In 1926, in “New Palestinean Folk Songs” – one of the earliest Zionist songbooks published in America – A. W. Binder (1895-1966) notated and arranged a song called (in his spelling) “Na-aleh L’artsenu – On to Our Land.” Binder indicates that this is a Yemenite melody and gives no attribution for the text. In many ways, this song is unremarkable. It stays firmly within a normative minor key and consists of two distinctive sections. The text draws from poetic formulae common in early Zionist Hebrew poetry. In Zionist songbooks and collections from the first half of the twentieth century there are many such commonplace songs. Some of them became popular in one social circle or another and later entered the canon of Israeli songs but most of them, such as this song, disappeared into obscurity and are only known to experts in the history of modern Hebrew song.
Na’aleh L’artzeinu is only dimly remembered by those who grew up in specific Zionist circles in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. What drew my attention to this song was its melody, one which I had learned in connection with the Yiddish song “Shnirele Perele.” In my initial exploration, I was sure that I had found a classic example of an old Yiddish melody that was reclaimed by Hebrewists in Europe or Palestine. Further exploration has proven that this assumption was almost certainly wrong and that the story of Na’aleh L’artzeinu provides a fascinating window into the intersections of American, Palestinian and European Zionism, mid-century Yiddish secular culture, the contemporary klezmer scene, and even into modern synagogue liturgical practice.
As the first published printing of this melody appears in A.W. Binder’s “New Palestinean Folk Songs,” it is important to explore first the history of this publication and its author. Though Binder is principally remembered for his contributions to the liturgical music of American Reform Judaism and his work on Biblical cantillation, he was also one of the most important early collectors and arrangers of Zionist music in America. In 1916, at the age of 21, Binder founded the Hadassah Choral Union, a women’s choir devoted to the performance of Hebrew Zionist music. The many arrangements he wrote for that choir were perhaps his first efforts in what would be a life-long devotion to modern Hebrew song.
In 1922 Binder began his position as music director of the Stephen S. Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. Rabbi Wise, an outspoken pioneer of American Zionism and one of the most charismatic (if controversial) leaders of American Jewry in the twentieth century, must have had a deep impact on Binder’s personal commitment to Zionism. Only two years after beginning his work with Wise, Binder travelled to Palestine for the first time in 1924 and on that trip he collected a number of songs. The first work to derive from this trip, currently on display in the library at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was “Six Songs from the Jewish Homeland, Arranged for Mixed Voices.” This handwritten collection, from September of 1925, did include Na’aleh L’artzeinu, making it the earliest extant notation of our song known, but as it was never professionally published its impact on larger Zionist circles was somewhat negligible. In 1926 Bloch Publishing Company (“The Jewish Book Concern”), one of the largest and most influential Jewish publishing houses of the time, issued “New Palestinean Folk Songs,” which included 22 songs arranged for voice and piano. In the preface to the book, Binder writes:
“The pleasure of the task of collecting the songs of Palestine can only be revealed in part by acquaintance with some of the beautiful melodies of this collection… It is, therefore, important to record the melodies associated with the early stages of the rebuilding of our homeland, so that we, in the Diaspora, can feel something of the spirit which now animates the Chalutzim and Chalutzoth, and that the generations to come, may look back to these songs as those of the 'growing' period.”
Binder’s depiction of the songs here is somewhat curious – as if to say that though these songs are wonderful, we will someday look back at them as relics of an embryonic period in Jewish/Zionist cultural development. Binder’s project is as much about promulgating these songs for his contemporaneous American Jewish community as it is about preserving them for future generations. Indeed, of these 22 songs perhaps fix or six of them are still sung with any regularity in Zionist circles, while the rest serve as archival records of an earlier time and its musical repertoire. The songs are all notated with piano accompaniment and the text is transliterated in Latin letters in an inconsistent mix of Ashkenazic and Sephardic pronunciations. None of the songs have attributions for composers or lyricists, though two of the melodies are indicated as “Yemenite” in origin and one is called “Arabian Love Song.”
This songbook was the very first of its kind in America. Though Zionist songsters were published in America since the beginning of the twentieth century, none had fully notated accompaniments and none were published in such a ready-to-use manner, easily accessible to all musically literate people regardless of Hebrew knowledge.
Song number 4 in this collection, Na’aleh L’artzeinu, is one of those two songs listed as Yemenite in origin. It is firmly rooted in the key of G minor with only a few accidentals in Binder’s piano arrangement, which serve to add a Western chromaticism to the harmony rather than to create any feeling of Orientalism.
Curiously, the musical notation for the singer in the first measure (and for the following measures with the same rhythm) is divided into eight individual sixteenth notes where the text scansion would otherwise demand four sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note followed by two more sixteenth notes. In no other song from the book does something of this nature occur, so it does not appear to be a typographical convention of the book. If it is intentional, perhaps this is a nod from Binder towards an earlier version of the melody, perhaps one sung without text as a dance niggun – more about this later.
The text of the song is as follows:
נַעֲלֶה לְאַרְצֵנוּ בְּרִנָּה
נַעֲלֶה לְאַרְצֵנוּ בְּרִנָּה
יוֹם גִּילָה, יוֹם רִנָּה,
יוֹם קְדוּשָׁה, יוֹם מְנוּחָה.
Na’aleh l’artzeinu b’rinah
Na’aleh l’artzeinu b’rinah.
Yom gilah, yom rinah,
Yom k’dusha, yom m’nuchah.
Let us go up to our land rejoicing!
Let us go up to our land rejoicing!
Joyful day! Gladsome day!
Holy day! Restful day!
“I was thinking that actually the melody was quite strange for such a Yiddish song. The modality is reminiscent of Middle-Eastern songs, such as the baladi songs of Syrian and Palestinian Arabs, where the minor mode sounds more like the Maqam Bayat.”
In relation to his version of this melody, A.Z. Idelsohn (1932, no. 275, above) describes it as one of the melodies that "may be distinguished as having an original Jewish melodic line, not to be found in other folk song" (1932: XXIX). Furthermore, he groups this melody with a number of songs that are "fused of Arabic, Slavic, Yemenite and Yiddish motives" and, specifically about this melody, he claims that it has "chassidic and Yemenite elements" (1932: XXIV). All told, while Binder’s initial assertion that this is a Yemenite song seems to be essentially incorrect, it is possible that the song does incorporate elements of Yemenite songs in combination with Eastern European motives – making this a paramount example of a “Palestinian” Hebrew folk song that exemplifies the aesthetics of early-twentieth century Zionist music. The very composition of the song includes signifiers that could suggest to listeners of different ethnic backgrounds a synthetic fusion of the stereotyped Jewish “East” and “West,” which seems to collapse the distance separating Jews from the shtetls of Poland from those of the villages of Yemen.
Na’aleh L’artzeinu was published in virtually every Zionist songbook in America well into the 1960s. It appears in Youth Movement songbooks (such as “The Judean Songster” from 1934), in educational books (such as Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s “The Gateway to Jewish Song” from 1939), in songbooks made for summer camps (such as the “Song Book of Cejwin Camps” from 1953), and in virtually every songbook (and there are many) produced by Harry Coopersmith (such as the “Jewish Community Songster” (1931) and the “Songs of Zion” (1942)). It appears in popular collections of Israeli songs produced in America, such as the “Metro Album of Israeli Dances” (1951), Moshe Nathanson’s “Manginoth Shireynu” (1939), and Samuel Bugatch’s “Songs of our People” (1961) – and all of this is just a partial listing. It is unusual to find a Zionist songbook from before 1965 that does not include Na’aleh L’artzeinu. In fact, when composer Herbert Fromm sought to best express the power of Israeli folk music, he used the melody of Na’aleh L’artzeinu, first in a hymnal setting of Psalm 92 (Praise Ye the Lord), first published in the 1940s, and then again in 1971 as the main theme of an orchestral piece written for the Boston Pops Orchestra called “The Pioneers.” From this incredible record of publications one would think that Na’aleh L’artzeinu was one of those few songs able to claim a central, canonical place in the Zionist musical pantheon.
This assumption, however, is misleading. Despite all of its apparent popularity in American Zionist circles, the song Na’aleh L’artzeinu was unknown in Israel. It does not appear in any songbooks published in Israel and has no listing on the impressively extensive website of early Hebrew song, Zemereshet. There is, however, an alternative set of Hebrew lyrics for this same melody, “Am’cha Yisrael Yibaneh,” that did manage to persist in Israel and seems to have its own history. Published first in Thelma Goldfarb’s “Echoes of Palestine” (New York, 1929), then by Idelsohn (1932), in Solomon Rosowsky’s “Mizimrat Ha’aretz” (1929, 2nd ed. 1935), and then in the Goldfarb Family’s “Jewish Songster Part II” (in various editions between 1929-1951). Am’cha Yisrael Yibaneh is still known and sung by older Israelis today. There is a moving recording of this song, as sung by survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. There is also a recording from Israeli Radio of a small orchestral ensemble playing the song from 1955. While Na’aleh L’artzeinu and Am’cha Yisrael Yibaneh obviously share the same melody, the essential question of the relationship between these two songs remains. Does one predate the other? Is one a variation on the other? Are they both “children” of some older melody – and did that melody have words, or was it perhaps a wordless dance niggun?
While these questions will ultimately remain unanswerable, there is another song sung to this same melody that must now be introduced into this discussion. “Shnirele Perele” (Little String, Little Pearl) is one of the most popular Yiddish songs. One can hardly find a gathering of Yiddish or klezmer musicians that does not include a heartfelt sing-a-long of Shnirele Perele. Indeed, it is the existence of Shnirele Perele that led me to begin my study of Na’aleh L’artzeinu. The Yiddish lyrics of this song are deeply religious in nature and talk about the coming of the Messiah. They were first published, without a melody, in Evreiskiia narodnyia piesni v Rossii (1901) compiled by Saul Ginsburg and Petr Marek as songs 11, 12 and 13. We can therefore affirm that the text of this song existed prior to 1901. The text appears to have many similarities to the prayer sung (or more precisely, melodeclamated) by Ashkenazic women at the end of Shabbat known as “Got fun Avrohom” (God of Abraham). In “Songs of Generations” (2004), the second volume of the massive Yiddish song collection edited by Chana and Joseph Mlotek, they indicate that the song was published with the music by Joel Engel in 1909 – but this is an error. Michael Lukin, a researcher at the Hebrew University, looked deeply into Engel’s publications, finding a setting of a different song about Elijah the Prophet (which shares some thematic material with Shnirele Perele) where Shnirele Perele, according to the Mloteks, was expected to be.
In fact, the first publication yet found of this now ubiquitous Yiddish melody is in a book called “Di Gilderne Pave” (The Golden Peacock), published as late as 1949 by Israel Goichberg, with musical additions edited by Michl Gelbart. Goichberg (1893-1970) was a Yiddish teacher, poet, and editor of a number of educational Yiddish books. Michl Gelbart (1889-1962) was one of the most important songwriters and song collectors of Yiddish music in the twentieth century. This is not a book of original compositions – most of the songs in it are listed as “folk song” – but rather, it is meant as a teacher’s manual. Again we are faced with a set of questions similar to those we had before. Did Gelbart know Na’aleh L’artzeinu and then adapt the melody for Shnirele Perele, making this the actual point of origin? Was this the melody for Shnirele Perele all along and Gelbart was just the first person to notate and publish it? Did someone else adapt the melody at some earlier date and Gelbart was just notating the melody that he received? At this stage, it remains impossible to know the answers to these questions. What happened to the song after this publication, however, we can at least partially reconstruct.
Shnirele Perele became a famous song only following a recording by the Klezmatics in 1990 on their album “Rhythm and Jews.” At once providing the listener a feeling of “Old World authenticity” and, through the fantastic arrangement of the band, a contemporary sensitivity, the song became an immediate hit. Since that initial recording, the song has been covered by numerous bands and the melody has found new adaptations into synagogue liturgy. Though one might have expected to find recordings of the song prior to that 1990 album, they apparently do not exist. Between Gelbart’s 1949 publication and the Klezmatics CD, there is no mention of the song anywhere. In an email exchange with Lorin Sklamberg, founding member of the Klezmatics, he wrote that he learned the song around 1987 from Adrienne Cooper (1946-2011), one of the great Yiddish singers of the past few decades. Cooper, says Sklamberg, in turn learned the song from Dr. Ellen Kellman (currently at Brandeis University). Dr. Kellman, in an email exchange, shared the following:
I learned the song (by ear) as a child from the singing of a woman named Molly Sallen, who taught in the Yiddish shule I attended in Detroit. She used to perform it at our shule assembly for Rosh Hashanah. Years later, as a teenager, I notated the song as best I could. Somewhere I may have that original notation. Some years after that, I asked Molly where she had learned it, but she couldn’t remember. (She is no longer living, unfortunately.) I never heard anyone else sing the song until I brought it to the New York Yiddish scene about 1985. I once found the text in a songbook published by the National Radical Schools (a Jewish nationalist network of Yiddish schools that was founded about 1910.) I think it is possible that it could have come down to Molly through a Yiddish school she attended as a child. (She was probably born around 1930.)
Though this message does not solve any of the questions regarding the composition of the melody itself, its dating, or the relationship of the song to Michl Gelbart, it does solve in a fascinating way the question of how this melody came to be revived. As Am’cha Yisrael Yibaneh or Na’aleh L’artzeinu, this melody never managed to become a truly popular “hit” but as Shnirele Perele, it has taken on a new life and become a core melody of contemporary Jewish experience.
Though we cannot know for sure, it seems very possible that the original version of this melody was sung as a dance niggun during the celebration of Lag B’omer on Mt. Meron in Israel. It shares many of the characteristics of other known “Mt. Meron tunes,” as they became called following the studies of this repertoire by Andre Hajdu and Yaacov Mazor. This celebration has long been a major site of pilgrimage, attracting in recent years upwards of 300,000 people. It is raucous, loud and features ecstatic dances, songs and bonfires. A central musical figure at these Meron festivities for some time now has been a klezmer clarinetist named Moussa Berlin (born 1938). The melody appears, listed as Shnirele Perele, on a CD of live recordings of Berlin called "Aneinu!" (2008). When asked by Dr. Edwin Seroussi about how he came to know the tune, he responded that
Joel Rubin is the one who titled the track “Shnirele Perele.” I know that song from my childhood as one of the songs of the pioneers of Israel. The words I know are “Am’cha Yisrael yibaneh x2, Am Yisrael chai x4.” I also introduced this song to Meron and it appears on my CD “Bilvavi” as part of a medley built on “Hineih Mah Tov.” This melody is also played in Tzfat (Safed) as part of the Abu Procession . The elders of Tzfat love it and also sing it in the words that I mentioned before.
From this oral testimony we learn that the melody has returned through Moussa Berlin’s agency to its (possible) original home of Mt. Meron. The journey of this song has been a long and complex one. Its roots stretch into Eastern Europe and the Arabian Peninsula, eventually converging in the land of Israel. Its branches spread out to European, American, and Israeli Zionists – each finding a different kind of message to carry with this unassuming melody. Americans saw in it a call to journey to the Holy Land. Europeans saw in it a reminder of the hope and joy carried by their brethren in Israel. Israelis held on to it as a memory of the old halutzim (pioneers) and their spirit and joy. Eventually, the Yiddish world with its unique combination of secular, religious, Zionist, and radical ideologies found their own branch of this story and on the journey went. The combined picture of this process paints a vision of Jewish peoplehood much grander than that of the small story I had originally imagined, of a Yiddish song translated into Hebrew for Zionist purposes. Whatever its origins, the melody of Na’aleh L’artzeinu / Am’cha Yisrael Yibaneh / Shnirele Perele traveled with the Jewish people throughout the twists and turns of modernity.
This essay emerged from a seminar on modern Hebrew song in American Jewish culture conducted by Dr. Edwin Seroussi, the Joyce Z. Greenberg Professor of Jewish Studies, in the winter of 2016 at the Department of Music of the University of Chicago.
Binder, Abraham Wolf. 1926. New Palestinean Folk Songs. New York: Bloch Publishing Company.
Fromm, Herbert. Unknown Date. Two Psalm Settings. New York: Transcontinental Music.
Ginsburg, S. M. 1901. Evreĭskii͡a narodnyi͡a pi͡esni v Rossii. S.-Peterburg: Redaktsii͡a "Voskhoda".
Goichberg, Israel, Michl Gelbart, and Shoyrli Ḳnoring. 1949. Di gilderne paṿe: lider un ferzn. New York: Aroysgegebn fun dem Yosef Khromoṿ fond.
Idelsohn, Abraham Zvi. 1932. Der Volksgesang der osteuropäischen Juden, volume 9 of Hebraïsch-orientalischer Melodienschatz (HOM). Leipzig: Friederich Hofmeister.
Mlotek, Eleanor G., Joseph Mlotek, Barnett Zumoff, Zalmen Mlotek, and Tsirl Waletzky. 1990. Songs of generations: New pearls of Yiddish song. New York, NY: Workmen's Circle.
This is anecdotally verified through casual interviews with a few elderly members (currently in their 80s) of Labor Zionist movements with whom I have a personal relationship. When asked about the melody alone they had no recognition at all but when given the words they were able to recall the song quite well.
To learn more about this song and hear recordings see: http://web.nli.org.il/sites/nlis/he/Song/Pages/Song.aspx?SongID=148#6,58...
While possible, this option seems highly unlikely. If Shnirele Perele had existed with this melody going back decades it would almost certainly have been printed in at least one of the major collections of Yiddish folk songs, each of which attempted to be authoritative and complete. Its absence from any of those publications remains an argument from silence, but it is nonetheless remarkable.