Author Archives: Maya Or

Israeli Folk Music

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Shira Betzibur

/Shee ra Beh tzee boor/

Singing in Public

“In the past 6 years since I left my homeland Israel, I was asked more than a few times what is considered very “Israeli” by me. There are many answers to that question, but one of them, the “shira betzibur” is a bit different, as I truly used to believe that it exists in many other countries, and was surprised to discover that it is rather a unique Israeli folklore. Unlike the world-to-world translation to English, it is actually a getting together of a big group of friends in order to sing together familiar Israeli songs, mainly from the past, usually accompanied by one guitar player (or another musical instrument). Most of these singing events were performed by adults, and by youngsters that belonged to youth movement, and can be traced to the early 20th century. In recent years these singing events became much less common, thought they still exist, and are still very popular within Israeli communities abroad.

I was first introduced to this way of singing around the age of 9, when I joined a Youth Movement, and loved it, because I loved to sing and to spend time with my friends in this lovely atmosphere.

Looking back, it strikes me as a good way of keeping the Israeli songs going, especially now, when they are a tiny portion of the international music that is played by the Israeli media”

Unfortunately, though I spent 12 years in Israel, I rarely experienced these kinds of events in Israel, and I regret it, as it strikes me of one of the characteristics of the Israeli mentality. Without experiencing these I can only find meaning in what I think it symbolizes. I believe the significance is in the unity, something that is very cherished in Israel due to the size of the nation and the antagonistic feelings toward it. I also think it comes to show a culture of times past. This form of singing is not as common as it was during the past generation. I believe Israel used to be a larger cultural center than it is now, and it now tends towards a different form of music, which is more rap like, or just bringing American music to Israel. In this way it made Israel unique, and nowadays the tradition is mostly kept on during official ceremonies, or in small groups/clubs.

The most famous form of this singing is kept on going in Israel through the military bands, these are the bands that play in the formerly mentioned ceremonies. Attached is a video recording of one of my favorite examples of such songs, Choref 73 (winter 73, Winter of 1973), originally sang by one of these military bands named Lehakat Cheil HaChinuch (Education and Youth Corps band).

Most songs sang in this form speak of hope, unity, and looking towards the future. Some songs are slow, others tend to be upbeat. Those that are upbeat usually involve more crowd participation, perhaps a younger one. Those who are melancholy are there to invoke certain feelings in the public, to form a sense of community. And maybe, the Shira Betzibur was part of Israel as a country in formation, with pioneers full of ideals, part of which were symbolized by this form of singing. And now, as Israel has evolved and solidified, it is just natural for this idealistic folklore to slowly vanish, or to acquire other forms.

Israeli 70’s Slang

Old and New Versions of Street Signs

Lehizdangef- ???????

/Leh HEE zdaan gef/

To Dizengoff oneself- to stroll down Dizengoff street

My mother, Aviva, told me about this slang, in one of our visits to our home country, Israel.

Aviva was born in Tel-Aviv, Israel, and is the 7th generation Israeli from her mother’s side. My mother grew up in Israel and had immigrated to America in the last couple of years.

As any other Israeli girl, who lived in the vicinity of Tel-Aviv, and born in the city itself, I was very familiar with Dizengoff Street, a major street in the central part of Tel-Aviv, named after the first mayor. I used to spend time in the mall that is located there, looking at the new Israeli designers’ boutiques that seem to multiply towards the northern part of the street, and eating Cholent on Shabbat in “Batia” (/But yah/), the best cholent restaurant in town.  The street is old, never had it occurred to me that it is more than just an old street in the old part of the city.

This changed when we paid the desired visit to “Batia” restaurant while visiting Israel this past year. After we were done with the heavy dish, my mother told us, in Hebrew –“Bo Nelech Lehizdangef” (Let’s go Lehizdangef). As a girl born in the 90s, I started laughing and complimented my mother for her lingual creativity, only to learn that this was definitely not the case. And this is what my mother told me:

“When I was a teenager, most of the social life of my age group was about spending time together, either at someone’s house or strolling together. The most exciting street to walk was Dizengoff Street in Tel-Aviv, which was back then considered the Champs-Elysees of Tel-Aviv. It was a long, quite wide street, with many shops, boutiques, and popular restaurants and coffee shops, and also close enough to the beach. Everyone strolled down this street; hence it was the “right” place to be seen in, and a good one to meet new people. It actually became an “institution” and so popular it was that strolling down Dizengoff Street created a verb in the spoken Hebrew- Lehizdangef. The street was so popular, that in 1979, a movie called “Dizengoff 99” was created, which described life around this famous street. During the years, starting at the 70s, the street gradually lost its popularity to the modern parts that started developing in Tel-Aviv, but the verb still exists, and is also used to describe strolling down the streets in Tel-Aviv, mainly for window shopping and coffee drinking.“

The story fascinated me, as I love to hear tales about the way Israel was in the past, as a new developing country. It seems to me that this period, when people really spent time together not via facebook, and enjoyed a more genuine way of social life, was a much happier one.

Indian Festival

“Most people don’t know the mythological reasons of why Holi is celebrated, and only know that it’s the “Festival of Spring.” It’s a holiday in India that takes place usually around April. And basically everyone comes out in the streets to celebrate by wearing white and then throwing colored powder/ colored water on each other, some even bring water guns, to celebrate the arrival of spring. I’ve basically been celebrating it all my life. Personally it has no religious significance. It’s like Halloween, not that religious and mostly just for fun… I don’t know if that analogy makes sense. I guess I do connect it to my childhood, but other than that it has no great significance (nothing like Christmas or Easter, or other major Indian holidays like Diwali). It’s just ridiculously fun. You guys should celebrate it at USC.”

I had the pleasure of hearing of such festivities from Rohini when she came to visit one of my close friends here, who is also Indian, during Spring Break. Though Rohini lives in Tennessee, and goes to college in Maryland, she does not neglect these Indian traditions. Since Rohini did not know the real significance or any history of the festival I went and searched for information about it online, where I came across the site. This site was made in order to educate people about Holi festivals as well as other traditions that follow with the Holi festival such as recipes and other festivals. The fact that there exists an online website for the festival, along with Rohini’s explanation that it is celebrated for enjoyment mostly and that teens do not really know the background of it, makes me think that this festival has become very popular around the world and perhaps much more commercialized than originally intended. According to the website the Holi Festival was originally named Holika and has a religious aspect to it. The site supports my first impression that said the festival has changed in meaning over the years and apparently in the early years it was “special rite performed by married women for the happiness and well-being of their families and the full moon (Raka) was worshiped.” To add to this folk festival, there are several folk legends as to why this festival is celebrated, the official site speaks of one legend in particular, the legend of Hiranyakashyap; “Hiranyakashyap wanted everybody in his kingdom to worship only him but to his great disappointment, his son, Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Naarayana. Hiaranyakashyap commanded his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. Holika had a boon whereby she could enter fire without any damage on herself. However, she was not aware that the boon worked only when she enters the fire alone. As a result she paid a price for her sinister desires, while Prahlad was saved by the grace of the god for his extreme devotion. The festival, therefore, celebrates the victory of good over evil and also the triumph of devotion.”

Although the site does present this historical and mythological context, it also shows the modernization by not only using the internet as a tool of education, but also due to the links found on the page that include “Holi SMS” and “Holi Gifts”, that latter one also suggesting the commercialization of the festival nowadays.

Holi Festivals are extremely known and popular and can be found all around the world, in Bangladesh, Guyana, Mauritius, Nepal, Pakistan, South Africa, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, the UK and of course in the USA.[1]

[1] Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India. “Holi Around the World,Holi Celebrations Around the World.” Holi – Holi Day,Holi 2012,Holi Festival India. Web. 23 Apr. 2011. <>

Korean Bed Time Story

“There is a story my nanny used to tell me before I go to bed.

My mom used to work, so a nanny and a nanny’s mom used to live with us, when I was little.

They used to tell me the bedtime stories, and their stories are a little different each time, but basically ending is same.

Later I read that story in a book of tales myself, but it was not as fun as their story, since they used to make voices of characters.

The story was very similar to the versions I heard from the nanny and her mother, only thing different is my storyteller used to say corn stalks instead of sorghum stalks.”

Mrs. Lee had told me this story when I had first met her over dinner. She is the mother of my friend and fellow Trojan, Deborah Lee, as well as my sister’s friend and fellow peer at Dartmouth College, Rebecca Lee. Mrs. Lee doesn’t recall the first time her nannies began telling her this story, but she says that she used to tell it to Deborah and Rebecca as well when they were little, and hopes that they will one day tell it to their children as a bedtime story.

The following is a version of the story, as told by Mrs. Lee

“Once upon a time, there was an old woman who lived alone with her two children. One day she left her kids, the boy and the girl, at home and went over the mountains to help prepare food for a festival. That night, when she was on her way home with some rice cakes for her children, a bigggggg scary tiger appeared and stopped her on her way!

He said: ‘Grandma, grandma, what have you got there?” then she answered ‘I’m headed back from a festival with rice cakes for my children,” at this point my nannies always made the tiger voice sound so deep while the mother’s voice was so gentle, I’ll never forget the sounds they made!

‘Give me one!’ demanded the big scary tiger.

‘But…. these are for my children…’ she answered back, hoping that will make the tiger leave her alone.

‘Give me one or I’ll eat you up!’, my nanny always put her face close to mine when she said that to scare me! But it only made me giggle because she meant no harm.

Anyway, back to the story. The old woman didn’t know what to do but to give the tiger a rice cake. She then continued on her way, and as she rested on the next hill, the tiger appeared again and blocked her path.

‘Grandma, grandma, give me a rice cake or I’ll eat you up!’ he said.

So she gave him another rice cake and went on her way, but the tiger stopped her again and again, until she was out of rice cakes. I thought to myself, wow that tiger is so mean!  Why would he do that to the poor old woman?

But anyway, the old woman then rushed to go over the next hill, but there was the tiger again and again he sat right in front of her. I was nervous; I didn’t know what was going to happen! Somehow every time they read this story to me I got nervous all over again, even if I knew what was about to occur.

‘Grandma, grandma, give me a rice cake or I’ll eat you up!’ he repeated once more.

So she said to him, ‘I cannot give you any rice cakes. They are all gone.’

And the big scary tiger said, ‘Then cut off one of your arms and give it to me.’

‘No! How will I live if I cut off an arm?’,  my nannies would make their voices high pitched here, to show the fear in her voice.

‘Give me an arm or I’ll eat you up!’ they would growl here too.

So, the old woman had no choice. She cut off one of her arms and tossed it to the tiger, and while he took his time eating it she rushed to get over the next passes. I was so surprised that she gave up so easily! I would have never cut up my arm, even though the tiger seemed so scary to me at the time. Perhaps I would have actually, since as a child I had no sense of pain yet really…

Okay back to the story! So she gets away but once again, the tiger shows up before her.

So he said to her, ‘Grandma, grandma, give me that other arm,’ and she of course refuses.

‘No! How am I to live with no arms?’ But the scary tiger kept on and said, ‘Give me your other arm, or I’ll eat you up!’

The old woman then cut off her other arm, dropped it in front of the tiger, and continued on her way. As she went over the next pass, the tiger stopped her again!

‘Grandma, grandma!’ he yelled out. And she answered, ‘What is it?’, as if she had no idea what he could possibly want now. So he said, ‘Give me a leg.’

The old woman yelled, ‘No! How will I get home if I give you a leg?’ she asked him. He then insisted, ’Give me a leg, or I’ll eat you up!’.

So she cut off a leg and gave it to him, and she had to hop all the way home, except she met the tiger at the next pass.

Then he said again, ‘Grandma, grandma, give me your other leg!’.

So she answered, ‘No! If I give you my last leg, how will I get home?’ but he yelled out ‘Give me that leg or I’ll eat you up!’

So she gave him the other leg and she had to roll over all the way to the next hill. But there was no escape; the tiger was waiting for her.

‘Grandma, grandma, I’m going to eat you up.’

‘Don’t!’ she cried out, ‘I’m almost home! I need to take care of my children?’

‘I will,’ laughed the big scary tiger, and he ate the old woman up. He put on her clothes and went to the house, where the children were awaiting their mother’s return.

‘Children!  Children!’ called the big scary tiger, ‘I’m back from the festival. Let me in!’ pretending to be their mother.

‘You’re not our mother,’ they said. ‘Her voice doesn’t sound like that.’

‘It is me! I was at a festival. I’m hoarse from singing all day,’ said the tiger. ‘Now listen, I’m your mother. Let me in.’

When they peeked outside, the boy and the girl could see that it was not their mother.

‘Then show us your hand,’ they called out to the tiger.

So the tiger put his paw through the crack in the door. ‘You’re not our mother!’ the little girl said, ‘Her hand isn’t rough and bristly like that!’

‘My hand is rough from working all day, let me in’ said the tiger.

‘No! Mother’s hand is smooth and soft because she uses oil and powder,’ said the boy.

And so the tiger realized he had to trick the kids to let him in, they were smarter than he imagined! So he went to a mill nearby and oiled his paws, then covered them with white flour and went back to the house.

‘Children, children, I’m home. Let me in!’ he called, this time in a high voice.

‘Show us your hand.’ This time, when the tiger showed his paw, it was pale and soft, just like the mother’s.

‘It must be our mother this time,’ the children decided, and they let him into the house.

The tiger, disguised as their mother, quickly put them to bed, intending to eat them as they slept, but fortunately for the children it was he who fell asleep first. While the tiger slept, the boy and girl quickly escaped the house and climbed the tall tree that grew over the well out back. When the tiger came out, he saw their reflection down in the well.

‘There you are!’ he called out, but as he was about to jump in to get them the boy giggled. The tiger heard him and looked up. ‘How did you get up there so quickly?” he yelled.

‘We rubbed oil all over our hands and climbed up,’ said the sneaky little girl. The tiger did just that, but when he tried to climb the tree, it was too slippery.

‘Children, how did you get up the tree?’ the tiger asked again, getting angrier and angrier.

The boy then said, ’We got an ax and hacked our way up,’

And then the tiger hacked his way up the tree, getting closer to the children.

Fearing their unfortunate death, they prayed to God. ‘Hananim!  Hananim!

If you want us to live, please send us a strong new rope, and if you want us to die, send us an old, rotten rope.’

Hananim answered their prayers and a strong new rope appeared, and so the little children climbed up into Heaven.

When the tiger reached the top of the tree and saw the kids weren’t there, he also prayed to God, ‘Hananim! Hananim! If you want me to live send me a rotten, old rope, and if you want me to die, send me a strong new rope.’

Heaven then sent him what he asked, and a rotten, old rope appeared. The tiger quickly climbed up after the children. But before he reached Heaven, the old rotten rope snapped and the tiger fell all the way back to earth, landing in a field of corn, pierced by the corn stalks, he died staining them red with his blood.

In Heaven, the brother and sister became the sun and the moon. The boy came out in the day and the girl at night, giving light to the world. But the girl, who was shy and modest, told her brother that she felt uncomfortable with people looking up at her.

She asked, ‘Let me be the sun, then I will be so bright that people will not be able to look up at me.’

And so, to this day, the sister comes out every day as the sun and the brother every night as the moon.”

I was fascinated to get familiar with a bedtime tale that belongs to a culture I’m so unfamiliar with. Then, of course, it immediately brought to my mind the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” seeing as there is a grandmother’s character that gets eaten up by a big bad beast that then goes after young children. The story also reminded me a bit of that of the thre little pigs, most likely do to all the times the tiger came about saying the same threat, “Grandmother, grandmother, give me ____ or I’ll eat you up!”, just like the wolf who says “Let me in, Let me in, little pig or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!”[1] What I find fascinating about this tale is that though it is modernized and has been used pretty recently, it was not censored, unlike Little Red Riding Hood. The story involves some very violent images, and very scary aspects of losing a parent, being attacked by a stranger, and facing death.

It strikes me that the Korean culture might be less protective with children, perhaps it does not try hard to spare them from facing the troubles of life at a young age, but instead try and educate them through children’s tales.

The tale ends in a very different note than what I expected, adding a religious emphasis, and in this way portraying another aspect that is to be taught to children from a young age. It shows the Korean culture of religious faith, as well as the belief that parts of nature such as the sun and moon are actually alive. It almost becomes a myth by speaking of how the god, Hananim, created the sun and the moon.

[1] Bonomo, Rick. “The Three Little Pigs.” Somerset Computer Center-Superhighway Online-Somerset, PA. Web. 22 Apr. 2011. <>.

Russian Folkbelief/superstition

“Russian tradition is one full of superstitions. Because I grew up in Lithuania, to Russian parents, some of these are ingrained in me to these days. Until we left Lithuania, when I was 16 years old, we didn’t do a lot of traveling, but we did some, and there was a certain routine that accompanied every trip, a little ceremony that my family and I performed before every long trip. This short and simple ceremony consisted of the traveler and those who accompany him- seeing him off, sitting quietly for a moment before leaving their house. I don’t remember the first time I did it, but I’m sure that I was born into it, and have always performed this sitting ceremony before a long trip. I am 54 now, and have been traveling a lot, mostly by planes, and I still to this day sit down before I leave home for a flight. Surprisingly, my wife and my daughters got used to my ritual and have started doing so themselves…

I never questioned my parents about this custom, and I knew for sure that the same thing was going on in each of my friends’ families, so I guess I saw it as a given way to act. Only lately, after being questioned by my daughters, did I try to look for an explanation for the sitting, and so I found 2 main ones:

1. A time to rethink whether something was forgotten.

2. A time for a short prayer for a safe trip and return.

As a child, I loved this ritual as it was part of the traveling adventure. Nowadays I perform it almost automatically, but still feel good about it, since it has a way to make me feel more secure about the trip. One more reason is the fact that it makes me feel good for continuing a tradition, although it is a one based on superstition.”

Like my father, I was born into this habit, although I’m an Israeli girl. Like him, it was part of my travelling adventures, but not always did it make me happy, since we did a lot of travelling, sometimes to my dismay. Today it gives me a warm feeling of togetherness and of security, and also of one more way to show my father how much I love him.

Looking into this superstition, it is hard for me to explain the logic behind it, as well as behind most other superstition. I tend to suspect that the logical explanations are a way of rationalizing an existing ritual, rather than being the original reasons.

Although the reasons my father has mentioned in the interview above make sense, I sometimes tend to believe that we sit before leaving in order to mark to whoever it is that decides our faith that we intend on coming back to that same spot, safe and sound. That is why I would say this is more of folk belief for me, rather than superstition, though the boundaries are still unclear so it may as well be regarded as both.