The year before I moved to Israel, I worked at a restaurant in my neighborhood. I would walk to work through Seattle’s leafy Ravenna neighborhood listening to Meir Ariel’s 1997 record Bernard VeLouise, generally arriving at the restaurant somewhere in the middle of the fourth track.
Meir Ariel was an Israeli singer-songwriter often referred to as the Israeli Bob Dylan. On top of that, his ability to create words and turn phrases in Hebrew is heralded as somewhat Shakespearean. A supremely talented lyricist, he never enjoyed the fame in life that he found in death. He fought in the Six Day War (and the Yom Kippur and First Lebanon Wars), and he initially gained a following after he wrote a parody of a nationalistic song circulating in 1967 called Jerusalem of Gold, by Naomi Shemer. Ariel’s version was called Jerusalem of Iron, and speaks of the horrors he saw fighting in the city. In Shemer’s version the chorus is, “Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze and of light.” In Ariel’s: “Jerusalem of iron, and of lead and of darkness.”
Bernard VeLouise isn’t his best known record, but for some reason it was the first of his that I picked up. And when I say picked up, I mean listened to on Spotify. Seattle’s Easy Street Records doesn’t exactly have a well stocked Israeli music section. It was the last record the Israeli folk troubadour would release before his death at 57 in 1999, caused by an infected tick bite.
Before I learned how to speak Hebrew, I had no idea what the record’s opening track, “Etzel Zion”, was about. With an upbeat, meandering, Eastern European melody, and the word “Zion” (biblical Israel) in the title, I thought the subject matter must be some pretty heavy shit.
Later, once my Hebrew had improved, I learned that Ariel had in fact penned an ode to the fast food chicken schnitzel shop across from his apartment in Tel Aviv.
At Zion’s on the corner of Hayarkon and Trumpeldor
Between the post office and the Dan cinema
They put a lot of heart onto your plate
For just a little pocket change
They put a lot of love into your pita
And they don’t make you wait.
In August, 2014, in the midst of Operation Protective Edge, I was outside a hotel in Jerusalem, in a cloud of cigarette smoke surrounded by a circle of Israelis, listening to Meir Ariel on a shitty iPhone speaker. A string of military helicopters buzzed overhead and someone said it was the ceasefire team returning to the Knesset from discussions in Cairo. Then the rocket sirens started wailing and we had to scramble to the bomb shelter, with Meir’s music still coming out of the phone.
Six months later, I had two suitcases, and an apartment with a lease in my name waiting for me in Jerusalem. Everything else was up in the air. As my flight dropped below the clouds and the lights of Tel Aviv came into view, I noticed that the Israeli guy next to me had started sobbing, and I could tell it had something to do with the music he was listening to. I peeked over at his iPod. Annie’s Song by John Denver. Weird. I put on Bernard VeLouise. By that point, Meir’s music was no longer foreign to me. It was a comfort, a constant, when moving halfway across the world was full of so many variables.
A few years ago, an Israeli winery put out a limited edition Meir Ariel series of wines that featured illustrations found in his notebooks on the label. I wrote the song “The One Who Shines, The Lion of God” on a hot July evening in Jerusalem after polishing off a bottle. In English, the name Meir Ariel can be translated to “The One Who Shines, The Lion of God.”
Keep up with Ben Fisher – and keep your eyes peeled for the release of Does The Land Remember Me? – here.