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Hear Israel

When the Weavers recorded the popular Israeli folk song ‘Tzena Tzena’ in 1950, they did more than legitimize a strain of musical culture; they introduced Israel to a generation of young Americans

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“Tzena Tzena Tzena,” 1950. (Courtesy Gary Maloney)
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In 1951, American Jews heard something they never heard before and have not heard since: a Hebrew song at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. The song, Issachar Miron’s “Tzena Tzena,” had been recorded the year before by the Weavers, a politically leftist folk singing group from Greenwich Village with hyperactive accents and closer ties to Woody Guthrie than to Golda Meir. Adopted by Pete Seeger as a folk song, the Weavers’ version of “Tzena Tzena” fed American Jews’ sense of what Israel was—a land brimming with tanned and muscular kibbutznik-soldiers singing, dancing the hora, and making the desert bloom.

The song was composed by Issachar Miron (born Mirchovsky) in 1941. Yehiel Haggiz, who was then serving in Jewish Company Number 22 of the British Buffs Regiment in Palestine, had written the lyrics when he brought them to Miron. The song is short, and it encourages young girls to go out and meet the young, virtuous soldiers in the settlement—the title translates literally to “Go Out, Go Out.” One of the instructors in the company wanted a song to celebrate the completion of their training, so Miron responded by quickly writing a melody. Miron’s version had two parts that could be sung as a round, and its upbeat dance tempo made it both easy to learn and—like all hits—hard to forget. Miron taught the song to his own company and soon, by his recollection, “almost instantly, the whole camp was singing it.”

By the time the Weavers recorded the song, it had been reprinted in a 1949 collection called “Songs of Israel,” and it had been recorded at least twice: first by Paolo Gorin for Israeli radio, and then later by Sara Jaaray, in a deal with a fledgling American record company, Zamir Art Co. The Jaaray recording was included on an album titled Haganah Sings, of which about 1,000 copies were pressed for sale in the United States. According to one contemporary account, “Many of the songs in the ‘Haganah’ album were of [questionable] provenance; others were Tin Pan Alley arrangements of popular tunes.”

Whether through sheet-music reprints or its inclusion on the Haganah album, the original Hebrew version of “Tzena Tzena” then landed in the hands of Pete Seeger of the Weavers. Seeger, the son of Harvard musicologist Charles Seeger, already had a notable folk-singing career playing duets with blues legend Leadbelly and later teaming up with Woody Guthrie to form the politically progressive Almanac Singers. Unlike Guthrie and Leadbelly, Seeger was not much of a writer, but he committed himself to developing a vision and canon of American folk music, which he later expanded to include a world unified by folk music. He explained that he would craft performances so they included “a few songs from other countries, hinting at the different types of people in this big world.”

The young State of Israel was still largely an abstraction for American Jews in the 1950s. Few American Jews had visited Palestine or Israel, and even fewer had chosen to make the new Jewish homeland their home. Photos and newsreels captured the sights of the young country, but American Jews still had little sense of what this country sounded like. American Jews of a certain age still tuned in to Yiddish radio, while their children and grandchildren found their aural culture somewhere between Broadway show tunes and rock ‘n’ roll. A handful of collections of Israeli folk songs had been published and provided part of the soundtrack to Jewish schools and summer camps, but for the most part recordings from Israel were few and far between.

In fact, as Israeli musicologists Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi point out in Popular Music and National Culture in Israel, by 1952, the entire catalog of Hed Arzi, the largest Israeli record label at the time, consisted of a total of 22 songs, “a mixture of Shirei Eretz Yisrael, original songs in trendy pop styles (rhumba, swing, tango, and so on) and translations of foreign songs in the same vein,” in addition to a few cantorial numbers. The state of Israeli music in the United States drew the explicit ire of at least one critic, Peter Gradenwitz, who explained in a 1949 article in Commentary, “With the quick dollar the ruling motivation, it is hardly surprising that the worst sentimentalism and cheapest nationalism prevail in the ‘Palestinian’ music turned out for American consumption.”

Along with “Hava Nagila,” “Tzena Tzena” became one of the first Hebrew songs to be embraced widely by American Jewish audiences. But unlike “Hava Nagila,” which rang with overtones of religion and hasidism, “Tzena Tzena” lyrically evoked the sounds, sights, and soldiers of the new State of Israel, with its pastoral yet vigorous lyrics about girls going out to meet soldiers in the new settlements. In the early 1950s, Israel in the minds of Americans was some combination of the Garden of Eden and the little engine that could. It was dreamily socialist and seemed to hum with the vigor and romance of manual labor, filled with Jewish men and women who could fight and plant and love. The image of Israel in the minds of American Jews happily excluded the realities of malarial swamps and massive, hastily erected tent settlements to house the tens of thousands of Mizrahi Jews.

The aural framework that the Weavers provided fit snugly alongside Israel’s emerging sonic sense of itself, where the emerging tradition of folk songs tried to establish, in the words of Regev and Seroussi, “a means of tonal organization that would reflect both the people’s attachment to the land and the ingathering of the exiles.” This strategy not only fueled American Jews’ romance with the new Jewish State, but it was also part of a semi-explicit state strategy for cultivating a national musical culture.

In the following few decades, the song was covered by everyone from Vic Damone and Mantovanni to Richard Tucker, Chubby Checker, Judy Garland, and Dusty Springfield, among countless lesser-known artists like the Temple Israel Senior Youth Group Choir and the performers of Songs NFTY Sings II. In truth, it is probably one of the most recorded and best-known Jewish songs in the world.

“Tzena Tzena” is important not only for its popularity, but for how it became so popular in the first place. With its romantic depiction of young women lusting after righteous male soldiers, the song fulfilled the expectations of Israel held by many American Jews in 1951. Yet, this image needed a Harvard-educated American folk singer to reach an American audience. Despite the song’s pedigree, it took Seeger’s “hechsher” to make Israel audible to American Jews.

Ari Y. Kelman is a professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis and the author of Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States.

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Dorothy Wachsstock says:

I was told that I comment too often so will listen and not comment for awhile.

Where do these songs come from? In an interesting and relevent sidenote – this song was given to the Weavers by my uncle, Tony Schwartz. One of the first people in the world to own a Nagra recording device, he contacted the company and asked for a list of fellow Nagra owners around the world. He then contacted them all and offered them examples of American folk music if they would reciprocate. He not only obtained “Tzena Tzena” from Israel, but “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (which he also passed along to Seeger) and “Everybody Loves Saturday Night” (which he gave to Merv Griffen) from Africa. He met a woman at a store counter (Macy’s, I believe)who was herself a musicologist from Jamaica. Like many singers over the decades that my uncle recorded, she sang some folk songs for him. At that time, he knew a struggling young jazz singer (as he described him: A beautiful man with a good voice and frayed shirt cuffs). He invited him over: “Harry – I think this kind of music would be a good direction for you. Come over and listen to ‘The Banana Boat Song’.”

Jackie says:

Thank you, Elizabeth, for a most interestng addition to the article. Your uncle certainly had a vision of future music.

my wife, who is Israeli, was intrigued when she saw this link on my computer. I immediately showed her the Weavers. Wow, 60 years later, the talent is there…glimmering. Sure, we live in a crazy world, but it’s nice to know that music that can still bring us together and touch us. You can never go back, but is sure nice to take a peek every once in a while.

margy n says:

I so remember singing and dancing to the music with great delight many years ago while at college. Whenever I hear it, fond memories of basking in the glow of a new state of Israel comes back. The beat made it easy to dance and repetition of the words made it easy to sing. Appreciate the history of the song and a chance to relive days long gone by.

BernieG says:

The author does not mention a possible inspiration for the first few lines, namely the Tsene-rene, a popular Yiddish translation/commentary which got its title from “tse’enah u-re’enah benot Tsiyon (“Go forth and look, daughters of Zion”), a phrase from verse 3:11 in the Song of Songs.
See reference below:
http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Tsene-rene

Joe Schwartz (No relation to Elizabeth or Tony) says:

While I don’t doubt the Tony Schwartz / Pete Seeger route, I wonder how influential Wood Guthrie’s Jewish connection might have played in the Weavers decision to record it. Woody’s wife (at the time) Marjorie (Arlo’s mother) was the daughter of Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. In fact, Meir Kahane (before his JDL days) tutored Arlo for his bar mitzvah — but, that’s another story.

BritYid says:

“Jewish Company Number 22 of the British Buffs Regiment in Palestine” There is, of course, no Buffs Regiment any longer, nor was there one then. Buffs is a nickname for the former Royal East Kent Regiment. Of Jewish Company No. 22 I know nothing, but my grandfather, who had the honour to serve in the Royal East Kents during WWII, told that it was then that he first learned to eat treif.

Louis Trachtman says:

I remember two versions – one was to go out to see the “Chayalim” (soldiers) and the other was to go out to see the “Chalutzim” (e.g. the pioneers) and the soldiers. We still sing the song on Simchat Torah and I still hum the tune often to myself these many years later. Thank you for the story.

R.E. Prindle says:

Yeah, but… Tzena was catchy. Then the Jews thought they were on some kind of roll. The next release was Song Of The Sabra. The Hit Parade had these people sitting around a campfire on what was supposed to be a kibbutz. Seeger really overplayed his hand. The song bombed and bombed bad. I was too young to understand at the time but the promotion of the Israeli cause was too blatant. There was a lot of grumbling and resentment.

Tzena was just a pleasant song, that’s all. No reason it shouldn’t have been a hit.

Carolyn Toll Oppenheim says:

I have heard Pete himself talk about how he got “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which was not called that, but an African word that sounded to him like Wimoweh.
Decca Records was going out of business in South Africa and was going to destroy a whole bunch of recording. Someone offered them to Peter before they destroyed them and he asked to have them.

One recording was of a man named Solomon Linda, a black from Johannesburg, whose group sang the song that sounded like what Pete turned into Wimoweh.

There was an article about his in Rolling Stone a few years ago and then a documentary that was shown on PBS.

There is no mention of anyone named Tony Schwartz in this story.

Later, other groups changed a few notes in the beginning of the song, renamed it The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and it too became one of the most recorded songs like Tzena Tzena.

Laura Liben says:

Isn’t Tony Schwartz one of the original members of the New Lost City Ramblers? And wasn’t (the late) Mike Seeger in NLCR also? And since Mike Seeger is Pete Seeger’s half brother, I’d think the story linking Tony getting the song from an Israeli nagra user and giving it to Pete would be true..
“Tzena” figured big in my childhood too- I think I learned the song/dance at Surprise Lake Summer Camp near NYC..

Issachar Miron worked for the United Jewish Appeal in the late 1970s, composing and staging performing arts events that promoted the hope of Israel and the need for American Jews to continue an outpouring of support of all forms.

I used to have a record on tape called (as I recall) Sounds of My City recorded by Tony Schwartz on his early mobile tape recorder. Could have been a Nagra if Tony had a rich uncle, otherwise the Uher was much cheaper. On it I remember a doorman talking baby talk to a dog locked in a car on the sidewalk. And a symphony by the booming ship’s horns of New York harbor. Years later, when I would read that Tony Schwarz was a campaign consultant in Chicago, I figured he put his early experience to good use. Is that the same guy? I figured Tony was to audio what Studs Terkel was to stories, thus the Chicago connection.

Adina says:

And I always thought that the song was a satire or pun on the tzena (צנע) or austerity measures that were prevalent at the time in Israel.

JOy Old City says:

For another version of Tzena,Tzena, see this one by Arlo Guthrie with a comical lead- in, presenting it as an Irish folk tune, only to the delight of the “mavinim” in the audience.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12FmPyEqXvc&feature=related

Paul N. says:

Great artile, though he missed a major point.

When Pete Seeger found the song and it was scheduled for recording, English words were written, and the Weavers were backed up by the full Gordon Jenkins orchestra. There was no Hebrew on that record, except for the words Tzena Tzena. Seeger was unhappy with the version, but was pleased at its great popularity, and what it did for folk music in general.

The “A” side of the record was “Good Night, Irene”, the Leadbelly song also orchestrated and with the backing of the Gordon Jenkins orchestra. It was the number one record for the year, with Tzena Tzena being close behind. However, I don’t believe the Hebrew word version was ever released as a single, let alone becoming a hit on its own.

“Tzena Tzena” and “Good Night Irene” were featured at most Weavers concerts, and I heard them sing both in Berkeley many years ago. Once the hit record died down, they performed the song only in Hebrew, although their pronunciation left a bit to be desired.

When the Weavers recorded for Jenkins, they also had hits with “On Top of Old Smokey” and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”.

Gordon Jenkins son, Bruce Jenkins, has been a sports writer for the San Francisco for many years, and is considered one of the foremost experts on the SF Giants.

What, no mention of the Smothers Brothers two recordings of the song?

Charlie says:

I once took part in a Tuba Christmas (google it) in Portland, Oregon that performed a version of Tzena, Tzena specially arranged for the event by Dr. John Richards. Needless to say, having hundreds of tubas, euphoniums, baritones and sousaphones blare out the triumphant melody in the context of a Christmas concert was an incredible experience.

Leib Kelman says:

I enjoyed reading your article, this was the first song I learnt for the guitar.

This stuff is so subjective. I know that Hava Nagila is based on a hasidic niggun, but I doubt that one in 100 of the listeners to Harry Belafonte’s hit version made that association.

Instead, they envisioned kibbutzniks singing and dancing in joy after their work was done. In other words, similar to Tzena, Tzena, except with farmers rather than soldiers. This idea was reinforced by the English version (by Betty Magidan), which also became a hit.

In the 1950’s, most Americans had no idea what a hasid was. There were very few of them left, most having been murdered. And the ones who remained were certainly not featured in the press or on TV.

Elektra Records released many LPs of Israeli music in its early days, including records by Theodore Bikel, Geula Gill, the Oranim Zabar troupe, Hillel and Aviva, Ron and Nama, and The Dudaim. These records also supported the vision of a young, vigorous, idealistic Israel.

barryg says:

Bernie G has it somewhat backwards.
The song AND the name of that Yiddish text both derive from that verse.
The song was not influenced by the Yiddish text, especually when one considers that the nascent state did all it could to distance itself–if not erase–Yidish culture.

“it encourages young girls to go out and meet the young, virtuous soldiers in the settlement”

Gimme a break. When the soldiers sing to the girls to “have no fear” of them, that’s a pick-up line, not an objective description. It appears that Prof. Kelman has fallen for the line 60 years later!

Michael says:

Scott is right.
But oh for the days when a leftist folksinger could sing a song promoting Israel soldiers!

mike dickman says:

Believe it or not – the Smothers Brothers do a very nice “Tzena Tzena”.

What fun! Takes me back a long way – probably to summer camp in the early 50’s.
Thank you.

Good Ol’Pete with his donations to “the cause’.

Tony Schwartz had, if memory serves, a program out of WNYC, where we heard ‘Tiki TIki Tembo'(another Seeger recording)
Now, for THE CHURKENDOOSE& ‘Young Peoples Records!!!

I always thought the song had a double meaning. Not only did it mean all that has been written here, but to me it had an additional meaning. Remember the pogroms? and the fear of the sight of a Russian/Polish/Ukrainian soldier? How about the sight of a Nazi in uniform? To me, this song also meant “there are soldiers in the square, but don’t be afraid of a soldier, a man of our Army”. Maybe its my generation. It may not have been written to mean that but that is what it brought to my mind.

I’m making a documentary romp through the history, mystery and meaning of the ubiquitous Jewish standard, Hava Nagila. It’s called Hava Nagila: What Is It? You can see a ten-minute fundraising clip for the film at http://www.havanagilamovie.com. Everyone who makes a tax-deductible donation of $18 or more gets a credit on the film! Thanks, Roberta Grossman, Director Hava Nagila: What Is It?

Chloe, thanks — someone else who remembers the Churkendoose. And Young Peoples Records……Wonderful.

Well, Carolyn, having spoken to Pete Seeger about my uncle, he acknowledged the relationship. No, Tony was not a member of the NLCR. Yes, the WNYC show was his. For more information on Tony Schwartz: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Schwartz_(sound_archivist)#Life_and_career

re: the yiddish text vs the song – no proof of this, but i actually believe the use of “tzena u’rena” in the song is a nice secular zionist “poke” at the world they were distancing themselves from. The “Tzena U’rena” book mentioned above was a yiddish text that summarized the Bible and other jewish texts for the women of eastern europe, b/c surely they were not able (and werent given the opportunity) to learn them in the original. It was very well known, and the mothers (and grandmothers) of all of the pioneers certainly had this book. By co-opting that phrase and using it to urge the same population that the book was intended for (i.e. young jewish women) to go out and lust after their male peers in the new israeli army, it is just the sort of message the pioneers were looking to send!

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Hear Israel

When the Weavers recorded the popular Israeli folk song ‘Tzena Tzena’ in 1950, they did more than legitimize a strain of musical culture; they introduced Israel to a generation of young Americans

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