The Zionists who began to settle what is now modern-day Israel in the 1880s were committed to the ideal of creating a nation state for Jews from all over the world. At the core of the cultural movement created by the Zionists was the revival of the Hebrew language into a living vernacular. Along with the revival of Hebrew came the creation of a body of literature and a folk-song repertoire sung in Hebrew. This music is known as shirei eretz Israel (Songs of the Land of Israel).
Most of the early Jewish settlers of Palestine in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century came from Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe, and songs of the land of Israel essentially drew on Russian and Slavic ballads and Eastern European rhythms, with the addition of new Hebrew lyrics. Songs from the golden age of songs of the land of Israel (until the 1960s) were in duple meter and often in minor keys. Occasionally songs showed an Arabic influence, with modes outside the major/minor scale and compound meters. The arrangements were acoustic and the accompaniment was simple, based on the piano, guitar and accordion. The lyrics often dealt with national themes and life in the holy land. Many of the songs glorified the life, loves and ideals of youths who were expected to build and defend their new homeland. The unifying characteristic of these songs was their description of the experience of living in Israel and fulfilling the national destiny. Later themes dealt with the tragedies of war and longing for peace. With the emphasis on Hebrew and lyrical content, many songs were composed to the lyrics of some of the most famous Hebrew poets such as Rachel (Bluwstein), Haim Nachman Bialik and Nathan Alterman, fostering a tradition of collaboration between artists and poets in Israel that persists today.
Since the first Zionist immigration to Palestine in 1882 there have been literally thousands of songs composed in the songs of the land of Israel genre. The songs were disseminated via communal sing-alongs (shirah betsibur), a practice that continues to this day, and many of the classics of the genre have become a kind of shared secular prayer, portraying a collective Israeli memory and nostalgic yearning. The establishment of songs of the land of Israel as a popular folk genre was also propelled by a body of folk dances that were invented to accompany the songs, and in the '50s, by amateur groups that got together to sing and work out simple harmonies. Due to the values it represented, this genre was reinforced by the media and the music industry that was established in Israel after its founding in 1948.
Stylistically, the genre is very eclectic. Diversity in styles emerged in the different types of settlements that existed in Palestine. The moshavot (agricultural settlements) had a more conservative context than the kibbutzim (collective communities) or the cities (mainly Tel Aviv). In the moshavot one could find authentic Yiddish and Russian folk tunes set to Hebrew lyrics and performed by small fanfare orchestras, while the kibbutzim maintained a repertoire of newly composed Hebrew folk songs and Tel Aviv, with its European cafes and cabarets, was a setting for a more personalized, artist-centric style. Although Ashkenazi Jews dominated the music, the growing communities of Mizrahi Jews contributed to its stylistic diversification. Even early on some Ashkenazi composers looked for Eastern inspirations, and especially to Yemenite traditions: Those people were considered the prototype of the authentic biblical Jew, and Yemenite motifs appeared in the compositions of Jewish settlement composers. The vocal ability of Yemenite singers, who grew up absorbing the rich musical traditions of their synagogues, propelled some singers to become prominent singers of the genre. In the 1930s Bracha Zefira was the first Yemenite Israeli performer to bridge the gap of East and West, and she performed all over Palestine and Egypt. Shoshana Damari followed Zefire, and she continued to develop the crossover sound in her long career.
The eclecticism of songs of the land of Israel increased after the establishment of the state, with the trends to urbanization and cultural diversification. Later additions to this repertoire were composed by native-born Israelis, the most prominent of these being Naomi Shemer, whose artistic activity from the 1960s to the 1980s produced a great volume of songs of the land of Israel classics, and whose 1967 "Jerusalem of Gold" composition became a one of the evergreens of the genre. The music's was maintained by later come-back variations of Israeli pop and rock artists such as Arik Einstein, who in the 1970s recorded a series of songs of the land of Israel albums arranged by rock and jazz musicians. Ofra Haza also recorded a few records in the genre, and singer-songwriters like Chava Alberstein continued to update the genre by writing and performing songs impregnated with the songs of the land of Israel esthetic. Songs of the land of Israel today is an established genre that is often informed by rock and pop ballads that comply with its musical and textual requisites. Nili Belkind