I had gone in to the music store only intending to purchase Amir Benayoun’s new CD, since I was going to an upcoming concert by Benayoun, and wanted to do my homework. As the guy at the store was ringing me up, he suggested I get a CD by Etty Ankri (she, like Benayoun, is a pop star who “returned” to religion). To make the salesman happy, I bought Ankri’s “Milyonim.”
I was delighted to find, in Ankri’s liberal quoting from Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition in “Milyonim,” that the CD contributes to the positive identification with things Jewish that one regularly happens upon in the Jewish state. It is Milyonim’s last song, however, that for me broke new ground.
The song “Yoduha” (“They Will Praise You”) opens with some brash electric guitar chords, and then, in sharp contrast, Ankri begins to sing “lamnatzeah bin’ginot mizmor shir” in her poignant, fragile voice. Hey, I thought when I first listened to it, this sounds like a psalm. Then Ankri goes on with two more psalm-sounding lines, and I thought to myself: Wow that’s wonderful: she seems to be quoting this psalm’s entire first verse. Then Ankri sings what functions as the chorus to this song (from which she takes the title): “Yoduha Amim Elokim.” There’s a wonderful interplay in the chorus between words and melody; the melody rises and tops out on the last syllable of the word “Elokim”—G-d. At this point I realized that “Yoduha” does not just feature quotations from a psalm, but is a marvelous and complete rendering of an entire psalm (and indeed the rest of the song consists of the remaining words of Psalm 67). Put another way, Ankri is not just using tradition for her song, but remaking contemporary Jewish tradition. Why, any synagogue could take Ankri’s musical setting of this psalm, and use it whenever the liturgy calls for Psalm 67 (it is, in fact, used on various occasions, depending on Sephardic or Ashkenazic tradition).
In Etty Ankri’s “Milyonim,” religious culture and popular culture merge. Here is a well-known recording artist giving me a song through which I can enhance my religious life. “Yoduha” is an exceptional example of this merging of Judaism and pop-culture, but it happens regularly in Israel: in literature, film, art and music. The field of music is especially rich in the confluence of pop culture with religion, as it seems that musicians (like Ankri and like Amir Benayoun) are particularly receptive to matters of the spirit. In such a culture, especially with a song like “Yoduha,” it becomes possible to think what was unthinkable for me in America: that a person who is serious about Jewish religious life just might be, yes, dare I say it, yes: COOL.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.