I. El Hakfar 02:19
II. Uru Ahim 03:04
III. Salleinu Al K'tefeinu 01:06
IV. Atzei Zeitim Omdim 01:36
V. Shirat Hashomer (Holem tsa'adi) 02:21
VI. Bagalil (Alei giva) 02:15
VII. Hazzor'im B'dim'a 00:33
VIII. Shir Lanamal 01:50
IX. El Hafkar 02:23

Liner Notes

Helfman’s choral pageant Ḥag habikkurim (Festival of the First Fruits) is a suite of original arrangements of modern Hebrew songs that were sung in Palestine during the decades prior to independence—as well as during the early years of the State of Israel—by the Jewish colonists and pioneers who, imbued with Zionist ideals of national return and reconstruction, had gone there to reclaim, rebuild, and resettle the land as a Jewish national home. These songs, which represented the new Zionist-oriented spirit of national rejuvenation, cultural renaissance, and agricultural revival, and which also provided a link to Jewish antiquity, were created or adapted for the most part by songwriters, composers, and poets who were active in the yishuv (the Jewish communal settlement in Palestine under the British Mandate). Helfman stitched them together into a quasi-dramatic and multimedia presentation that, ideally, also includes dance, costumes, processions, pantomime, spoken lines, and a narration (now a bit dated) by Ruth Bardin, the wife of Shlomo Bardin (director of the Brandeis Camp). This pageant offers a capsule history of the pioneers’ constructive accomplishments from the earliest wave of immigration in the 19th century until the late 1940s. The pageant was conceived as an American reflection—and not necessarily an actual replica—of the spring harvest kibbutz festival, ḥagigat habikkurim, which, even long after independence, was usually reenacted during or on the pilgrimage Festival of Shavuot as a kind of secular substitute celebration for that religious holyday. Shavuot is known in the liturgy as ḥag habikkurim, from the references in Exodus 23:16, 34:22; Leviticus 23:16–17; and Numbers 28:26.

Bikkurim, or “the first fruits,” refers historically and biblically to the portion of each season’s harvest, including the first grains to ripen each season, that—in accordance with biblical pronouncements and legal injunctions—were required to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as a sacrifice by every Israelite who had the means of agricultural production. Detailed ceremonial procedures for the offerings of the first fruits are found in Deuteronomy 26:1–11, although there are discrepancies between certain aspects of the rites as described therein and other references in Leviticus. In antiquity, considerable ritual and pageantry accompanied the offerings of the bikkurim, which constituted both a personal obligation and a festive public celebration. During the Second Temple era, the pilgrimage to the Temple to offer the bikkurim could occur anytime between the Festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot—i.e., between late spring and autumn (Mishna Bikkurim 1:3).

Kibbutz festivals, such as the one corresponding to Shavuot (ḥagigat habikkurim), originated during the 1920s and 1930s in Palestine. They were instituted partly as an educational experience, especially for the children, and partly out of a desire to recapture, if not to reinvent, the agricultural parameter of religious Festivals and holydays in antiquity (viz., up until the destruction of the Second Temple), thereby reestablishing an inseparable historical as well as spiritual association between the Jewish people and the land. Each of those kibbutz festivals acquired secular aesthetic traditions of its own. Dating to the early Zionist settlements, those traditions were heavily reliant on singing songs and dancing dances of modern Israel, and they also incorporated symbolic representations of biblical-era (and even prebiblical) agricultural and life-cycle rites.

In biblical times, however, Shavuot (also translated literally as the Feast of Weeks, in reference to the fact that it occurs seven weeks after the Festival of Pesah—Passover) marked the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the spring wheat harvest. According to scientifically oriented biblical criticism and studies, Shavuot probably originated earlier as a midsummer agricultural festival, borrowed from pagan practices and transformed into a manifestly Jewish observance.

In postbiblical rabbinic Judaism, when the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish dispersion precluded the pilgrimages and the sacrificial rituals, Shavuot acquired its other primary motif of celebrating the anniversary of the giving and receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai following the exodus from Egypt. In that way the Shavuot celebration remained linked, as is Sukkot, to Passover and to the exodus, and it became known in the liturgy also as z’man mattan toratenu (the time of the giving of our Torah). The three Festivals acquired a special synagogue liturgy—some parts of which applied to all three, while each of these holy days also inspired additional unique prayers and liturgical poems. Each Festival also accumulated its own particular religious customs, traditions, and extra-synagogal observances. The earliest unambiguous references to Shavuot as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah date to the 3rd century. For observant Jews, therefore, Shavuot is one of the principal religious holydays on the liturgical calendar—along with Pesah; Sukkot; and the yamim nora’im (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: the Days of Awe, or the High Holy Days).

A colorful and informative account of the processions and ceremony surrounding the bikkurim offerings in the time of the Second Temple is given in the Mishna (Bikkurim 3:2–9)—the first part of the Oral Law, which forms the basis for the Talmud. People would gather overnight in the public squares of the various towns in each district, and in the early hours of the morning they would begin their pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the call “Arise, and let us go up to Zion, unto the Lord, our God.” At the head of their procession was an ox, its horns wrapped in gold and silver, its head adorned with olive branches. The procession would be accompanied by instrumental musicians playing the ḥalil (a flutelike instrument). People of means would bring the bikkurim in baskets made of silver and gold, while those who could not afford such aesthetic luxury brought the first fruits in simple wicker baskets, and they gave the baskets to the priests in the Temple along with the fruit offerings. There appears to have been no concern expressed that those unable to afford the expensive baskets might feel inadequate or shamed, and there was no attempt to level the procedure (as Jewish Law has done with regard to other matters) by stipulating simple baskets for all. Yet when it came to the required individual recitals of the confession (Deuteronomy 26:1–11) as the fruits were given to the priests—acknowledging that God alone had redeemed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, expressing gratitude to Him for having brought them to their “promised” land—it was eventually determined that every person repeat the confession as read to him by the priest. This change of procedure was implemented to avoid embarrassment for those who might not know the text. Perhaps, even if subconsciously, it was a harbinger of an important aspect of Jewish values in rabbinic Judaism—the fact that ignorance, but not financial modesty or even poverty, was legitimate cause for shame. (The official reason, however, was, more simply and practically, that those who did not know the text might avoid the offerings altogether if they were required to recite that biblical passage from memory.)

The collective procession was met at the outskirts of Jerusalem by Temple prefects and treasurers who escorted the pilgrims to the Temple Mount while the populace cheered. At the Temple Mount, a Levitical choir welcomed them by singing Psalm 30: “I will extol You, O Lord, for You have raised me up, and have not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me....” Those who lived near Jerusalem brought fresh fruits, which the Mishna interpreted as representing the seven species that grew in abundance in the Land of Israel as mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8—wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olive trees, and honey (here meaning dates). Those who lived farther away brought dried fruits.

Most kibbutzim, especially prior to the 1960s, were socialist oriented to varying degrees and completely secular in their avoidance of even modernized religious observances or any synagogue-related rituals of worship (although there were a few kibbutzim of religiously orthodox Jews as early as the 1930s). Their modern festival of ḥagigat habikkurim, therefore, replaced the traditional religious Shavuot observance. It was designed to evoke aesthetic ceremonial parameters of the ancient Temple pilgrimage and to recast them in the form of joyous expressions of modern Zionist aspirations, struggles, optimism, and progress—symbolizing reconnection to the land after nearly two millennia and underscoring national rebirth. In many cases the children would march in a procession, carrying agricultural produce. An additional element often included donations to the Jewish National Fund (the Keren Kayemet L’yisra’el)—the worldwide Zionist organization established in 1901 to purchase land in Palestine from Arabs, Turks, or other owners. Such donations from kibbutz members were, of course, necessarily modest by comparison with the JNF’s support by philanthropists from abroad and structured fund-raising campaigns. But it enabled each person, including the children, to feel part of the effort directly; and it mirrored the sacrificial plane of the bikkurim offerings in antiquity.

Helfman fashioned this choral pageant in 1947, not specifically for Shavuot celebrations, religious or secular, but as a more general expression and exposition of the modern Hebrew culture that was then both vibrant in—and emanating from—Palestine and the incubating State of Israel. His primary intended audience was American Jewry—especially its younger generations—and the pageant participants themselves. The work was performed at the Brandeis Camp under his direction during a number of summers from then on and through the 1950s.

Indeed, Ḥag habikkurim is an indicator of Helfman’s own shift of focus. From the universalist, usually antinationalist view of a new Jewish and world order, which his earlier Yiddish chorus espoused, Helfman reoriented himself to the newer, seemingly more youthful and equally nonreligious approach to Jewish renaissance. Formerly he had conducted and arranged or edited such songs as Gezang fun ershtn mai (Song of the First of May), in reference to the annual May Day celebration of the International Workers’ Order; In kamf (In Struggle), one of the most internationally famous hymns of Jewish labor movements; Birobidzhan, about the Jewish autonomous region in the Soviet Union; Zhankoye, the name of a utopian commune in the Soviet Union; Mayn tzavoe (My Testament), which refers to the “freedom flag...stained red with the blood of the working man”; Mayn rue platz (My Grave), one of the best known of the so-called sweatshop songs; Oktober, referring to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; Negershe vig lid (Negro Lullaby), in solidarity with oppressed blacks; and even Di royte armey balade (The Red Army Ballad). Now the repertoire he championed involved songs that spoke of a Jewish national-cultural identity: leaving the cities to settle in Palestine and rebuild the land; armed kibbutzim watchmen who guarded against Arab marauders; “ascending to Mount Zion” with biblical references; and the heroism of the nationally committed pioneers.

At the same time, the work is a vivid illustration of the modern Hebrew cultural orientation of the Brandeis Camp (as well as of its Arts Institute), and of its educational principle, which held that Jewish identity for young Americans could be reinforced by drawing inspiration from the music and dance of modern Israel. Works such as Ḥag habikkurim—and the emphasis in general on Hebrew songs and dances of Jewish life in the yishuv and then the young state—provided a vehicle for study of that new culture and for a fresh approach to Jewish identity for Americans, regardless of political affiliation. At the same time, there was a mutually beneficial aspect with regard to the organizations dedicated more directly to Zionist advocacy. The principal Zionist agencies (with whom Justice Brandeis, although personally supportive of the Zionist enterprise, had disagreed politically on the wisdom of making the cause an American Jewish communal obligation, preferring instead that financial and political support be a matter of privately solicited donations) hoped that such aesthetic exposure, even if purely cultural at first, would eventually attract some of the youth to actual political involvement and physical commitment in the form of aliya—immigration.

Ḥag habikkurim was premiered in 1947 by the Hebrew Arts Singers, conducted by Helfman, under the auspices of the Jewish Arts Committee. In addition to the subsequent summer performances at the Brandeis Camp, the piece was presented many times throughout the country—by secular Jewish choruses in concert versions; by synagogue schools, sometimes in connection with graduation exercises, which could include some if not all of the processional and even dance components; by Zionist youth organizations; and by combined youth and children’s choirs and dance ensembles at annual all-city spring Jewish music or arts festivals, which brought together people from dozens of congregations and schools from numerous neighborhoods and suburbs of a single city.

Yet another ripe opportunity for performances of Ḥag habikkurim—especially during the 1950s and 1960s, when its aesthetic content was still perceived as exotic by American Jewry—was provided by confirmation ceremonies in nonorthodox American synagogues. Confirmation had been instituted originally in German Reform and Liberale synagogues as part of their early-19th-century modernization efforts. Even the term itself was borrowed from Christian nomenclature. In America, too, it became a teenage rite of passage in Conservative as well as Reform synagogues, serving as a vehicle for commitment to Jewish life. In the American Reform movement it functioned at one time as a substitute for the abandoned bar mitzvah procedure, but it remained in force even after most Reform congregations either reclaimed or fashioned their own versions of bar mitzvah. By the end of the 20th century, however, confirmation had become virtually extinct in Conservative congregations. Because confirmation was linked on the calendar with the Festival of Shavuot, the services acquired their own spring-flavored rituals and customs. Some form of student-produced pageantry became a common feature, and a work such as Ḥag habikkurim offered an affective prefabricated vehicle that combined the desired elements of pageantry with an excursion into modern Hebrew song.

Helfman wanted this work to be suitable equally for children’s, youth, and adult amateur ensembles. He therefore offered alternative arrangements, ranging from unison to three-part SSA (for adult women’s as well as children’s voices) to suggested alternations between men’s and women’s voices. But the SSA voicing was the preferred as well as the most frequently employed format, and it has been followed in the present recording. The publication more or less fixed this particular selection of songs, but prior to that, performances—including those under Helfman’s own direction—often comprised alternatives from a larger pool that included his other Hebrew Palestinian song arrangements.

These eight songs function here not only in terms of the musical parameter of the bikkurim pageant per se, but also—more generally—as an illustrative cross section of the broad repertoire of ḥalutz and aliya songs that achieved significant popularity both in Palestine and among Zionist circles abroad during the decades between the 1920s and the 1950s. All of them relate in some way to the reclamation and rebuilding of the ancient land; to the reestablishment of a Jewish communal structure there; and to the forging of a revitalized national spirit in the context of 20th-century Zionist sensibilities and aims.

Mordechai Zeira’s El hakfar is both the opening and the concluding musical number of the pageant. (It is misidentified in the published score as Adama, an unrelated song whose melody is also by Mordechai Zeira.) The words, by Emanuel Harusi [Novopograbelsky] (1903–79), urge Jews from urban and even cosmopolitan walks of life to forgo their present lives and lifestyles and “return” instead to the land to plow the fields. Harusi, who was born in Nikolayev (now Mykolayiv, Ukraine) in the Russian Empire, emigrated to Palestine in 1924 and worked directly in agriculture and on construction sites in connection with draining swamps. In 1928 he was a cofounder of the satiric theater Hamatate (The Broom), in Tel Aviv. Zeira [Grebin] (1905–68) was born in Kiev and emigrated to Palestine in 1924, where he composed 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 adopted folksong genre of modern Israel, also known as “songs of the Land of Israel.”

The melody of Uru aḥim was composed by Emanuel Amiran [Pugatchov] (1909–93), who was born in Warsaw, spent much of his youth in Russia, where he studied with Joel Engel, and emigrated with his family to Palestine in 1924, where he eventually established a solid reputation as a composer and music educator. In addition to his numerous songs—many of them especially geared to children and to teaching about holydays—his catalogue includes symphonic and chamber music, as well as film scores. His concert choral setting of ki mitziyon, based on a biblical quotation (Isaiah 2:3: “For out of Zion shall come forth the teachings of the Torah.”), achieved broad recognition outside Israel and even became a staple in the concert repertoire of the renowned Robert Shaw Chorale. The words to Uru aḥim are a pastiche of excerpts from biblical phrases that Amiran probably extracted and stitched together.

Salleinu al k’tefeinu is probably the best known of all the songs that were created originally and expressly for school ḥagigat habikkurim celebrations. Very shortly after this practice was established by the Jewish National Fund in 1929, a kindergarten teacher asked Levin Kipnis (1894–1990)—who was born in Ushomir, Volhynia, the Ukraine, and came to Palestine in 1913—to write a bikkurim-related song for her own class. Kipnis, a prizewinning pioneer in the creation of modern Hebrew children’s literature, furnished her the lyrics, which she then gave to her neighbor, the composer Yedidia Admon [Gorochov] (1894–1985) to write the melody. Admon was born in Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), the Ukraine, and came to Palestine as a youth in 1906. He studied there with the renowned musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn at the Teachers Seminary in Jerusalem, and he later pursued advanced composition studies abroad—including studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. His music is suffused with influences of Arabic and Bedouin folksong, which he heard throughout his formative years in Palestine.

Atzei zeitim omdim appears to be the accepted American variant of Atzei shitim omdim (Acacia Trees Standing Upright), an anonymous folksong based on two biblical references to the native acacia trees in the Land of Israel. The song symbolizes the pioneers’ aspirations to similar strength in—for the first time in nearly two millennia—their own land. From the earliest appearance of this song in American youth circles and schools, the shitim was changed to zeitim (olive trees, which convey more or less the same image) because of the obvious tendency for American children to fixate mischievously on a scatological double entendre of the former. Other examples abound in alterations of text underlay in American songsters, where transliterations have been altered to avoid similar problems. For example, the word b’reshit has generally been spelled b’resheet, despite its violation of the transliteration system used elsewhere in the very same song or piece. In America, therefore, this song has generally been known and printed in various collections as Atzei zeitim omdim, which still comes as a surprise to Israelis who never had firsthand experience in American schools.

Zeira’s song Shirat hashomer is a setting of lyrics by Yitzhak Shenhar [Shenberg] (1902–57), a poet, playwright, translator, and editor who was born in Volochisk, in Volhynia, the Ukraine, and came to Palestine in 1921. The song refers to the shomrim—the guards who stood watch on kibbutzim during the night to protect the sleeping residents against the ever-present danger of raids by marauding Arab attackers.

The melody of Bagalil is by Kiev-born Nahum Nardi [Narudetzky] (1901–77), one of the illustrious and prolific songwriters and composers in the yishuv. Following his settlement in Palestine, in 1923, he became fascinated with its indigenous Near Eastern modes and musical flavors, which he incorporated into his numerous songs as well as larger compositions. His long-standing artistic collaboration with the Palestinian-born Yemenite Jewish singer Bracha Zefira (also his wife) influenced the oriental Jewish character of many of his songs—some of whose eventual popularity accorded them the status of folksongs. The genesis of Bagalil dates to the mid-1930s, when Nardi and Zefira were attracted to a shepherd’s tune they heard being played by an Arab villager on his flute as they walked through the Arab village of Sumail, near Tel Aviv. Realizing its potential for their song recitals, they adapted it to a text by Avraham Broides that had been published in a local newspaper.

Mattityahu Shelem [Weiner] (1904–75), who was born in Zamosc, Russian Poland, and settled in Palestine in 1922, wrote the words as well as the melody of Hazzor’im b’dim’a. The song relates a passage from Psalms (126:5) to the emerging signs of the pioneers’ agricultural success.

Shir lanamal, another of Zeira’s well-known songs, was written in 1936 to celebrate the building of the new port at the ancient site of Jaffa, adjacent to Tel Aviv.

The spontaneity and freshness of these arrangements 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. As a group, they provide an example of Helfman’s ability to apply inventive—and even restrained polyphonic—treatment to simple melodies. At the same time, the playful imagination in the accompaniments elevate the songs from simple folk monody to an unpretentious artistic plane, highlighting their Near Eastern and Mediterranean elements.

The published version of Ḥag habikkurim also included a suggested choreography by Katya Delakova, specifically geared to untrained dancers, reflecting the early idealism of the new state and depicting the pilgrims from the four corners of the Land of Israel as they offered the bikkurim—among them, orange and grape harvesters from Judea, fishermen from Galilee, and wheat growers from Emek (the Jesreel Valley). Helfman envisioned that individual casts would also create their own movements according to their abilities. While Delakova’s choreography was, as its introduction emphasizes, more a matter of movement than actual dance, it provides a useful context for the songs, and in conjunction with the narration it sets up a framework for our understanding of the role and significance of the songs within the pageant.

By: Neil W. Levin



Sung in Hebrew

Melody: Mordechai Zeira; words: Emanuel Harusi

From the city, from the town, from the comfortable homes
Arise ḥalutz, make haste and flee to the village.
Arise ḥalutz, make haste and flee to the plowed field.
Ḥalutz, arise and run to the moshav [cooperative settlement], to the kibbutz.
Ḥalutz, arise and run to the village, to the plowed field,
To your mother, the land.
Don’t ask why, don’t question;
It is known to all, it’s to the land:
Land—it is called mother,
Land—plow ahead,
Land—where the hands engage in labor,
Land—it is the homeland.
Land, land, our homeland, the land.

Melody and words: Emanuel Amiran

Awake, brothers, and let us ascend Mount Zion,
And let us say, “Blessed are the people who have it so.” (Psalms 144:15)
Fill up the basket with bikkurim.
The bikkurim, the bikkurim.

Melody: Yedidia Admon; words: Levin Kipnis

Our baskets on our shoulders, our heads adorned, we have arrived from the far corners of the land.
We have brought bikkurim from Judah and Samaria, from the Emek and from the Galilee.
Clear a path for us;
The bikkurim are with us.
Beat the drum and play the pipes.

Melody: anonymous folk tune

Olive trees, standing upright.

Melody: Mordechai Zeira; words: Yitzhak Shenhar

My footsteps reverberate in the silence of the night.
Somewhere in a distance a fox is howling.

Hearken and listen, guardian of Israel.
Look, just a little while and the morning star will rise.

Melody: Nahum Nardi; words: Avraham Broides

On top of the hill somewhere in the Galilee a watchman is sitting with a ḥalil in his mouth.
He is playing a shepherd’s song to the sheep, the goats, and the wandering foal.
He is playing a greeting: shalom; come hither, to me to me.
Just as the songs are heard from the pipe, so are there legends alive here in the Galilee.

Melody and words: Mattityahu Shelem

Behold! the rain is coming;
Its blessings are numerous, sprouting grass and cornfields in every valley and on every mountain.
“Those who plow with tears will reap with joy.” (Psalms 126:5)

Melody and words: Mordechai Zeira

A seagull is screeching—there’s a storm.
The wind is whipping up a wave.
Give your blood and your brains.
Give all your might.
Give it to the building of the port.
Come and give a shoulder.
The ocean too is a source of sustenance.

Land and water,
Move the pier step by step.
A seagull is screeching—there’s a storm
The wind is cutting like a razor!
A delight! A wave!
We are building a port.




Composer: Max Helfman

Length: 14:21
Genre: Choral

Performers: Coro HebraeicoNeil Levin, Conductor

Date Recorded: 07/01/2001
Venue: St. Paul's School (A), Hammersmith, London, UK
Engineer: Campbell Hughes and Morgan Roberts
Assistant Engineer: Hamza, Andreas
Assistant Engineer: Weir, Simon
Project Manager: Levin, Neil

Additional Credits:

Publisher: Transcontinental
Translation: Eliyahu Mishulovin


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