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Israel Suite is a palpable reflection of Helfman’s shift, in the 1940s, to the cultural aesthetics, song, and spirit of modern Israel. The Israel Suite comprises six from among his dozens of original arrangements of songs of Hebrew national expression and Zionist idealism, optimism, and determination—songs that were sung by the Jewish pioneers (ḥalutzim) and settlers in Palestine during the decades prior to statehood, which eventually became part of the composite Israeli song repertoire.

In a succession of several distinct waves of immigration (aliyot) from Europe beginning in the 1880s, those settlers came to reclaim, rebuild, reestablish, and take up permanent residence in the ancient Land of Israel as the reborn Jewish national homeland. As a historical principle of Zionism, however, aliya implies more than simple immigration. It has always signified the primary mode of commitment to the realization of the Zionist ideal and to modern Jewish cultural as well as national rejuvenation. The term aliya translates literally as “elevation” or “ascending,” connoting—even in biblical literature—an ascent rather than merely a relocation or a return. In modern Zionist ideology it refers to such immigration to the land of Israel (whether pre- or post-statehood) as a form of hands-on participation in Jewish national rebirth. The ḥalutzim could, therefore, be considered to be elevating themselves to assume a direct role in the reconnection to Jewish political antiquity and in the embryonic stage of development of the modern Jewish polity.

Beginning with the First Aliya (1882–1903), which was not yet even wedded indelibly to political Zionism, and extending through three successive waves of aliya (1904–14; 1919–23; and 1924–28), the olim (immigrants) were propelled naturally toward fashioning and singing secular Hebrew songs that incorporated the ideals of their “new” Jewish identity, their new social and cultural values, and their commitment to rebuilding the land—agriculturally as well as spiritually. This aggregate Hebrew song repertoire, which enjoyed its ripest maturation and evolved to its fullest beginning with the Third and Fourth Aliyot, includes modern Hebrew adaptations of transplanted European (mainly Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish, as well as Yiddish) folksong, Hassidic melodies, formerly liturgical tunes, and even Russian operatic excerpts; indigenous Arabic, Turkish, and Druze airs; old Near Eastern and oriental Jewish tunes; and original songs—newly composed in the yishuv (the Jewish settlement, or community, in Palestine under the British Mandate) by ordinary settlers as well as by professional musicians and recognized poets. These songs, which were often learned within Zionist youth movements and schools and at gatherings even prior to immigration, have been called—depending in part on origin and initial association—Songs of Zion (as those of the First Aliya were called), Hebrew Palestinian songs, songs of the ḥalutzim, aliya songs, and shirei eretz yisra’el, or the adopted folksong genre of modern Israel.

Helfman’s arrangements of those songs were fashioned initially for students at the Brandeis camps, and they were published in a collection issued by the Brandeis Youth Foundation as part of the Brandeis Camp Institute of Music Series. On certain occasions Helfman would string together several of the arrangements and present them as a suite, sometimes connected by narration or poetry readings and even accompanied by dance or other choreographed movements—as a type of unified artistic expression. Prior to the formal establishment and proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948, those suite performances usually contained the reference “Palestinian” in their program titles, and the particular constituent songs varied from one performance to another. For a Carnegie Hall concert on June 13, 1948, however—only a month after Israel’s birth as a sovereign nation—what had been programmed as A Suite of Palestinian Melodies was quickly retitled Israeli’s Song for the printed booklet, with the earlier title as a subtitle in parentheses.

Especially curious that night, as well as encouraging, was the rendition of the Israel-associated suite by the left-wing Yiddishist chorus that Helfman had formerly directed (which he guest conducted for that concert), the Freiheits Gezang Verein, or Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus. Perhaps to soften the edge of its known leftist orientation for so public an event in the political climate of the day in America, the Yiddish name of the chorus was absent from the printed program, which listed the ensemble a bit more neutrally as the People’s Philharmonic Choral Society. That celebration of the chorus’s twenty-fifth anniversary also included Di naye hagode, Helfman’s large Yiddish cantata about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and several Yiddish—and even Soviet-Yiddish—songs from its usual repertoire, along with other offerings. That this chorus was willing to sing the Israeli’s Song suite might have been a sign that the enthusiasm, solidarity, and pride associated with the new Jewish state could not help but extend even to some of its choristers and to a part of their audience at that euphoric time in Jewish history. For others, the suite could simply have represented another aspect of Jewish folk culture without political ramifications—which might well have been Helfman’s personal attitude. Hatikva, it should be noted, was not programmed—at a time when virtually every Jewish concert began with it. Instead, the evening opened with Helfman’s setting of Ani ma’amin (I Believe), the adaptation of the twelfth of Moses Maimonides’ “Thirteen Articles of Faith” (“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah ...”). The melody of Helfman’s arrangement was correctly listed as a “ghetto song,” in reference to its believed origin in the Warsaw Ghetto, which by then was perceived as a statement of Jewish defiance and survival in the context of the Holocaust. For the Yiddishists in the chorus and audience, that would have been its primary association. But for anyone sympathetic to the Zionist cause that evening, it could also have been interpreted as a validation of their decades-long brand of faith in the ultimate success of the national struggle; and in that sense there was an added connection to the songs of Israel later in the program.

The melody of ḥamisha, the opening song in the present suite version, is by Mordechai Zeira (1905–68), who was born in Kiev and emigrated to Palestine in 1924—where he wrote his first song in 1927. His songs in general reflect modern Israel’s history and development and are considered to be at the core of shirei eretz yisra’el. The words are by Shin Shalom (1904–1990), the nom de plume of Shalom Joseph Shapira, a highly intellectual, mystical, and versatile Hebrew poet, author, and dramatist who also translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into Hebrew. The scion of a distinguished family of Hassidic rebbes (rabbinical-type patriarchal leaders of particular Hassidic groups), he came to Palestine in 1922 after living for eight years in Vienna, where his grandfather’s and father’s court relocated from Galicia in the first year of the First World War. (Shalom was born in Parczew, eastern Poland.) Much of his poetry is religiously and theologically oriented, as well as biblically and morally driven. But some of his poems also give voice to Israel’s revival, for even before his immigration he had been imbued with religiously centered aliya by his family, many of whom emigrated to Jerusalem and some of whom later founded a Hassidic colony in the Valley of Jezreel. In 1968 he was elected chairman of the Hebrew Writers Association of Israel.

ḥamisha was written in 1937 in memory of five workers who were murdered by Arab assassins while paving the road to Jerusalem near Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim. Today, Kibbutz Ma’ale Haḥamisha commemorates those workers in its name. Helfman has established a recurring pattern in the accompaniment that mirrors the hammering and clanging in the text; and the percussive, accented chords give the impression of the gunshots that felled the workers. The setting fades to nothingness—death—at the end. A countermelody drawn from the principal tune provides some contrapuntal effects, as do the echoed entrances in the accompaniment.

Laila had’mama paints a romantically peaceful nocturnal scene on a kibbutz. The melody is by Moshe Bick (1899–1979), who was born in the Russian Empire and emigrated to Israel in 1921. He was a teacher and composer, and conducted the Worker’s Union Choir. His most famous song is best known as Nivne artzenu (We Will Build Our Land) with lyrics by A. Levinsohn. Naomi Brontman is credited with the authorship of the words to Laila had’mama. Occasional raised 6th degrees of the minor scale and tonality give the tune a feeling of the Dorian mode, and interesting ornamentation lends the song a Near Eastern–Mediterranean flavor—which Helfman advances through his use of open fifths in the harmonization.

The tune of B’yom kayitz is by Moshe Dafna (died ca.1965), who studied at the David Yellin Teacher’s Seminar in Jerusalem, where he supervised the department of music education. He composed a number of children’s songs, including Ura im shaḥar yeled ḥen. (The different arrangement of the same song that was published in Chicago in 1929, however, was by A. Saphir, who was erroneously credited by Helfman with the original melody.) The poem is by Ḥayyim Naḥmun Bialik (1873–1934), certainly the most famous and the most celebrated of modern Hebrew poets associated with cultural—and, later, political—Zionism, and a major contributor to the movement to modernize and rejuvenate the Hebrew language. Bialik, who was born in Volhynia, a region in the northwest Ukraine, lived in Odessa from 1900 until 1921, where he not only wrote poetry but also edited learned journals (e.g., R’shumot), and in Berlin, before immigrating to Palestine in 1924. Bialik is acknowledged as Israel’s poet laureate.

Laila pele is an ode to the “motherland” of Israel by Yitzhak Shenhar [Shenberg] (1902–1957), a poet, playwright, translator, and editor who was born in Volochisk, the Ukraine, and came to Palestine in 1921. The melody is by Shalom Postolski (1898–1949), who came there in 1920 among the first settlers of Ein Harod—one of the first kibbutzim in the Valley of Jezreel [Isreel]. He was one of the first composers of the kibbutz movement, and most of his music was written for kibbutz celebrations and festivals.

Ma yafim halleilot was a famous and familiar Hebrew Palestinian folksong from the early periods of settlement. The words, set to an anonymous Arabic folk tune from the Galilee, are by Yitzhak Katzenelson (1886–1944), with anonymous additions, and are believed to have been written by him in 1925 during one of his several visits to Palestine. Born in Korelichi, near Novogrudok, in the Czarist Empire (now in Belarus), Katzenelson was a prolific Yiddish as well as Hebrew poet and dramatist. He joined the Jewish partisan organization D’ror in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he witnessed the German murder of his wife and two of his sons. His Hebrew diary, known as the Vittel Diary after the camp in occupied France where he was also interred before his final deportation and murder at Auschwitz, provides a rare account of the entire period. It was at Vittel that he also completed his poem Dos lid fun oysgehargetn yidishn folk (Song of the Murdered Jewish People), considered one of the most important literary Holocaust expressions. In addition to his serious poetry, connected to the tragic events and aspects of his life, his light verse and song texts for children formed a significant part of his reputation. Ma yafim halleilot is one of his many poems that were set to music and became widely accepted as part of the Israeli folk repertoire. It was sung regularly by the various Zionist youth movements until the 1950s and, in the 1980s, entered the general repertoire of shira b’tzibbur (communal singing).

Zeira’s and Shenhar’s Sisu v’simḥu, whose actual title apart from Helfman’s arrangement is Am s’gula (A Treasured People), is drawn from and based on biblical phrases and sentiments rejoicing in the people of Israel’s endurance and having to do with the harmonious coexistence of peoples. Its exuberant character, intensified by Helfman’s clever counterpoint, rhythmic syncopation, and intertwined and crossed vocal and accompanimental lines—which give the feeling of a procession in the bass line—makes this a fitting conclusion to the suite

Israel Suite shows Helfman having reoriented himself—at least culturally and aesthetically—from the universalist view of a new Jewish world order that his earlier choral activities had espoused, to this newer, seemingly more youthful, but equally nonreligious approach to Jewish renaissance. Formerly his arrangements had concerned songs about such things as the May Day celebration of the International Workers’ Order, international labor struggles, Birobidzhan (the Jewish autonomous region in the Soviet Union), the Bolshevik Revolution, sweatshops, utopian Soviet communes, and even the Red Army Ballad. Now the repertoire he had come to champion involved songs that spoke to a Jewish national-cultural identity, heroism of the pioneers in Palestine and Israel, and acknowledgment of Zionist ideals.

The spontaneity and freshness of these arrangements and the others he fashioned for the Brandeis camps show Helfman in his most transparent artistic element—preserving and emphasizing the natural euphoria and optimistic spirit of the songs through judicious manipulation, without obscuring their innocence or folk character. Together they provide an illustration of his ability to apply inventive—and even restrained polyphonic—treatment to simple melodies. At the same time, the playful imagination in the accompaniments elevates the songs from simple folk monody to an unpretentious artistic plane, highlighting their Near Eastern and Mediterranean elements.

Helfman had always intended to orchestrate these song arrangements, and the 1948 Carnegie Hall performance, as well as others, featured a two-piano accompaniment. But he died before he could realize that objective. The present song suite was orchestrated expressly for the Milken Archive’s 2000 recording in Vienna by Charles Davidson, a distinguished composer, cantor, cantorial educator, author, and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music. Davidson was a student of Helfman’s at the Brandeis Arts Institute in 1949 and also attended other Brandeis camps, where he sang these very songs under Helfman’s direction. He fashioned these orchestrations according to his detailed recollections of Helfman’s aesthetic objectives and style, and he filled them with extraordinary imagination, appropriate instrumental and textural economy, coloristic effects that clearly derive from the piano parts and further delineate the contrapuntal suggestions, and overall orchestral effects that amplify both the sentiments of the lyrics and the flavor of the vocal lines.


By: Neil W. Levin