How three years in Israel became an album

On my aliya flight in January 2015, I was the owner of an acoustic guitar and two checked bags full of books, socks and harmonicas.
I also had a signed lease for a studio apartment I’d never seen on Jerusalem’s Hanevi’im Street and a half-baked idea to make a concept folk-music record about Israel.

In early 2014, I put out an album comprised of 10 songs with very disjointed subject matter. Charleston had songs about everything, from turn of the century Mississippi bluesman Fred McDowell, to escaped pet parrots that live and thrive in Chicago’s iconic Hyde Park, to a mass shooting at a cafe in my Seattle neighborhood in 2012.

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Perhaps it’s my love of musicals or maybe it’s just human nature to desire coherence, but I craved a more cohesive topic for my next record, a theme that tied all the songs together. Not long after Charleston came out, on a day that I can no longer pinpoint, it occurred to me that Israel, with its ancient stories that span millennia and its equally impressive modern history, was a perfect, if not slightly ambitious and exotic, choice for an Americana singer-songwriter like myself. Bruce Springsteen made a career of setting his songs on the Jersey Shore. Much of Mark Knopfler’s music evokes his native Scotland. For me, regardless of all the raised eyebrows I received when I recounted my plan to people, it was going to be the Holy Land.

So what did I experience in Jerusalem after the plane landed and I stepped foot in my ramshackle yet charming apartment that molded the writing of this record?

In the concrete halls of Yad Vashem, I came across the haunted watercolors and drawings of the 12-year-old Petr Ginz, murdered in Auschwitz, and for 30 minutes, could not draw myself away. Then I learned how Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first and only astronaut, whose mother survived Auschwitz, took with replicas of Ginz’s artwork with him into the heights of space. Most Israelis know the tragic ending of Ramon’s historic flight.

IN 2016, a bus exploded in Jerusalem for the first time in many years. Though no one was killed, nearly two dozen were injured, and many were forced to relive the bombings of an era that was considered to be over. I walked home from The Jerusalem Post newsroom with a goal in mind of writing a song from the perspective of someone whose brother died in a bus bombing, without making it apparent whether the brother was the perpetrator of the bombing or an innocent passenger.

At Steimatzky’s on Jaffa Street, I purchased Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi. His wonderful book is, among other things, the closest thing that exists to an English biography of Israel’s folk troubadour Meir Ariel. Ariel, whose music I’d fallen in love with before I could even begin to understand what the lyrics were about, is the subject of the record’s fourteenth track.

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Also on the record, among a handful of tracks drawing on relationships I’d forged and observations I’d made, are songs about the founding of Tel Aviv, the Aliyah Bet, Moshe Dayan’s famous eulogy of Roi Rotberg, and a song about Masada.

Next month, I’ll self-release Does the Land Remember Me? The album was recorded over a six-day period in Seattle in January, with singer-songwriter Damien Jurado in the producer’s chair. I anticipate some degree of feather-ruffling when this record comes out.
The Ministry of Culture and Sport provided me with a small grant that went toward the making of a record whose title track is about a Palestinian recounting the loss of his home in the 1948 war. I can’t imagine Miri Regev would be pleased about that.

Left-wingers won’t like the settler shoes I jump into on “Abraham’s Song,” where the opening line is “My namesake walked these dusty hills, so to these hills I came / I saw nobody living here, I cannot hear your blame.” There are 17 tracks on the album, told from more than a half dozen different perspectives. If at least one of six perspectives on this contested piece of land doesn’t get your blood pressure going, you might want to check your pulse.

The writer is a Seattle-based singer/songwriter and former editorial staff member of The Jerusalem Post.

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