This week’s Torah Reading is Shemot, or as it is sometimes known, Ve-Eleh Shemot, the first two words of the Book of Exodus, “And these are the names….” In Exodus, this introduces a list of Jacob’s sons who came to Egypt with him.
Of course, there are other lists of names. Writing only a few weeks after his death, my thoughts about Ve-Eleh Shemot quickly turned to a performance by the late Arik Einstein, the popular Israeli singer and actor. Here is his rendition of Ve-Eleh Shemot:
I played this for my students shortly after Einstein’s funeral, and I was surprised they did not “get” it immediately, even though I introduced the clip by showing them the Biblical reference. The lyrics are the names of footballers (soccer to most Americans). The piece honors the 1990 World Cup in Italy, and includes the names of 141players who participated in the competition, as well as some historic Israeli footballers. The song even has its own Wikipedia page:
Here are the lyrics, by Eli Mohar (the music, such as it is, is by Yoni Rechter): http://shironet.mako.co.il/artist?type=lyrics&lang=1&prfid=166&wrkid=1300
Sorry, I cannot find the lyrics in English, although it’s easy enough to find the list of all the participants in the 1990 World Cup on the Web.
In first thinking about the song, I thought about Mohar, Rechter and Einstein paraphrasing a line I believe was spoken by or attributed to Dan Almagor, who wrote the Falafel Song (music by Moshe Wilensky) back in the 1950s. (On this song see for example http://musicinisrael.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/immigration-patterns-conflicting-food-menus-a-talk-by-yahil-zaban/).
Almagor is supposed to have said that Ashkenazim couldn’t even begin to match Sephardic and Edot Ha-Mizrah in making falafel, but Ashkenazi Jews were masters of songwriting and could write a better song about it.
In the case of “Ve-Eleh Shemot,” Israel didn’t excel in sports—the one and only World Cup appearance was in 1970—but Israelis could write a great song about the participants.
In recent times, Israeli achievements in sports are more often contrasted with Nobel Prizes than with music or songwriting. Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, likes to point out that Israel has more Nobel Prizes than Olympic Medals. (For example, see http://www.cjnews.com/canada/former-ambassador-praises-canada%E2%80%99s-stance-israel). Oren might have said sometimes that Israel was the only such country; that is how I remember the remark as he made it in a fundraiser in Denver although I could be wrong. However, according to Tablet Magazine, that is not so. In August 2012, Tablet noted that Israel was not the only country with more Nobels than Olympic medals, observing that “The others are Myanmar, Guatemala, East Timor, Yemen, Bangladesh, and St Lucia. And of those countries, it looks like Israel has the most of both.” http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/108922/fact-of-the-day-olympics-edition.
The Wikipedia article seems to assume that the inspiration for “Ve-Eleh Shemot” was Danny Kaye’s song, “Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians)” by Ira Gershwin, from the Broadway show Lady in the Dark. Certainly, the rhythm and concept was very similar. The music for “Tchaikovsky” was by Kurt Weill, although it was a “patter song” and Kaye would perform it more quickly each time, so the orchestra did not even try to keep up. On the Tchaikovsky song: (I could not find a recorded video of Kaye performing this piece—only soundtrack from the show or a radio performance, and of course youtubes of others performing the song).
“Tchaikovsky” was, by the way, not Ira Gershwin’s first song featuring names of Russian Musicians—back about 1921 he had written, together with his brother Ira, a song about four Russian Jewish violinists, “Mischa, Yascha, Toscha, Sascha,” the “one composition on a ‘Jewish Theme’” in Library of Congress’s enormous Gershwin collection, according to http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/loc/Gershwin.html. Recording: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9liNoampOk
The list of names in Exodus 1 is short: just the sons of Jacob. But perhaps someone has composed a song, or will compose one, that mentions all the names of Jacob’s descendants mentioned in Genesis and Exodus.