When Jews Were So Cool Arlo Guthrie and Nina Simone Wanted To Sing Israeli Folk Songs

Somewhere in the popular mythology of Jewish paranoia there was a time when everyone loved us. The legend goes that just after the goyim stopped believing we all had horns and just before they started hating Israel for, well, surviving, there was a moment where we were so deeply beloved that black icons, white icons, men, women, children, yea verily all the nations of the earth flocked to breathe life into the corniest of our folk tunes. If even our cast off Hava Nagilas could be the epitome of cool then kal vachomer pretty much anything we did would be unbelievably hip.

I had always believed that to be a myth until the conspiracy of the elders of YouTube revealed the following evidence of its truth. Despite the slight mislabeling of the song title, here is Nina Simone singing (if something as lively and yet otherwordly can be described merely as “singing”) “Eretz Zavat Halav U’d’vash.” I think that it’s a Village Gate gig in 1961 but I’m sure some Idelsohn acolyte can help me out with the details. The way she performs it, the state of Israel was a paragon of hope and biblical redemption in our times revealed as nestling in the northeast corner of Africa. As the song has it Israel was: “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Then, just to show that we were not the preserve of the downtown hip elite, Arlo Guthrie, man of the people turned “Tzena Tzena” into something that whole crowds of cornfed Americans were prepared to pay entrance fees to dance to. Difficult to imagine, but that’s what the world was like in the five minutes that people didn’t hate us. Quick, let’s make a CD and a book about it!

Hat tip to Benjamin Ivry.

When Jews Were So Cool Arlo Guthrie and Nina Simone Wanted To Sing Israeli Folk Songs


Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.

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