Zohar Argov and the Hebrew Language Gap

by Norman Berdichevsky (May 2013)


Zohar Argov (1955-1987) is a name that only provokes a blank stare from an overwhelming majority of American Jews. He was more than a popular singer and represented the underprivileged, under represented Mizrahi (Oriental) face of Israel. He was called the King and deserved the title as much or more than Elvis did. Zohar came from the most impoverished sector of Israeli Jewish society, the oldest child in a family of ten of Yemenite immigrant parents and became the leading figure of the Mizrahi and Mediterranean music in Israel, following the startling victory of Menahem Begin and the Herut-Likud Movement that had become the champion of many Mizrahim in the 1977 general elections.

He was strikingly handsome with very pronounced Middle Eastern features, almost as dark in skin complexion as Obama and by the time of his premature death at age 32, had achieved more success than any popular Israeli entertainer. His voice and oriental style of singing had until his appearance, largely been consigned to hazzanut (cantorial repertoire and the use of silsul or trills akin to warbling).

It is no exaggeration to say that his fame and achievements are unknown among American Jews who are at least 97% of East European origin (Ashkenazim) and are with each passing generation more and more ignorant of popular Israeli culture, literature and much public debate in the Modern Hebrew language.


"Flower in my garden"- "haPerach begani"

Popular perceptions and attitudes, as well as much literature and film, continue to assume the close relations of the Jewish Diaspora with the State of Israel and universally regard the latter as “The Jewish State.” They thereby ignore the growing divergence between the two. This growing gap between the Diaspora existence and the culture, lifestyle, and critical security needs of most of Israel’s Jewish population was demonstrably apparent in the 2012 Presidential election campaign and will widen still further in the future. “Jews” used to be regarded as a group in their Diaspora communities enjoying a large and growing measure of solidarity with Zionism and the State of Israel in the face of a common challenge or threat as was the case between approximately 1930-1967.

This is no longer so and by 2030, a majority of the world’s Jews will probably be Hebrew speakers living in Israel and the divergence between it and the Diaspora seems destined to increase. American Jews living in Israel favored the Republican presidential candidate, Governor Mitt Romney and his much more pro-Israel stance, but were outnumbered by American-Jewish supporters of the President at home by a huge margin. In the last week of October, 80 thousand ballots, weighing 500 lbs. were sent to the U.S. embassy in Tel-Aviv. The respected Shaviv Strategy and Campaign service conducted an exit poll among the ex-pats. With a sample of 1,572 voters, and a margin of error of around 2.5%, the results were Republican Mitt Romney 85.0%, Incumbent Democrat Barack Obama 14.3%, and other write-ins 0.6%. At home, American Jews voted at least two–thirds for Obama.

Over the past two generations, there has been a steady decline among American Jews in the cultural and emotional identification they feel with Modern Hebrew literature, song and dance, elements that once drew many Jews in the Diaspora close to the Zionist project and the emergence of a modern national Israeli culture. Nothing better illustrates why Jewish identity no longer encompasses this sense of solidarity or the intense pride found among many hyphenated “ethnic” Americans than two recent films.

The popular film The First Wives Club opens with a telling scene in which Bette Midler, playing a Jewish housewife intrudes on her teenage son Jason, who is listening to some rock group on his Walkman, and triumphantly tells him that she was able to hire his favorite rock band for his bar-mitzvah ceremony. He is overjoyed, exclaiming “that’s cool!” and kisses his mother, at which point she rips out the cassette he has been listening to and inserts another one; he listens for a moment and exclaims with a look of pained boredom on his face his surprise at the cassette’s opening words of a traditional prayer which one can clearly hear on the Walkman, …Baruch Ata Adonai….(sounds like gibberish to him) and asks ”What’s this?” She responds – "It’s Hebrew! Learn it! Your Bar-Mitzvah is in three weeks - It’s the only thing you father will pay for– Don’t embarrass me at the synagogue.”

It is worth noting the striking contrast between First Wives Club and another movie dealing with an ethnic theme, My Big Fat Greek Wedding that humorously deals with a Greek-American woman, Toula Poutakalos, in Chicago, her traditional family and the prospect of “intermarriage” with her Anglo-American boyfriend. Toula (an authentic Greek name) has been raised bilingually and is totally familiar with Greek history, philosophy, language and literature, the arts and the rites of the Orthodox Church to make her father proud without being bribed.  

Many of the students I teach in introductory Hebrew enter the class not even knowing that Ivrit?????  is the Hebrew word for Hebrew! This indicates a serious deficiency in education and ethnic identification with Israel that would simply be unimaginable in the case of Finnish-Americans not knowing what Suomi is, or Hungarian-Americans Magyar.

Modern and Biblical Hebrew

Speakers of Modern Hebrew with a university education have a vocabulary of more than 60,000 words. Ex-Israelis who now live outside the country, the so called “yordim,” constitute a widespread new Diaspora but retain knowledge of their primary or habitual language at home and, like other ethnic groups, follow events in their former homeland through the internet, press, frequent visits and books so that they keep abreast of the country’s development.

Their language is not shared by the inhabitants of any other state, nor is it understood by their “fellow Jews” in the Diaspora who pray in the liturgical language of the traditional synagogue with an awkward grammatical structure from the standpoint of the modern language. Scholars who are experts in the language of the Bible and the Mishna/Talmud have a vocabulary of no more than 10,000 words. For those who attend synagogue services regularly, they either simply read aloud words, the meaning of which they don’t know, and are content to glance at a parallel English translation and transliteration, or are able to grasp less than 500 words, none of which are required for the functioning of a modern society.

American Jews retain an emotional attachment to Yiddish and the associated cuisine, music, and folklore of Eastern Europe. Their attachment to nostalgic Yiddish fragments, such as herring, bagels and borscht for the most part outweighs any similar set of attitudes towards Israel and its Levantine setting, Semitic language and a taste for humus and falafel. 

Lack of a Common Language as well as Territory

The lack of a common language is an obvious but overlooked factor in explaining why so many of them are insensitive or unappreciative of the creation of a modern nation, national literature and spoken idiom that makes Hebrew quite distinct from the language of ritual prayers recited in the synagogue. Many American Jews, in spite of numerous trips to Israel, are wholly unaware of much of “what makes Israeli society tick” and that all laws, debates in the Knesset, the legal cases in court, and applications for patents, are in Hebrew. Their view of Israeli affairs is often considerably biased because it is based on highly selected and fragmentary extracts of published material translated from Hebrew by the media. Readers of the establishment Israeli newspaper HaAretz in English get a totally different world view from readers in Hebrew.

An example of how American Jews bring with them inherently American attitudes, assumptions and prejudices was the recent attempt to establish a professional Israeli major league baseball league in spite of numerous warnings in the Hebrew press and from Israeli sports journalists that the game was too slow, too complicated and would never appeal to the Israeli People. Nevertheless, the American promoters of the idea went ahead, consistent with their preconception that “Jews” (i.e. Israelis) should love baseball because Jews in America do. The league barely survived one year. It is no wonder that if they haven’t lived in Israel previously for many years, they would not be familiar with the standings of Israeli soccer teams, the latest plays and movies or the music of Zohar Argov.   

Back to Zohar - From Orkavi to Argov

Like his dad, who performed as a wedding singer accompanied by the traditional snare drum, the young Zohar possessed outstanding musical talents, especially as a singer. To the amazement of his professional recording staff, he only needed “one take” to sing perfectly on key. Eastern-Mediterranean style music was definitely not mainstream in the Israel of Zohar’s youth although during the period of the mandate, two outstanding women singers of popular music and of Yemenite origin, Shoshana Damari and Yaffa Yarkoni were stars who were often marketed to the Jewish Diaspora abroad as typical of Israel’s Oriental-Sephardi “exotic” communities although they were only a small part of the Zionist settlement activity and modern cultural production in Hebrew. Radio stations gave predominance to pop music from abroad, especially American, British and French.

Many Mizrahi Jews in Israel felt that they were being discriminated against by the Ashkenazi hegemony which extended into all cultural fields. (See “Edot HaMizrah” Israel’s Oriental Jewish Communities New English Review, August 2009) Therefore, on the advice of his manager, Zohar changed his family name from the typical Yemenite sounding Orkavi to the more neutral sounding Argov but this device was hardly necessary and even comical and ironic since Zohar was already immediately identifiable by his Yemenite features and singing style. The managers themselves were of Yemenite origin.

Zohar’s Argov's socioeconomic background in the poor Yemenite quarter of Rishon LeZion, scant education and avoidance of military service all marked him for expectations of failure. Through his participation from early childhood in the singing and chanting of the religious Yemenite community, he polished his style at home until given a chance in 1981 to make his first cassette recording debut album, Eleanor (1981) that featured the title track, "Sod HaMazalot" ("The Zodiac Secret"), and "Mah Lakh, Yaldah?" ("What's With You, Girl?"). A divorce from his wife Bracha with whom he had a son and with whom he earnestly tried to reconcile, added to his personal problems but the immediate success of the first album even on a very low quality cassette made him sought after by recording studios and nightclubs and the object of adulation by thousands of Israeli teenage girls.

He could make perfect recordings in different versions after having recorded an initial take and had a remarkable talent for improvisation that respected the spirit of the song yet enabled him to leave his personal mark. The themes of Argov's songs were quite similar to the repertoire of American country music: love, heartache, divorce, disappointment, joy, and addiction. His popularity also sparked a major demand from the Mizrahi public to accord greater respect to their music and many popular traditions– a theme which the Likud Movement and Prime Minister Begin were also able to capitalize on.

In his autobiographical account, The Revolt, Begin wrote of the attempts to blacken the image of the Irgun he led, by accusations against its “primitive Yemenite” supporters….

In the Red Section (the Shock Units of the Irgun), there were many excellent fighters, and all, or almost all looked like Arabs. But it is not only people from the Arab countries who are dark-skinned). There are many Ashkenazi Jews from Europe who are no less dark-skinned and are sometimes darker than the purest Sephardi. It is true however, that many of the fighters in the Shock Units sprang from the eastern communities. Hence the story, disseminated particularly by the British press correspondents, of the ‘Black Squad’ of the Irgun. Ben-Gurion, in an attempt to prove to British Foreign Minister Bevin that the Irgun was both qualitatively and quantitatively a ‘negligible factor’ repeated this lie. (see The Yemenites New English Review December 2011).

Paradoxically, it was the very “clannishness” of the Yemenites that undoubtedly allowed them to make the most significant contribution among non-Ashkenazim to the contemporary Hebrew culture of Israel, especially in song, dance, popular music and song, design of embroidery, jewelry, and religious ornaments.

"The Flower in My Garden" – “HaPerach beGani" by songwriter Avihu Medina was Zohar’s biggest hit. The song's great success came at the time of the Lebanon War, which broke out about two months after Argov won the Mizrahi Song Competition with his rendition of the song. Army Radio played music requested by soldiers at the Front and the most popular request was "Flower in My Garden." It became a hit because they let the soldiers choose and they were many from every ethnic background.

Medina is himself of a religious Yemenite background and his father was a cantor. It is not only the melody but the lyrics that mark it as recognizably written in a poetic vein. He explained in an interview that “The Hebrew on which my generation grew up was much more correct, and used many more metaphors, than today's Hebrew; much closer to the Song of Songs. And the atmosphere was also entirely different. There was a desire to establish the State of Israel and its culture on the basis of Jewish sources. Only at a later stage did we begin to feel more confident, and then we let go and started playing around with street language. Don't forget I came from a religious home, which the 'songwriters of Israeli rock' didn't have. Although I passed through the kibbutz, for me it's all combined: the things I absorbed in the religious world and the things I absorbed in the secular world. I think that the sum total is "The Flower in My Garden."

Zohar committed suicide in his jail cell following an arrest on rape charges, a tragedy felt particularly strongly by many of his fans. Following his death, he has retained the undisputed title of "HaMelekh" (the King) of Mizrahi music. His importance to Israeli culture has been widely acknowledged and proposals to name streets after him were submitted to both the Rishon Le-Zion and Tel-Aviv municipalities. In a nationwide poll, he was voted as number 60 among the 200 greatest Israelis. If one looks only at entertainers and singers, he is in the top five. The municipalities have also recently responded positively to demands to name streets honoring more women, Arabs and Mizrahi Jews but apparently hesitated about Zohar Argov because of the  rape conviction and the fear of not being politically correct.

Ron Kahili, the TV producer and editor who created the series "Yam Shel D'ma'ot" (Sea of Tears – also a verse from one of Zohar’s many hits) about Mizrahi music in Israel, argues that "every marginalized group in Israeli society suffers from delegitimization, and the heroes of these groups almost always are blemished. Whoever talked about Mizrahi identity, …was assailed, be it by various accusations or mockery because he is dumb or doesn't know English. Anyone who sifts through the biography of just about every Israeli hero will find some flaw. Naming a street after Moshe Dayan is okay? There are complex legitimate heroes and Zohar Argov, a revolutionary who symbolized an entire generation and did not capitulate to the mainstream, is one of them. I'm not making light of the rape, and there is no need to sweep the blemish under the rug, but if you compare him to other legitimate heroes, it's not particularly unusual."

The Coming Book

The disinterest in the Modern Hebrew language and the sometimes poor quality of instruction throughout the Diaspora are an unfortunate result of the decline in the worldwide devotion to the national rebirth that Zionism sponsored. For most Jews outside Israel, the language is still perceived only as part of the religious liturgy and ceremonial rituals. During the pre-statehood period, Jews in the Diaspora sympathetic to Zionism regarded it as the creator of the new and dynamic largely secular Hebrew culture, the product of three generations of pioneers.

Many new Mizrahi-Sephardi stars have followed Zohar Argov -  Haim Moshe, Boaz Shar'abi, Yehoram Gaon, Ofra Haza, Rita (Yahan-Farouz), Margolit Tsenaani, and Shlomo Ber but these too are all largely unknown outside of Israel. The Modern Hebrew language, so successful in Israel, has fallen on its face in much of the diaspora following the disappearance of the dynamic atmosphere of the campfire, the pioneers and victorious Israeli army of 1948, 1956 and 1967 that produced dozens of wonderful songs and enthused teachers and students. I found the ignorance of so many American Jews about modern Israeli society in general and – not just Zohar Argov - deplorable and decided to write a book that is now in its final editing stages entitled:

Ivrit – Israel’s Revolutionary Language; Challenges, Achievements, Dilemmas, and Prospects.

This book explores the historical background, past and current controversies, challenges and dilemmas facing the Israeli people that stem from the choice made four generations ago to create a renewed nation of Jews in the Land of Israel with Hebrew as their national language. It is a brief study in the politics, linguistics and sociology of language exploring the relationship of the Israelis with the Jewish Diaspora as well as their fellow citizens, the Hebrew-speaking "Arab" population. It also examines the remarkable claims made by the “Bible Code” predicting the future and “Edenics,” the belief in the essential truth of the Tower of Babel Bible story with Hebrew as the original language, subsequently diffused to the rest of mankind.

The book examines some of the basic “mechanics of the language,” as a role model for other national revivals, how it overcame the many obstacles to revival as a spoken vernacular and the growing prestige and significance of the language nationally, worldwide and historically. It also reveals the original Hebrew language sources on considerable but little known Arab-Jewish cooperation during the mandate that have not yet been translated into English (see Palestine Betrayed (by the Palestinians) (September 2012) and Arab Support for Zionism, 1917-1948 (Feb. 2009) and the importance of the language for mutual understanding between Israelis and Diaspora Jews.

It is a book dealing primarily with the social and political use of the language and does not cover literature nor is it another biography of the pioneer founder of the movement to make Hebrew into a modern spoken language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. It is the story of his vision and how it animated a large part of the Jewish world, gave new confidence and pride to Jewish youth during the most difficult period of modern Jewish history and infused Zionism with a dynamic cultural content.

Norman Berdichevsky's latest book is The Left is Seldom Right.

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