In a world where almost half of all languages are considered endangered and where one of roughly 7,000 world tongues disappears every two weeks, Hebrew has been a unique and miraculous phenomenon. Its rebirth in the late 19th century, from a near-dead tongue for 2,000 years into a vibrant, day-to-day useful language is unprecedented in linguistic history. In Israel, where Hebrew is the official language (along with Arabic) over 9 million people use it in their daily interactions. The Hebrew revival started as part of the early Zionist movement with the work of journalist, scholar, and visionary Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) who labored tirelessly on updating and disseminating the millennia-old tongue for a modern-day use. For generations, Hebrew had been dubbed “Leshon HaKodesh” (the holy tongue), preserved for worship and Torah study, but considered too sacred and unfit for ordinary life. To change its status, it was necessary to invent hundreds of new words and to transform the archaic biblical grammar into a useful contemporary language. While Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, was indeed the first activist, he was quickly joined by other grammarians, teachers, and enthusiasts, who in 1889 established the Va’ad Halashon (Language Committee). The Va’ad was active until 1953, when it converted into the state-sponsored Academy of the Hebrew Language. Since its foundation, the Academy has enriched the language with countless words and expressions. However, due to various dialectal layers, ranging from slang, through prosaic use, to higher poetic and scholarly expression, there has always been a tension between the academic tendencies of the institution and the colloquial uses by the public. Some of the new expressions created by the Academy were at odds with the natural development of a living tongue and thus, not accepted by the public. On the other hand, much of the prevalent jargon which seemed improper and deemed unacceptable by the Academy, was heartily embraced by the public, and became an essential part of daily speech. For instance, it would have been unimaginable to the Hebrew revivalists, that one of the most common expressions, “Shalom” (for “Goodbye!”) has been recently replaced by “Tov, Yalla, Bye!”; a short phrase, combining three different languages: Hebrew for Tov (good), Arabic for Yalla (let’s go), and the English Bye.
The story of Israeli folksongs is tightly connected with the evolution of modern Hebrew. The early groups of ḥalutzim (pioneers) who arrived during the first waves of aliyot (from the first through the fourth aliya) were filled with ideology and vital energy. Being historically indigenous to the region, sustained by spiritual ties to the land, and deeply inspired by biblical images, the ḥalutzim developed a distinct lifestyle, radically different from their previous diasporic existence. The new social-economic system was strongly inspired by socialist philosophy. It was strictly secular, gender-integrated, and aspired to create a just, equal, productive, and ultimately a utopian society. Daily life for the pioneers combined hard physical work throughout the day and social gatherings with recreational activities at night. Thus, the hard labor of draining swamps, growing crops, and tending livestock, was complemented by communal pastimes like sitting around the bonfire, singing freshly created songs, and dancing blazing horas until the wee hours of the night. The nocturnal singing of the ḥalutzim has remained one of the most characteristic and consistent pastime activities in modern Israeli society: the shira b’tzibbur or sing-along. It has become a favorite social trend, where various groups meet regularly to spend hours singing through dozens of songs. These get-togethers usually start with the early pioneer songs and move on through a familiar repertoire, mostly marked by the major wars: the War of Independence (1948), the Sinai Campaign (1956), the Six Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), and so on.
Some of the finest composers of the Yishuv (early settlements, pre-1948) were also part of the collective and active members of the kibbutzim (communal settlements,) or moshavim (cooperative farming communities.) They often found greater satisfaction in creating a new shared folklore rather than focusing on their own individual artistic aspirations. Collaborating with likeminded poets, these composers served as cultural pioneers, documenting the rebirth of a nation through words and music. At the same time there was a sincere attempt to link the new culture with its ancient origins in the land of Israel. This effort was manifested in the work of ethnomusicologist A. Z. Idelsohn, especially through his ten-volume collection of various Jewish music traditions, titled Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies. Idelsohn’s objective was to find a common origin to the many diverse Jewish musical traditions, which could not only show a connection between the scattered diaspora communities, but also clarify the nature of music in ancient Israel and the Holy Temple’s sacred service. One of the theories advanced around the 1930s was that Yemenite Jewish musical practices were the closest to that of ancient Israel. It was believed that the millennia-old, isolated community of the Arabian Peninsula truly preserved the ancient biblical tradition, and the exotic nature of Yemenite music and dance, based on unique modes and unusual rhythmic patterns, amplified this impression. Later research proved that Yemenite Jewish tradition, unique as it is, was just as influenced by its surroundings as any other musical tradition. Nonetheless, the treasure of Yemenite song and dance became an essential and cherished part of contemporary Israeli folklore.