The big Summer music hit this year in Israel– a country predominately made up of Jews who have emigrated there from around the world– is an unconventional Arabic-inspired R&B hit by Alessandro Mahmood, an Egyptian-Italian singer. Soldi (money) is sung in Italian, but that hasn’t stopped it from being wildly popular in Israel, where, following the Eurovision song contest (in which Soldi was Italy’s entry) it has become the surprise hit of the Summer.
It’s a beautiful song– but I don’t think that’s the reason it has been so successful. In essence, Mahmood describes the complex and multi-ethnic identity which has shaped him. The lyrics are full of anger and frustration as much as anything and the complications of living as a hyphenated identity are ones that most Israelis can relate to. Even two generations into Israel’s existence as a state, most people either are themselves primarily speakers of a non-Hebrew language, or have parents who are.
Jews are unusual among minority groups in that we are actually multi-ethnic and multicultural. Jewishness is a national concept which spans several ethnicities, numerous languages, and hundreds of cultures and sub-cultures. Although there are only about 15 million Jews on Earth (.02% of the world’s population) within that small fraction they represent a huge diversity of global culture.
To me, this is something to be celebrated and cherished. Gradually it is disappearing– thanks to the re-centralisation of Jewish population in two primary centres (Israel and America), and thanks to commercial publishing and the internet. In pre-1789 times, practically every local community had its own custom (minhag). For example, there would have been a minhag St. Albans which was subtly different to minhag London. Both would have shared key features with minhag Shanghai and minhag Casablanca – but each would also represent the uniqueness of Jews in those places as well.
The impulse to standardisation is important– things are easier if everyone sings the same tunes, pronounces Hebrew the same way, uses the same cantillation, etc. However, what standardisation can (and often does) mean is a flattening of the diversity and richness of Jewish culture(s). Rather than try and collapse all difference into one single presentation of ‘Jewishness’ we should embrace the plurality of our community. To that end, it’s almost more appropriate to describe ‘Judaisms’ rather than Judaism.
In Soldi, Mahmood sings: È difficile stare al mondo quando perdi l’orgoglio (It’s hard to live in the world when you lose your pride). Although he’s singing about something very different– the success of his very words in contemporary Israel should remind us of the same lesson. If we abandon the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity that enriches Judaism(s) and ourselves, we’d be losing something foundational to we are. Instead, we should take pride in the way(s) in which we live in the world and cherish the differences which we are able to contain, all within one people and one nation.