Where Is Israel of the Campfire Songs?

Haim Hefer's Voice Shaped Idealistic Jewish Generation

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 24, 2012, issue of September 28, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Several months before my 18th birthday, hoping to avoid military service in Vietnam, I went to see a rabbi known for counseling conscientious objectors. The conversation proved brief. He asked me if I would be willing to go and fight if Israel were in danger. Of course, I replied. Well then, he said, you’re not a conscientious objector. You have to be opposed to all war, anywhere, for any reason. You can’t pick and choose your wars. That just wasn’t me.

Haim Hefer
Haaretz
Haim Hefer

I thought of that moment this past Rosh Hashanah, when I heard about the death at age 86 of Haim Hefer, the Israeli tunesmith known as the poet laureate of Israel’s 1948 independence war. Hefer was the one who wrote all those songs sung around campfires and danced in circles to the strains of an accordion years ago. He wrote from the 1940s through the 1990s, but his best-known songs celebrated the Palmach, the rough-and-ready, kibbutz-based militia that was the core of Israel’s independence army. He didn’t create the myth of the sunburned Israeli in shorts and sandals who fought back five armies and created a nation from the ashes of Hell, but he wrote the soundtrack.

Hefer wasn’t a household name in the Jewish Diaspora, but if you were a Jewish kid growing up anywhere in the world in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s with even the vaguest awareness of Israel, you recognized his songs in an instant: “Finjan,” “Shoshana,” “Hey Daroma le-Eilat,” “Lech Lamidbar.” We sang them in summer camp, listened to them in Hebrew school, heard them on the soundtracks of countless black-and-white documentaries. In our young minds, they were what Israel sounded like. We thought they were old folk songs, filtered up through the ages. If you didn’t live in Israel, you’d never imagine they were written by a living, breathing person who still walked among us, wrote weekly newspaper columns and cracked wise on television talk shows.

Alongside the sunburned Sabra hero, Hefer’s songs also recounted another, closely related myth: that of the reluctant soldier who hated killing and feared death. Some of his most beloved songs were haunting tales of yearning and loss. Of the couple who walked out slowly — “Yatzanu At” — to the edge of the vineyard to say farewell, holding back their tears and parting with a sad smile. Of the stubborn dream — “Hen Efshar” — that the next jeep coming up the road will be filled with boys shouting: “It’s over. We’re home for good.” Of “Dudu,” the laughing, curly-haired youth who sang loudest around the campfire, carried refugee children gently ashore and finally was himself carried home lifeless from patrol: “Only someone who has mourned the best of his friends can understand us.”

The Israel of Hefer’s songs shaped the Jewish hearts of a generation of American Jews. We understood then that a myth isn’t necessarily untrue. The ideals and freedom struggles he wrote about in the 1950s were on our minds when we began marching for freedom in America in the 1960s. Thousands of young people who went south as Freedom Riders in the summer of 1964 promptly turned around in 1967 to volunteer in Israel during the Six Day War.

Coming home that fall, we poured that same energy into opposing the American war in Vietnam. Was that a contradiction, volunteering in one war and resisting another? A few of us thought so, but most of us did not. Some wars are just and others are unjust. We understood that instinctively back then.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.