Someone recently brought to my attention a beautiful new record of Israeli songs. It's called The Sound of the Soul
קול הנשמה, שירי תקווה וגעגוע
The producer is the son of Moshe Hovav (1930-1987). Hovav was the younger brother of Reuma Eldar, one of the most famous radio announcers in Israel's history, whose articulation of Hebrew (with a recognizable Mideastern accent) was widely regarded as near perfect. Moshe's was even better. Until the 1980s there was only one radio news channel, and since Israelis listened to the news hourly and obsessively, Reuma Eldar and Moshe Hovav were recognized by literally everyone. Moshe announced many historic events, the single most important being the liberation of the Kotel (Western Wall) in June 1967. You can still hear him every morning at 6am, more than 20 years after his death: a recording of him reading the Shema Yisrael prayer opens the daily program.
His son has now collected 35 songs in his honor. They are all songs of prayer, from varying sources. Some are straight from the Bible, others are traditional prayers written over the centuries, yet others are contemporary and don't belong to the liturgy at all. They are in many musical styles: traditional east and west, hassidic, almost-rock, and others. There's a prayer from the culmination of Ne'ila, at the end of Yom Kippur, which must surely be familiar to anyone who ever participated in that service, but in a version which sounds like pure Arabic music (and exceedingly moving). There's a chant by a young man hoping to be granted to do the utmost with his time in this world - this may be a traditional text but I don't recollect having come across it, and may well be his own heartfelt prayer. It's a gripping record.
It's also a snapshot into a part of Israeli society many foreign observers will never see: the conflation of popular music and prayer, preformed by a broad gamut of musicians. Predictably there are recordings by religious men whose entire career is made of singing religious songs - many of which however are consumed (also) by people who don't share any religious life-style with them. There are popular singers who have become religious and their music has evolved accordingly, while their popularity has never flagged. Yet there are also deeply moving prayers by singers, especially women, who cannot be identified as religious in any standard meaning of the term, by any measure: Ilanit, say, or Achinoam Nini (better known in Europe as Noa).
My favorite is the second track on the second disk. It's sung by Rivka Zohar. Back in the 1970s, when I spent lots of time following such matters, Zohar easily had the best voice on offer, like a crystal-clear bell. Then her life spun out of control, and she spent years roaming drug-scenes in many countries; most of us forgot her, though someone once told me he'd heard her in some club in Amsterdam, if that's where it was, and her ruined shell was pitiful to observe. Then she came back, pulled herself together, and lives on a hilltop in the Galilee. Only rarely will she record a single song - there have been but a handful since she came back. Her voice now contains all that she's gone through, and it's the most powerful voice you can imagine. The track is a simple expression of thanks to her creator.