What it Means to Say 'Am Yisrael Chai' – Kveller
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What it Means to Say ‘Am Yisrael Chai’

Thanks to a classic Ofra Haza song, I'm thinking differently about the phrase I've heard my whole life.


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Hello. How are you holding up? Would you like to take a deep breath with me? Or do you, like me, hate anything resembling guided meditation?

Still, let me take a moment and hold some space, for you, with you. Let us silently grieve together, if you need to grieve, or let us just take a moment to focus on positivity if that’s what you prefer (here’s a video of cute kittens).

… All OK? Or the closest semblance to OK it can be right now?

Then let’s get into it. As an Israeli, what happened in Israel this past Saturday is the most awful event of my lifetime. I do not feel like this is hyperbole. In the last year, as political unrest has roiled the country I called home for most of my life — the country where my entire family still lives — I’ve let myself imagine some pretty awful scenarios.

I could have never imagined this.

I have always been a person who believes that you don’t need to rush and make comparisons to the Holocaust. But as the granddaughter of survivors, watching the images from Beeri and the Supernova festival, I can’t help thinking of the mass graves in which my ancestors lay. And watching the shaky and fierce testimony of survivors of these massacres, I finally feel like I understand how my grandparents and great-grandparents could have moved on after seeing the worst horrors of humanity unleashed on their own loved ones.

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking of the song “Chai,” performed by Ofra Haza at the 1983 Munich Eurovision competition. On the same grounds where the Nazi regime reigned, and where a decade earlier Jews were massacred at the Olympics, Haza, a Yemeni Jewish refugee, sang a song about our survival — in Hebrew. While she wore white, the color of hope, her background dancers wore the same yellow that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.

“Chai, chai, chai,” she repeated, the Hebrew word for “alive.” “Am Yisrael chai,” she sang in her sweeter-than-honey voice, meaning ”the people of Israel live.”

“This is the song that my grandfather sang to my father, and today I am.”

Haza is resplendent in the video. Her voice is still one of the most unique and mellifluous ones that have come out of our country. I watch her in awe.

And I find so much comfort in this video.

Over 1200 of our fellow Jews are no longer alive. Innocent children. Warriors for peace. Vibrant youths who sought to celebrate love and music in the desert. Mothers who protected their children with their bodies. And when you think of that, this song, and the saying “am Yisrael chai,” rankles a bit. The price we’ve had to pay for our survival, over and over, for centuries and millennia, seems too steep to bear.

Then you think about the spirit of our people. Of our faith — the beautiful traditions that we’ve passed down to our children, the blessings of the challah on Shabbat, the melodies in our houses of prayer. Our people live in the words and in the stories, in the melodies and the art.

There are, of course, Jewish religious texts, but there is also music — Matti Caspi, Ofra Haza, Sharit Haddad, Eviatar Banai, Netta, Noa Kirel, Jane Bordeaux, Noga Erez, Chanan Ben Ari, Arik Einstein, Dag Nachash, Tedi Neguse, Jasmin Moallem, Meir Ariel, Arik Einstein, those are just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s television and movies. There’s books. There’s food.

Detractors of Israel like to say that we have no culture, that we have stolen it all. But this, all this beauty, all this humanity: You can not take it from us. And no matter your political leanings, you can appreciate that it connects us all.

We mourn and we grieve — for our loved ones, those we knew and those we were just connected to by the tendrils of Judaism that are common to us all, despite our differences. Each loss is a whole world. We mourn and we grieve every innocent life lost in this war. Each memory is a blessing.

However way this line touches us, we say: Am Yisrael chai.

I made a playlist of some of my favorite uplifting Israeli songs. Find it here. 

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