“How is a song born?” asked poet Yehonatan Geffen in the poem of the same name, one of his best known. His work, often set to music, became a kind of national text and soundtrack for Israeli life. “How is a Song Born” continues: “Like laughter, it starts from inside, and rolls out. Like a baby, at first it hurts and afterwards it comes out and everyone is so happy. And suddenly, how beautiful, it walks on its own.”
One of Israel’s most beloved cultural icons, Geffen wrote hundreds of poems for both children and adults that mixed the joy and pain he wrote of in “How is a Song Born” to great effect.
Anyone who grew up in Israel outside of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab sectors can sing at least a few of his songs from memory, and children still learn them, starting in preschool.
His songs for children are remarkable in that they were written very much from a child’s point of view – not an adult’s idea of how a child thinks – and were vivid with images and emotions in the way that children experience and perceive them. Yet they are not at all simple or naïve, and, like so many of the best songs, tell a story and evoke emotions that adults can relate to as well as children.
Ironically, his children’s book, Hakeves Hashisha-Asar (The Sixteenth Sheep), was not initially a big success, but when it was set to music, in the late 1970s, it became one of the top-selling Israeli albums of all time. His talent was such that the best musicians were drawn to set his work to music and the songs on the Hakeves Hashisha-Asar album were mostly composed by Yoni Rechter and sung by Rechter, Yehudit Ravitz, David Broza and Gidi Gov.
Geffen had been part of the Lool Gang, a comedy and music performance group with Arik Einstein and Uri Zohar and had performed many of his songs in live performances, and recited his poems on some of the Hakeves Hashisha-Asar songs with great feeling and animation.
The album includes “Eich Shir Nolad” (“How is a Song Born”), as well as such classics as “Hayalda Hachi Yafa Bagan” (“The Prettiest Girl in the Kindergarten”), “Ani Ohev” (“I Love”) and “Gan Sagur” (“Closed Kindergarten”).
“Hayalda Hachi Yafa Bagan,” sung on the album by Ravitz, is a deceptively simple song about a girl who loves her pretty classmate, and smiles when she smiles, but wonders, “When she is sad, I don’t understand how you can be sad when you are the prettiest girl in the kindergarten.” That the most beautiful person could experience sorrow like anyone else and that pain and joy alternated in life were lessons that even the youngest child could absorb from his songs.
The songs were embraced by the Israeli public and became an integral part of people’s lives. I was living in New York when my sons were born, but I knew we would be moving back here soon, and when I asked family and friends in Israel to send gifts that would teach my children the songs that all kids in Israel knew, we received four Hakeves Hashisha-Asar CDs and a copy of the book. Many of these songs are still played on the radio and on children’s television channels.
Popular among adults too
Geffen is also known for his songs for adults and he collaborated with some top musicians to set these to music. His songs for adults include some of the most popular Israeli tunes of all time, including David Broza’s “Yihyeh Tov,” (“It Will be Good”), Arik Einstein’s “Kshe’at Bocha At Lo Yafa” (“When You Cry, You’re Not Pretty”) and Yehuda Poliker’s “Pahot Aval Koev” (“Less But It Hurts”) He collaborated with Yitzhak Klepter on many songs, among them “Lokeach T’Zman” (“Take Your Time”) and “Ha’ahava Sheli Hu Lo Ha’ahava Shelo” (“My Love is Not His Love”). Hanan Yovel’s “Atem Zochrim et Hashirim” (“You Remember the Songs”) was inspired by Geffen’s traumatic experiences in the Yom Kippur War.
In the poem “Berakim U’re’amim” (“Lightning and Thunder”), sung by Broza on the Hakeves Hashisha-Asar album, Geffen wrote: “Lightning and thunder on a cold winter’s night don’t always sound the same… Sometimes close and sometimes far… There is thunder that is very scary and some just a little… There is thunder that is strong, strong and not nice to hear, especially if you are alone…”
Broza’s singing trails off and is replaced by Geffen’s voice, saying, “Once in a while, you encounter nice thunder.”These lyrics reflect how Geffen became an invaluable guide to Israelis of all ages, helping them weather the scary moments and revel in the nice ones.