February 18, 2020

Deconstructing Israel Through Pop Music

Uri Levin has a long scruffy beard that makes you do a double take. Is he a hipster or a Chassidic Jew? Levin jokes that he had to go all the way to Melbourne, Australia, just to come back to Tel Aviv with a trendy Herzl-esque beard. 

During his second stint as a shaliach (emissary from Israel), in Melbourne (his first was in Omaha, Neb.), Levin had an “aha moment.” “Everyone knows about Bibi and Gantz, but no one knew who was popular on the radio, what theater shows were the ‘Hamilton’ of Israel,” he said. 

Currently completing his master’s degree in educational management by focusing his research on Generations X and Y, Levin knows a thing or two about Jews under 40. With a background in production, specifically theater and radio, he combines his cultural know-how with an informal educational style in specially curated musical workshops about Israel. Having premiered at the Australian Limmud Oz festival, Levin’s workshop takes the audience on a musical journey through contemporary Israeli society.

Levin opens his laptop to a screenshot of the popular Galgalatz Top Hits list. Galgalatz is a radio station run by the Israel Defense Forces, and according to Levin is the ultimate barometer of Israeli society. “This is going to tell us about the society itself: politics, factions, etc.,” Levin said. His choose-your-own-adventure workshop invites the audience to select a song and then deconstruct an aspect of Israeli society through music and other popular cultural tropes. 

We start with Netta Barzilai, Israel’s unlikely pop diva and the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest winner. Watching the video clip to her winning song, “Toy,” we discuss the #MeToo movement and whether it has made a similar impact in Israel as it has in America. We talk a bit about the K-pop influences in Netta’s visual styling. Levin ends with the clip of her winning Eurovision and saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” 

Levin helps translate Israeli society to
non-Israelis through contemporary music.

But Eurovision 2019 wasn’t in Jerusalem, it was in Tel Aviv. Levin explains that the song contest took place in Tel Aviv because “everything here is political,” and then speaks about the right-wing government’s pushback about hosting something over Shabbat in Jerusalem.

We move from pop to rock, and from #MeToo to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Levin plays Israeli rock band Full Trunk’s biggest hit, “As a Stone,” which Levin uses as a jumping-off point to discuss the emotional and psychological impact of Israel’s compulsory military service. Levin then talks about his own service as a naval officer, with multiple deployments in Gaza, exploring PTSD with his audience on both the personal and national level.

Levin believes the younger generation is poised to relate to Israel through the cultural and societal trends he explores in his presentation. “Those younger ones, because of technology, are connecting better,” he said. “Someone on Birthright (Israel) or MASA can now listen to Cafe Shahor on Spotify, but they don’t understand what it means within the context of Israeli society.” 

And that’s where Levin comes in, helping translate Israeli society to non-Israelis through contemporary music. And yes, he will share his playlist with you.