriends had a little cultural exchange over You tube at our autumnal sleepover, but now it can also serve as therapy, so why not.
The Japanese like to claim that no foreigner can ever fully understand Japan, its culture, its people's behavior and so on. I claim that it is possible to get a pretty good understanding of what modern Israel and its people are by personal experience, even a short visit (it can also pretty much be crossed through its length in a one day car ride, very small country, keep in mind). But since for most of my friends such a visit will have to wait for now (in some cases, till hell freezes over, unfortunately), I thought of a way to introduce some of the aspects of Israel's reality and society through its sounds and occasional images. As I've noticed, most foreigners don't really understand how culturally different Israelis are from the image of European Jews of old most of them have from movies and what not. Well, prepare to be surprised. 8-)

I tried to introduce artists of different genres, not necessarily music I listen to myself. I'm everything but an expert on Israeli music (although, in my defence, I did date the guy who wrote the music column in my university's newspaper for a year and a half) I was also limited in my choice by what you tube has to offer, which was surprisingly a lot for, again, such a small country.

I'll begin with one of the most interesting things that happened to the Israeli music in recent years - The Idan Raichel Project. This guy Idan Raichel (and yes, it is his real hair) incorporated his own music and lyrics with the traditional music of the Ethiopian Jews, using Ethiopian musicians and singers, their religious singing and the Amharic language. Providing an insight to one of the most interesting and least explored cultures brought to Israel by immigrants, the project became insanely popular, and the radio stations played it to the point we all wanted to kill the guy. This song is my favorite, and I like the video that shows very typical views of the old city in Jerusalem. Their other songs have amazing female vocals and many other cultural influences, I highly recommend.
The Idan Raichel Project - From the Depths

However, embracing the country's cultural diversity wasn't always as much of a trend as it is now. For a few good decades the country's popular music scene was pretty much monopolised by western influence (as well as musicians of European origin). Some of these people were quite talented, and a lot of them started in the army bands - an important institution in Israeli music. They were young, the country was young, and between the wars they were having quite a good time (as at least the 60's-70's movies seem to suggest). One of the greatest bands that came out of this period and outlived it by far is the band Kaveret (the beehive). These guys, who can be seen in the first video from Eurovision 74, proceeded to become the most unique and influential rock band of their times. What was great about them was their sense of humour that came through in the lyrics, the personages they created, the performances and so on. Few years ago they united for a concert, and the stadium was full of young people who weren't even born at the time they last performed, but who knew all the words of the songs.
Kaveret - I Gave Her My Life

The Eurovision song, seemingly a cute song about hopeless love, was seen by many as a political song, talking about the Yom Kipur war that had just ended, peace with the Palestinians and so on. The English lyrics (that can be found somewhere in the net) don't really reveal all that, but supposedly the songs title - "I gave her my life" refers to the prime minister Golda Meir. "I gave her my life/ I stood on my knees/ Trust me, everyone,/ It wasn't worth it.

I tried hard to find something recent, but 84 was the best I could do. This is another very famous and very funny song (I might find the lyrics later) and you can appreciate the band's music style.
Kaveret - Yo Ya

While as i mentioned, the center of the stage was occupied by the western styles of music, Israelis of the eastern ("mizrahi" - Moroccan, Tunisian, Yemenite and so on) origin had music styles and talents of their own, but those were for a long time neglected and (as western culture would usually have it) looked down upon. The biggest name in this field was doubtlessly Zohar Argov (referred to as "the king"). As you might notice the name Argov sounds quite Russian - the singer was made to change his last name by his managers to become more familiar to the general public. Zohar's voice and talent could not be ignored, but neither, as u may see by the absurd dancers in the background of the video, was the mainstream able to connect to it very well. The singer himself died of drug abuse at a relatively young age. I myself am not a big fan of the traditional "mizrahit" music style, as it was rarely followed by interesting lyrics and was, for the most part, depressing as hell. But this song I do like a lot.
Zohar Argov - The Flower in My Garden

Those days are gone, however, by now artists of eastern origin have taken over the popular music world, and, more importantly - any modern Israeli artist wherever he or his ancestors might be from, views the eastern music styles as part of his cultural background and of what composes the distinctive "Israeli" sound. One of the first to combine eastern sounds in pop music was a band called Etnix, whom I remember well from my school years. This song is not their most famous, and I include it for two main reasons - the social reality portrayed by the lyrics and the fact at least one of my friends might enjoy the guy in the video 8-). It is the actor Sami Huri, and the actual band are the dudes with wigs dancing in the field. The story plays again on the culture clash between the Israelis of European origin (ashkenazim) and the mizrahim. Because of the way he dresses and looks, the golden chain he wears and the music he listens to, the blond girl considers our hero to be a useless punk, a "local Al Pachino", and so he returns to his roots and goes back to the "hood" to party. Please ignore the bar-mitzva boy introduction by a couple of pretty famous comedians.
Etnix - Black BMW

In case the selection is getting too ethnic for you, here is some hardcore rock, where you don't miss much by not knowing the language as the words are pretty impossible to make out as it is.
These are Hayehudim (The Jews). I knew very little about them until in the army I once shared a room with a girl who was all about that music, and this song in particular. These two are actually a married couple in real life. They met (as if to prove a point I previously made) in an army band.
Hayahedim - Ella

Another big name in the rock music is Berry Sacharof, whom I also didn't appreciate until I saw him in concert on some Student Day in Jerusalem. Very interesting musician, great part of his career was side by side with Rami Fortis. I had much trouble choosing a video with a good sound that would transmit the energies of a concert, so to my rocker readers I strongly advise to listen to some more. Fortis and Sakharof can also be heard in English under the name Minimal Compact.
Berry Sakharof - This Is How It Is, Loving You

Ok this is getting long, so perhaps for a first taste that should be enough. If by chance any of my Israeli readers has corrections and suggestions, feel free. Coming up next (if i see someone is actually reading and listening): Zionist hip-hoppers, Hebrew rappers, Israeli Idols (thank God they didn't call it that!) and so on. Stay tuned.