By Emmanuel Cantor
“Guess what?” my friend smiled as we snacked on dates in the courtyard of his Tel Aviv home over winter break. “I can’t believe it, I love Mizrahi music.” Broadly, he meant the Mediterranean rhythms and romantic melodies produced by Israelis with Mizrahi roots, Jews who descend from the Islamic world. Specifically, my friend meant the new hit single “Derech Hashalom” by Pe’er Tasi.
Tasi’s chart topper is replete with the vocal trills, percussion, strings, and accented Chets and Ayins characteristic of the Mizrahi genre. The song chronicles Tasi’s experience with a mysteriously alluring woman who, on the pretext of the stifling Tel Aviv heat, invites him to her apartment on Derech Hashalom, Peace Boulevard. “Derech Hashalom” remained the most popular song in the country for five weeks. My Facebook newsfeed was flooded with memes attesting to Tasi’s creative genius. So why my friend’s disbelief?
A proper history of Mizrahim (plural of Mizrahi) in Israeli society is beyond the scope of this article, but integral to understanding the country’s relationship to Mizrahi music. After 1948, most Mizrahim were either expelled by their Muslim neighbors or elected to leave under increasing anti-Semitism in countries like Syria and Iraq. When they emigrated to the newly established State of Israel they found themselves in a fledging country reeling from a vicious war and undergoing a threefold population boom. The tanned, bruised pioneers of mostly Ashkenazi, or European, heritage were woefully unprepared to absorb the waves of immigrants. Many of the founders looked upon the unexpected arrivals with contempt. Mizrahi traditions clashed with the secularist, socialist, and European ideals of the establishment. Though the leadership was committed to the “ingathering of exiles,” Mizrahim were typically relocated first to ramshackle desert tent cities, then to seedy development towns on Israel’s periphery.
The identity politics espoused by movements such as the Israeli Black Panthers and Shas party are testament to the collective sense of disenfranchisement felt by many Mizrahim throughout Israel’s history. Today many formal economic and social divides persist. Nevertheless, as journalist Mati Friedman observes, Mizrahi religious practice, political thought, and pop culture—like Tasi’s hit—play prominent roles in Israeli society. Mizrahim now comprise of at least half of Israel’s Jewish population, and their music is emerging as the nation’s trademark genre. “Derech Hashalom’s” meteoric rise is a microcosm of this slow, but seismic trend.
This past year Israelis mourned the death of Arik Einstein and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. Einstein, an Ashkenazi through and through, essentially defined Israeli music in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His classic rock ballads, reminiscent of the kibbutz and Tel Aviv, captured the country’s heart. They were also distinctly Ashkenazi in character. Yosef, celebrated as the champion of traditional Mizrahi Jews, was considered by many to be the most important Israeli rabbinic authority until his death. From his Jerusalem headquarters, Yosef oversaw the founding of Shas, a powerful political party committed to representing Mizrahi and their religious interests.
The passing of these two giants undoubtedly signifies a new chapter in Israeli life. Although eulogies praised both Einstein and Yosef separately as unifiers, they were largely mourned by radically different Israelis. Fast forward to this December however, and my entire public bus, filled with Ashkenazim and Mizrahim alike, enjoyed “Derech Hashalom” as we zipped between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Emmanuel Cantor ’18 is in Ezra Stiles College. Emmanuel writes about Israeli political and cultural current events. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org