Karaoke Without the Culpability

Once the Provenance of the Uncool, Shira Betzibur Makes a Comeback –– Both in Israel and Stateside

By Jordana Horn

Published May 28, 2004, issue of May 28, 2004.
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The best trends always come around again: Leg warmers grace the pages of Vogue, shag carpets line the floors of hipster apartments and — finally — shira betzibur is cool once more.

Shira betzibur, which translates as “singing in public,” is an Israeli communal activity of passing out songsheets and singing Israeli songs together, usually to the accompaniment of a solo instrumentalist or a song leader. Once the provenance of the halutzim with accordions, singing folk songs around the campfire, sing-alongs have, in recent years, made their way into the trendy Tel Aviv nightspots of the cool and beautiful.

“Some cynical Israelis would shy away from shira betzibur because it looks like a noncool, non-Western, non-MTV thing to do,” said Avi Abergel, a Manhattan lawyer and shira betzibur participant from Dimona. “But in recent years, there’s been a resurrection of the shira betzibur culture.”

“In Israel, it used to be just for nerds,” agreed Jerusalem Foundation senior director Oren Rosenstein. “Then it became a trend for the people who try to look cool.”

And because looking cool is a near-universal concern, the trend has come to the New York City area. Yoav Polachek, an Israeli musician, and his wife, Miri, who have lived in the United States since 1998, decided to transport shira betzibur to New York and to the 169,000 Israelis who, according to the estimate of Israeli government officials, live there.

The result is Shira Betzibur NYC, which brings the phenomenon of shira betzibur stateside and, in true American fashion, “supersizes” it. Shira Betzibur NYC replaces the lone accordion player with a five-person group of Israeli musicians, led by Polachek. Rather than on songsheets, the lyrics to preselected songs are flashed on a screen in PowerPoint fashion. A song leader encourages participation, and steps aside to let soloists and groups lead the audience at the microphone.

The songs are from various points in Israel’s musical history, ranging from Israeli Army Band songs to 1970s disco to 1990s pop. According to Miri Polachek, “Crowd favorites range from Mizrahi to nostalgia. The army band songs are a big hit, too.”

Shira Betzibur NYC has played at Makor on Manhattan’s Upper West Side since March 2003, and the crowds of attendees get bigger each session. At Shira Betzibur NYC’s recent Israel Independence Day show, a quick look down one row of participants was an opportunity to see a cross-section of Israeli society not usually visible anywhere, other than on an El Al flight. A young religious couple (he with yarmulke, she with head covering) sat next to a 70-something Ariel Sharon look-alike, who sat next to a beautiful young woman in hot-pink pants and pumps. A few rows back, a group of Americans who had spent time in Israel danced along to the music. When a popular song came on, an Israeli woman of “a certain age” with cropped hair stuck her fingers in the air in classic headbanger fashion. At one point, someone got on the microphone and invited everyone who had served in Lebanon to come up and lead the group in song. Seven men in their 30 and 40s, arms around one another, heeded the call.

“It takes a big, vibrant Israeli community of the type you have here in New York to make this possible,” said attendee Gadi Ben Mark, CEO of an American subsidiary of an Israeli company. “What keeps amazing me is that even though I consider myself a socially involved person here, and often participate in the networking events of the Israeli business community here, I can go into the shira betzibur in my own neighborhood of the Upper West Side, the room is packed with Israelis of all ages, and I recognize nobody! This is when you can really feel how big the Israeli community here is.”

Participants are equally diverse when it come to that important component of any sing-along: musical talent. At the Independence Day performance, a self-effacing young woman sang a ballad to enthusiastic applause from the audience. Not everyone is as beloved.

“He goes up there all the time,” one semi-inebriated expat Israeli told me as we watched a regular mount the stage. “He’s terrible.”

He wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t all that great, either. As it turned out, no one cared. Shira Betzibur NYC is karaoke without the culpability: If you’re awful at the microphone, chances are good that the audience will drown you out with its own singing.

Shira Betzibur NYC is note- worthy not only for its new venue, but also for its message. In a time of crisis in Israel, expatriate Israelis go to the sessions for a taste of home and to assert their Israeli identity. In contrast to the “situation,” many say they view these sessions as a pure, joyful way to connect with their homeland.

“I love the togetherness in the Shira,” said Yaffa Aronowitz, a Long Island real estate agent who has been married to an American for 30 years, but participated in many shira betzibur events in Israel as part of the youth movement there. “Singing for me is my ‘pupik’ connection to Israel. It’s my culture, it’s my tradition, it’s my soul.”

“I just think Israelis need to feel [that connection] and that it reduces the homesick feeling,” Aronowitz added. “I think I’m going to start crying from longing, so enough.”

Jordana Horn Marinoff is a lawyer, karaoke aficionado and freelance journalist living in New York. She is at work on her first novel.

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