Monday, June 29, 2015


There are few other countries that have contributed more to the field of classical music than Italy. Many musical terms are in Italian (allegro, legato, rubato, forte, crescendo, etc.). Italian art songs and opera songs are among the staples of any serious voice student’s repertoire. Much of the development of Western classical music, such as harmony, notation, and scales, were developed in Italy. And the Italians take all of this with pride. So, it’s no wonder that music is such an integral part of Italian culture. 


Opera is by far the genre most associated with Italian music and is particularly close to their hearts. The first opera in a form as we know it (there were other forms of music utilized on the stage before this) is widely attributed to Claudio Monteverdi. Generally, Naples and Venice were the main cities where these traditions grew out of and developed. Throughout the centuries vocal styles and composition styles changed, and of course each composer added his own contributions, but essentially the core of this tradition remained true to itself. Some of the most well-known opera composers include Alessandro Scarlatti, Aldo Clementi, Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, Giuseppe Verdi, and Giacomo Puccini. 

There was also quite a bit of instrumental music written as well. Many of the same opera composers also wrote other styles of work. There were several different types of instrumental compositions that were developed by Italian composers. These styles became commonly used in the canon of classical music and intensely studied. However, composers were also influenced by the music from other musical capitals of Europe. Some of these instrumental compositions include concertos, symphonies, string quartets, and others. Italian composers of note who primarily wrote instrumental music include Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi, Luigi Cherubini, Domenico Scarlatti, and Ottorino Respighi. 

Of course for a country where the Roman Empire and the Vatican is based in, it shouldn’t come to any surprise that there is a plethora of sacred music here as well. From its earliest days, sacred music has remained an important part of Italian music. Gregorian chants and Renaissance polyphony are often studied and still performed as great examples of Italy’s early music traditions. Almost all of this music is sung in Latin, the language of the church during this time. Giovanni da Palestrina is one of the more influential composers of early music in Italy. 

Believe it or not, Italy doesn’t really have a national folk music style. Opera is about as close as you’ll find to a “national” style, but it’s not folk music. Each region and town in Italy has its own styles of folk music and folk dancing. There are even different terms for things in towns that are only separated by less than a mile. However, ballads, lullabies, and other styles span across the land in its broadest terms. Probably one of the most well-known forms of dance is the tarantella. This dance characterized by its quick 6/8 steps was once thought to cure the bite of a tarantula spider. One really great example of a tarantella is in the wedding scene of the movie Godfather (1972).

I found a ton of Italian rock musicians listed (as well as other genres), and many of these were available on Spotify. I just picked a few to listen to in genres I generally enjoy. One band I listened to was Afterhours. They have a progressive rock feel to their music, coupled with a kind of ambient/psychedelic sound at times. I like their sound.

Another band that I really like—I’ve known them for years— is Lacuna Coil. They are a hard rock band with a gothic sound and a female lead singer. I absolutely love this style of music. They remind me of the band Evanescence at times. I really wish there were more bands out there like this. 

I listened to the band Gabin. It’s kind of a mix of electronica with dance but with elements of blues and funk. I was immediately drawn to this. The album I listened to was Soundtrack System, and I thought it was interesting and intriguing.

And then we have Negrita. The name alone reminds me of the alternate term for the Brazilian dessert brigadeiros (which are awesome no matter what you call them. I usually call them “gone”). They have a pretty standard rock feel to their music. I really liked what I heard. I also noticed they sing mostly in Italian but with a little English mixed in as well. Of course. It’s only the cool thing to do. Embrace it.

Finally, time for some Italian punk music from Punkreas. I love all genres of punk music; this band had a lot of elements of the classic punk bands of the late-1980s and early-1990s. I loved what I heard. It’s definitely the kind of music you want to play loud in your car. 

Rhapsody of Fire is a folk metal band, and I have to give them dap for some nice classically inspired string parts. They were definitely an interesting listen that didn’t leave me disappointed, albeit I felt like I was listening to the soundtrack of a 1980s B-movie horror musical. But if this were the soundtrack, I’d at least maybe give it a shot. 

Le Orme gave me the impression of being Italy’s version of Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground all rolled into one. I love both of those bands, so I was super into this. And it was sung in both English and Italian. It had every element of the 1970s in it: harmonious background vocals, an organ, a tambourine, rhyming the words “summer” with “lover.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this before, but I’m a sucker for bands that use certain instruments, and organs are one of those instruments (the piano and accordion are the other two). Alphataurus is another band that is kind of in this same category. I really liked what I heard from them, too. 

There were several Italian hip-hop artists I came across. One was called Articulo 31 who mixed hip-hop with rock. There were some good things going on here. Sangue Mistro was kind of hard to place. Their music reminded me of a cross between Cypress Hill and Atmosphere. I kind of liked this, and I think I need to listen to this more. Fabri Fibra is definitely more hard-core and mainstream American-style (actually, I think he probably uses a little more elements of French-style rap rather than American-style).  Clementino is another rapper who actually reminds me of Beanie Man and a few other dancehall musicians. And finally, I listened to Caparezza. I kind of liked what I heard. There are some subtle elements borrowed from electronica music in his music, but he also uses acoustic instruments as well. It gives his music an interesting feel to it, and I like it.

Up next: the food

Thursday, June 25, 2015


Italian painters and sculptors have produced some of the world’s most iconic works of art, many being placed in the category of “masterpieces.” The earliest forms of Italian art were Etruscan art. The Etruscans were among the first to perfect the style known as the fresco.  They figured out that if you painted a picture on top of freshly laid plaster, the paint would dry along with the plaster, thus preserving the painting. This was such an effective method that we still have remnants of Etruscan paintings to this day. They also used elements of the artistic technique known as chiaroscuro to depict depth into their work. 

Etruscan fresco

After the Roman Empire took its hold, several different forms of art emerged. Granted, many of these artistic changes were influenced by the Greeks. Roman architecture began to utilize distinctive styles like arches and columns that differentiated itself from other forms of architecture at that time. The Romans also did quite a bit for city design as well: they implemented the use of aqueducts, sewers, roads, and apartment buildings.

Roman aqueduct with its use of arches

There was actually still art being made during the Middle Ages, but it was kind of toned down. This period saw much development in calligraphy, especially by adding color and gold leaf. But once the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, new styles of painting and sculpting began to take off. The city of Florence was one of the main cities where this rebirth of artistry occurred. 

Mona Lisa

However, Italy is most widely known for its Renaissance artists. There were three artists who have reached the master artist level: Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo is most widely known for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; da Vinci’s most famous paintings are “The Last Supper” and “Mona Lisa” while Raphael is known for his depictions of the Madonna and other saints and Biblical characters. Donatello was a famous sculptor, often thrown in the mix with the master artists, whose sculptures are still enjoyed in Florence, Padua, and Siena. (Do these four names sound familiar? Yep, these are four men are the namesakes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Because if there were any men who evoke the image of tough fighting styles and nipping crime in the bud, it’s four Italian Renaissance artists.)

by Caravaggio

The Baroque period of the 17th century was widely influenced by Caravaggio. His use of light and dark areas (called chiaroscuro) in his paintings created quite a dramatic effect. Caravaggio is most associated with chiaroscuro, and this style had a great influence on Italian art for centuries. There were also a number of sculptors who emerged during this period as well. Classicist and Neoclassicist artists began to really use mathematics into their architectural ornamentation as well as other uses (like painting human figures). The Italians even had their own version of impressionism, which actually emerged before the more famous French movement. However, Italian impressionism did not go over so well with the more established artists and art schools of the time. 

Example of Italian Futurism art

The 20th century brought along a plethora of art movements and new styles in painting and sculpture as well as in fields such as architecture and textile art/fashion. Movements and styles such as futurism, metaphysical art, minimalism, abstract art, and spatialism all led Italian artists to make their mark into the 21st century. 

Italian literature is generally written in Italian, but it can also include other related languages as well, like Latin and Occitan. Much of Italy’s earliest forms of literature came in the form of lyric poetry, and the vast majority of this was written in Occitan. Occitan is a language (also known as lenga d’oc) related to Catalan, and it’s also spoken in areas of France and Spain. (This language is sometimes still referred to as Provençal or Gascon, although they are actually different dialects. If you’ve read The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan was a Gascon.) 


The Renaissance was a great period for the arts, and literature was certainly part of this. Some of the most learned people were writing, and they were writing a lot. There were treatises on art and history and government, and prose was also being composed during this time. Some authors were busy translating other important European texts into their local languages. There were also still vast amounts of poetry being produced during this time as well. However, the most important literary figure during this time is none other than Dante Alighieri. When he wrote The Divine Comedy in 1230, it completely changed the game. This was the first work that was written in what became the Italian language (more specifically, the Tuscan language) as we know it. There were many poets who tried to duplicate his style, but none could reach his level. This major work was divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. (I’ve read Inferno and Paradise but not Purgatory yet.) An early humanist poet by the name of Petrarch also had much influence in the shaping of the Italian language and poetry along with Pietro Bembo. 

This is Machiavelli, but I think he looks eerily like The Master from Dr. Who.

During the latter part of the 1600s, Italy saw a return to more simplistic poetic styles with a revival of sonnets, madrigals, and blank verse. After the French revolution, Italian poets started producing poetic texts highlighting more nationalistic, love-of-country themed poetry. Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince was famously written during this time. (I read this many years ago.) This book led to the term Machiavellian, which refers to someone (usually a politician) who uses lies, deceit, and brutality as the means to achieve blind ambition. Frank Underwood from House of Cards is an excellent example of Machiavellianism. One of the most outspoken poets of his day was Giuseppe Parini. His poems often utilized real life scenarios as a satirical backdrop to discuss his opposition to things that were going on. 

Six Characters in Search for an Author

Like other areas of Europe, Italy also was taken in by the Romantic era of literature. A strong school of this new style was based in Milan and writers such as Alessandro Manzoni, Giacomo Leopardi and others certainly made their mark. This movement also stands out for its use of politics into their works. The 19th and 20th centuries began to see dramatic changes in the political stability of the country, and this tension was reflected in their literary works as well. At the same time, these writers were also influenced in the styles of many other writers across Europe and the United States. There were now tons of plays, poetry, novels, and short stories being produced. One play that is fairly known throughout the world is Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, produced in 1921. It’s an example of the absurdist movement that had a major influence on other playwrights and literature. And Italy is no stranger to the Nobel Prize in Literature. Salvatore Quasimodo was the first Italian to receive the prize in 1959 for his lyrical poetry; Eugenio Montale won in 1975 and is also considered one of Italy’s finest poets; and Dario Fo was awarded the prize in 1997 as a well-known playwright, actor, and comedian.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, June 22, 2015


When I was studying music in college, I took a course called “Diction for Singers” that was required for vocal students. This was a class aimed at teaching singers how to pronounce words in the languages that singers use the most, and the first foreign language we tackled was Italian. Our professor rolled out the trusty old white board and wrote the word “Italy” at the top. We were each to tell one thing that we associated with the country. Answers ranged from “spaghetti” to “opera” to “the mafia” to “fashion models.” And then she bought us all pizza. That was a great class. 


It’s thought by many historians that the word Italia is stemmed from Greek and other local dialects to mean “land of the young cattle” or some variant of that. Many tribes in the southern regions of the Italian peninsula used the bull as their symbol. Other major Greek historians attribute Italy’s name to being named after Italus, an ancient king. 

Italy is in southern Europe, directly touching the countries of France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. It is directly across the Adriatic Sea from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Greece. The island of Sicily is across the Mediterranean Sea from Malta and Tunisia, and the Italian island of Sardinia lies just south of the French island of Corsica. It's often referred to as "The Boot" because of its shape. 

Italy’s earliest inhabitants more than likely were Greek explorers. The capital city of Rome was platted on the Tiber River around 753 BC, which became the center of the Roman Empire. This empire was one of the most powerful empires in the history of the world, spreading its claims across Europe as far north as English and Ireland to the borders of the Persian Empire and across North Africa. With the establishment of the Roman Empire came the establishment and spread of Roman Catholicism, which was the focal point of the Crusades. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Italy saw huge growth in terms of culture, science, and the arts during what became known as the Renaissance. During this time, the presence of city-states throughout the peninsula began to take hold. The Renaissance also brought about a period of discovery—Italian explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas (although he was paid by Spain to do so and all claims went to Spain), and explorers throughout Europe were exploring South America, Africa, and East Asia. It was also a warring period; the Italian city-states met with invading armies from Spain and Austria and others during this time as well. By the mid-1800s, Italy participated in a number of wars and battles, eventually unifying many of its city-states to become a new unified Italy in 1861 (For reference, this is the same time the US was engaging in its own Civil War. It’s also the same year that Charles Dickens published Great Expectations.). Italy played its part in the appalling Great African Land Grab (as pushed by the Italian Socialist Party of the time) that several other European countries jumped into during the latter part of the 19th century. Italy set up stakes in Somalia, Eritrea, and Libya. During WWI, Italy aligned itself with German and Austria-Hungary, forming the Triple Alliance. By the time Italy entered WWII, Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party were leading the country. He invaded Ethiopia, aligned themselves with Germany and Japan, and was a supporter of the Franco government of Spain. Eventually, they were defeated in Africa as well as at home. Climbing out of the tragic losses of WWII, Italy declared itself a republic in 1946. Slowly, their economy began to grow again, only to suffer through decades of civil and social unrest. While Italy struggled to steady its economy after the 2008 Economic Crisis, there still remains issues of corruption in politics, political parties, and elections.

Italy’s capital city, Rome, is one of the most well known cities in the world. And it’s one of the oldest. Vatican City, the city-country where the Pope lives, is located wholly within the city of Rome, making it the smallest country in the world. No matter where you turn in this city, you can’t help but run into ancient ruins and iconic world-famous buildings next to modern wonders. If you’ve read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, it mentions many of these pieces of public art. Its historic city center is on the UNESCO’S World Heritage Site list, but that’s not the only one—Italy has the most World Heritage Sites than any other country (Italy has 50 sites that made the cut; China came in with 47 and Spain with 44.) According to mythology, the city of Rome was named after its first king, Romulus. But there are also a number of other theories as to how it was named. Historically, Rome was the center of thought, of art, of music, of culture, of religion, of government. It’s no different today. Some of the most visited sites in the city are from locals as well as tourists. Rome is also now home to booming high-tech industries, financial services industries, and media industries, not to mention the numerous educational facilities, high fashion, performing arts and cinema, haute cuisine, and sports venues that are spread throughout the city. 

Italy’s economy contributes to its status as a highly developed country, ranking third in the Eurozone area and eighth in the world. This country is known for its manufacturing companies across several markets. Italian-made cars are among some of the most coveted vehicles in the world. Companies such as Ferrari, Alfa Romero, Fiat, Lamborghini, Maserati, Bugatti, Ghia (like Karmann Ghia), and Vespa are familiar to many car enthusiasts. High-end fashion means big bucks in places like Rome, Milan, Florence, and Naples. Names like Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Fendi, Moschino, Prada, Versace, Max Mara, and others are considered top of the line. Italy is also a destination for culinary aficionados from across the world. It’s also the world’s leading wine producer (I need to go investigate this). Italy’s science and technology sector is a major economic boost, but there’s a reason for that. This country has a long history of producing scientists, mathematicians, and inventors whose names may or may not sound familiar: Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Leonardo Fibonacci, Alessandro Volta (invented electric battery), Guglielmo Marconi (invented radio), and many others who have won numerous prizes and awards for their works and who have contributed to our global understanding of science and math. 

By far Roman Catholicism is the most practiced religion in Italy, and it’s understandable since this is where it got its start. Not the mention this is where the Pope lives (kind of; well, he’s super close by). But there are more than just Catholics living in Italy; there are many followers from other religions represented in this country: Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Bahá’ís. 

Ciao = Hello

Italian is the most widely spoken language and the official language of education, government, and business. While there are many dialects and regional variants of Italian throughout the country, there was a general standardization of the language due to the expansion of television and other media during the 1960s and 1970s. Outside of Italian, there are several languages that have officially been recognized (although some of these languages are used only in a few areas): Sardinian, Occitan, Ladin, Friulian, Franco-Provençal, French, Croatian, Slovene, Greek, German, Catalan, and Albanian. 

As a foodie I am super excited that I have finally landed on Italy. And through the large numbers of Italian immigrants to the US, we now have access to and familiarity with many of their prized culinary delights. Even some of their culinary terms have now become commonplace in the English language. Here are just a few you may recognize: espresso, cappuccino, latte, macchiato, parmesan, pizza, mozzarella, asiago, romano, pomodoro, bruschetta, fresco, basilico, peperoncini, pepperoni, gelato, panini, caprese, rigatoni, manicotti, mostaccioli, prosciutto, farfalle, spaghetti, alfredo, fettuccine, orzo, rotini, capellini, fusilli, fiori, penne, pancetta, focaccia, ciabatta, mascarpone, vermicelli, ziti, lasagna, linguine, gnocchi, pasta, porcini mushrooms, radiatori, pane, panettone, macaroni, formaggio, vino, salami, ditalini, tortellini, gemelli, ravioli, tiramisu, cannoli, and calzone. So, just like when my professor made us realize how much we already knew about Italy, there was still much we didn’t know or think about. And that’s where I come in.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, June 14, 2015


This has been a moderately stressful week. The burn I got from when I was cooking from Ireland two weeks ago is finally healing up. I think the healing process hurt worse than when I first burned my arm. Maybe I should buy myself a set of welding sleeves when I take things out of the oven. The kids finally got out of school, and the car show we normally enter our customized lowrider truck in moved their show up a week earlier this year. And what an unfortunate difference that has made. We’ve been scrambling all this week to buy more materials to finish it up in time for the show, trying to dodge pop-up showers and working in 90º weather. But today is the last day of the show, and I’ve been left here by myself to cook in peace and quiet. (Well, it’s me and the music of Lack of Afro). 

Perfection by itself and a thing of beauty. Although I'm tempted to turn this into French toast.

Today’s bread is challah bread, a given. I’ve seen photos of challah bread, and I’ve certainly made braided breads before, but this one is a little different.  I started out by dissolving my yeast in water with a pinch of sugar. In a large bowl, I mixed my flour, sugar, and salt. Then I added in my eggs, an egg yolk (keeping the egg white for later), and oil in with my flour mix. Once I mixed all of this together, I poured in my yeast mix. Adding little bits of flour as needed, I kneaded my dough until it was the right consistency, elastic but not sticky. I formed my dough into a ball and let it rest into an oiled bowl, covered in plastic wrap for about an hour and a half. Once it finished resting, I divided my dough into six pieces and rolled them into ropes that were about one inch thick and about 16 inches long. Instead of a three-strand braid, I wanted to try my hand at a six-strand braid today. In order to do a six-stranded braid, I took the outer right strand and crossed over the next two strands, and then under one, and over the last two strands until it’s now the furthest left strand. When I repeated this until the entire bread was braided, I squeezed all of the strands together at the end and folded them underneath the entire loaf. Then I put some parchment paper on a baking sheet and transferred my bread to the paper. I sprinkled a little flour on top and covered it with towel to let it rest another hour. I preheated my oven to 350º and brushed the top of the challah with the egg white I saved when the hour was up. After about 30 minutes, I took it out and transferred it to a cooling rack. I have to say that this bread is beautiful. And not just beautiful, it had a good crumb and flavor on top of it. The crust looks like it would be thick, but it’s not really that tough; the inside was soft and pillowy. I was told this makes an excellent base for French toast, which I may just have to try.  

I really struggled not to just eat a plate of latkes for lunch.
The second thing I made was latkes. I’ve always called these potato pancakes and are some of my favorite things to eat. My mother would occasionally make something similar when we were growing up. I took four potatoes and grated them into a bowl of water, letting it soak for about 15 minutes. Then I drained them and squeezed out as much water as I could. I put the potatoes back in the bowl and mixed them with some flour, egg, salt, and pepper. I also added in some chopped chives to add a bit of flavor. In a skillet, I poured enough oil to fry, and I dropped spoonfuls of potato mixture into the hot skillet, flattening them out to make them look like patties. Once it started to brown on the bottom, I flipped it to brown the other side. Latkes are often served with sour cream or applesauce. But I also like them plain. These were a hit with the family, and they got the approval of my super finicky son who ate two. The chives were definitely a good addition, although I was really tempted to add a bit of cumin.

I think its beautiful. So colorful, so delicious.
The main dish today is called chakchouka (sometimes spelled as shakshouka or other variations). Using my deep skillet, I heated some oil and stirred in the paprika. Next I added my chopped onions and garlic. After a few minutes, I threw in a can of chopped tomatoes and let it simmer for a few minutes before adding in chopped red and green bell peppers, some water, salt, and pepper. After the water started boiling, I turned down the heat a bit and let this simmer for about 10-15 minutes. Then I took a spoon and made four indentions in the mixture where I cracked an egg and let it slip into the indention I made. I put the lid on and let it simmer for another 10 minutes or so until the eggs were cooked through. I served this over rice. You can also really spice this up and add other vegetables or meat to the mix if you want. I thought this was really good, but I couldn’t help but thinking I was eating breakfast for dinner. I also think it would have been better if I added in a little bit of cayenne pepper or something. 

Not such a hit with the kids, but I thought this was wonderful.
Finally, the last dish I made was a dessert called lokshen kugel. I have had something similar to this before, and it was delicious. I took a 12 oz package of egg noodles and cooked them according to the package. I rinsed them with cool water when they were done and drained them. Then in a large bowl, I mixed 8 oz sour cream, 8 oz cream cheese, 3 beaten eggs, and 3 Tbsp melted butter together until it was a smooth consistency. (I probably should’ve used my hand mixer, but to be honest, I was just too lazy to dig it out.)  I added in 1/3 c sugar, ½ tsp cinnamon, and a pinch of salt until it was mixed in well. Then I stirred in the noodles and a ½ c dried cranberries (in lieu of raisins). After everything was mixed together, I poured this mix into a greased baking dish and then topped with my crust: ½ c breadcrumbs, 2 Tbsp melted butter, ½ tsp cinnamon, and 1 Tbsp sugar all mixed together. I baked this at 350º for about 45 minutes until it is set and the top is slightly browned. It’s meant to be cut into squares and served warm or at room temperature, which is mostly the same thing right now. This was absolutely fabulous, just like the show. I was very happy that I added in the cranberries instead of using raisins. I will definitely keep this recipe around. 

All in all, this was a great meal. Everything turned out really well.
I really liked this meal, even though I pretty much ate by myself tonight. My husband grabbed a bowl and ate quickly standing in the kitchen after they came home, but he did confirm that he did like it. And, as a native Chicagoan, he did confirm that the latkes tasted authentic. But while we were briefly in the same room at the same time, we were discussing the use of eggs in the dish. As Americans we’re more accustomed to eating eggs for breakfast. And if we do have eggs for lunch or dinner, it’s almost always hardboiled and then used in a dish, such as deviled eggs or in a salad. But there are many countries/cultures where eggs of various animals are often a main source for protein because meat is expensive. And of course, there are some places where even eggs are a delicacy. (Ten years ago here in the US, a dozen of large eggs used to be around a dollar. And now because of this bird flu crisis, I paid $3 for a dozen of large eggs. They better figure this all out quickly.) But I realized that even though all of the ingredients of many of these dishes are commonly found in any grocery store, often for very cheap, it’s the order and in which we put them and the variety of methods of cooking that makes the dish. But it’s all good to me. (Well, most of it.) At least this meal was. And now, for more lokshen kugel.

Up next: Italy


As diverse a population there is in Israel, it’s no surprise their music has such a diverse background of influences. Every group that has moved into this area has left their own influences on Israeli music. So, let’s take a look at some of these influences that have made their way into what has become part of their national voice.

Hora dancing
The large number of Russians who made their way into Israel also brought their instruments and folk songs. Instruments such as the balalaika have made their way into the Israeli sound. Also coming out of Central and Eastern Europe is klezmer music. Klezmer music is stemmed out of the Hasidic traditions, and many of these klezmer songs have been translated into Hebrew, becoming part of the standards of Israeli folk music. There are also many Greek musical elements that can be heard as well.

Middle Eastern music (namely from Iraq and Yemen but northern African countries like Egypt and Morocco as well) has also had quite a bit of influence on Israeli music. Many Middle Eastern instruments found their way into Israeli music. Often this is referred to as Oriental music, or Muzika Mizrahit. There were many Jews living in Yemen whose music came to light on the world stage during the 1980s and subsequently had a major influence on Israeli music.

Israel also has many immigrants from Ethiopia where there is a fairly large Jewish population.  These immigrants brought their music with them, creating Israeli songs sung in both Hebrew and Amharic. Israel also embraced many of the styles from the West (including both Western Europe and the US), like rock, pop, folk, and hip-hop. Through all of these different styles of music, there are certain characteristics that have generally come to be a commonality throughout much of Israeli music. The use of dance rhythms, minor keys, a unique style of singing, and lyrics that discuss the life and struggles of living in Israel bind all of these different styles together to create a unique “Israeli” styles of music. 

The Jewish people have a long history of dance in their culture. The Talmud and Bible mention dance many times. There are also many popular dances that were brought into their culture via the waves of immigrants moving into Israel around the turn of the 20th century, mostly stemming from Central and Eastern European traditions, like the polka, rondo, and the horah (which became the national dance). Depending on its origin, these dances can either be a circle dance, a line dance, or a solo dance. There were also some dances that were brought over by Yemenite Jews as well. During this time of massive immigration into the country, small collective communities (often based in agriculture or specific industries) called kibbutz began popping up. In many of these kibbutz communities, town dances, theatrical performances, and music performances were the most popular forms of entertainment. 

I came across many different Israeli singers, bands, and groups on Spotify. I listened to an album by Etti Ankri, which has more of a classical music sound and makes use of traditional instruments and rhythms. David D’Or is a famous musician whose music also seems to be in this category: a mix of classical and traditional but also seems to incorporate some folk elements to his music. 

Aviv Geffen has definitely been influenced by rock music; however, he also brings in strings and piano into his music, but his melody lines are rock. Ivri Lider has a little bit of that style in his music, but relies more heavily on his acoustic folk sound. It makes for a relaxing album. 

Dana International is transgender singer who made waves in the dance-pop category and is the winner of the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest (for some reason Israel is invited to be a part of this contest even though they aren’t in Europe. Invitation by association, I suppose?). 

Chava Alberstein is sometimes referred to as Israel’s most important folk singer. Although she was born in Poland, she and her family moved to Israel when she was three years old. Her music is sung in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

I generally like the music of Shalom Hanoch, but there’s one thing that always throws me: the vocal line seems like it was recorded louder than what I’m expecting. And his voice is slightly rougher than most people’s singing voices. It could be a style thing, though. I mean, Bob Dylan’s voice is actually pretty bad. 

I had no idea that Israel has produced a number of techno/dance/electronica artists. One DJ I found was Alien Project, which I thought was great. I often listened to the album Alien Project–Activation Portal while I worked. Astrix is another DJ I found in the same category. The album Red Means Distortion is really good. I listened to these two albums back to back. Offer Nissim has been touted as one of the best DJs in the world according to DJ Magazine. And I can see why. His music is more in the dance genre rather than house or techno. 

Hadag Nahash’s music falls somewhere in the midst of traditional music, dub, and hip-hop. At first I wasn’t quite sure what I thought about it, but there was something about the mix of sounds that I like. It works. Another hip-hop musician is Subliminal. His music is a mix of traditional music with some spoken lyrics here and there. There are several songs I listened to that are pretty catchy. Almost every song has a guest performer. Sagol 59 is a hip-hop group who I enjoyed listening to. Although it does have a little bit of a late-1990s feel to it, it was pretty catchy, and the rhythms flowed. What’s weird is that all of the song titles are in English, but the songs are sung in Hebrew (I’m assuming). 

I even ran across two metal bands. One that I listened to is called Orphaned Land. They make use of strings and traditional instruments and traditional melody lines along with their traditional rock guitar sound. I actually really like their sound. The other metal band is called Melechesh. It’s definitely a much louder and harder rock sound and with a very typical “metal” sound, complete with the screaming. It’s the type of music that would scare your grandma and make your parents frown. Maybe, depending on your family.

Up next: the food

Thursday, June 11, 2015


During the ancient times of Israeli history, art was not the same as it is now. There were no drawings, paintings, or sculptures because it was widely thought that this type of art was in direct violation of the second commandment, which read that there should be no graven images. I think that’s open to interpretation, but at that time it was accepted without a second thought. And unlike other areas, this area was fairly resistant to any kind of European influence when it came to other artistic movements or styles. But in order to express themselves artistically, these artists excelled in developing highly decorated borders, mostly based on geometrical shapes. These borders were found on various pieces of furniture as well as religious figurines and objects. Other works of art during this time include decorative soaps, embroidery, gold work, silver work, and rubber stamps. 


It wasn’t until the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century when artists from Europe and other areas began to flock to the Holy Land in order to use its landscape as a background for their paintings. In 1906 the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts was established as the first art school here. And because of the time in which this school opened, the school and its artists delved right into the modern art movements. They opened themselves up to many of the most up-to-date styles and arts movements that were sweeping through Europe and the US at that time. Students at this school excelled in painting, sculpture, jewelry making, and other mediums.


As the years and decades went on, many of the arts students who studied at Bezalel formed groups based on similar artistic styles, philosophies, and political views. There were also many styles that became popular throughout the years and then gave way to others. During the 1920s many of these artists were embracing Israel as a modern society, and artists utilized art forms never seen before such as abstract art. Armenian ceramic art was also popular during this time as well. From the time just before WWII to around the time of their independence in 1948, many Israeli artists were looking to what French and German artists were doing. Realism, cubism, avant garde, and photography were quite the rage. The avant garde movement actually lasted well into the 1960s.

As Israel began to establish itself in the world as an independent nation, art began to reflect those changes and the conflicts that went along with it. Social art depicted how life was changing, and it was their best means of expression; it became a voice of the people. Art became a form of silent protest. During the 1970s and 1980s, public art (mainly in the form of sculptures and architecture) began springing up in cities and towns across Israel. Throughout the recent decades, Israeli artists have certainly shown a penchant for taking an issue or a message or a style and stretching it further than before to make a point (especially if the point was ugly to begin with).

The Mishneh-Torah

Literature in Israel is typically written in Hebrew, but some writers also write in English, Arabic, or Yiddish. Yiddish is a language that was spoken primarily by the Ashkenazi Jews (those who lived in Central and Eastern Europe). While it uses the Hebrew script, Yiddish grammar draws heavily from German, various Slavic languages, Aramaic, and Hebrew.

The most famous works of literature from the early period were religious texts: the Bible, the Talmud, the Mishna, and the Torah. But there was also a fair amount of poetry and fables written as well. As Jewish writers entered into the modern era of literature, they also introduced other kinds of writing styles such as fiction, short stories and novels, drama, and essay writing. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many writers and poets began to translate famous European works into Hebrew, such as Goethe’s Faust. At the same time, Hebrew works were also being translated into other languages as well. 

Shmuel Yosef Agnon

Starting in the 20th century, some writers like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda began taking on the effort of changing the role of the Hebrew language from being primarily the language of religion and classical poetry to one used as part of a modern society. There was a surge in interest in Hebrew literature by Jews who were living in Europe. Shmuel Yosef Agnon is the only Israeli to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1966). Amos Oz was another famous Israeli writer, famous for his novels My Michael and Black Box.  Many of the themes of late 20th century literature centers around the numerous conflicts the country has engaged in and how life has changed during and after those struggles.

Up next: music and dance 

Sunday, June 7, 2015


When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, I always imagined Israel looked exactly like the pictures in the children’s Bibles. I thought that it probably still looked like that even in 1986. I figured there were still low-lying trees and a lot of rocks and the people wandered around in sandals and their mother’s sheets. (Well, that’s how we dressed for the Christmas plays, and I figured it was probably like that there, too. I was six years old growing up in rural Indiana.) But as I got older, and I saw images of modern Israelis running through streets trying to hide from gunfire, grenades, and bombs; I realized they wore jeans and regular clothes just like most other people did. But it took a long time to figure out why almost every time Israel was in the news here, it was for something bad. (One time, I turned on Anthony Bourdain’s new show Parts Unknown to see him talking about food in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. It was a nice change.) 

The land where the country of Israel is has been known by many names in its long history. Officially, it’s known as the State of Israel, but in the past it has also been known as Judea, Eretz Israel (“Land of Israel”), Zion, Samaria, Southern Syria, Canaan, Syria-Palaestina, among others. The name “Israel,” meaning “struggles with God,” is attributed to its patriarch Jacob. It was his sons who were named the “Twelve Tribes of Israel” or sometimes the “Children of Israel.”

Israel lies on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Lebanon and Syria to the north, Jordan to the east, and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula to the southwest. It also has a very short coast along the Gulf of Aqaba, which empties into the Red Sea. This area is sometimes referred to as the Levant. There are also three disputed areas within Israel (I’m sure you’ve heard these mentioned before): the Gaza Strip (a small section along the Mediterranean coast bordering Egypt), the Golan Heights (a small area in the north bordering Syria and Lebanon), and the West Bank (a large area east of Jerusalem and extending to the Syrian border). Israel’s landscape varies between mountainous to some forest areas to desert to coastal areas. The Sea of Galilee, the lowest freshwater lake in the world, is a large lake often mentioned in the Bible as well as the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is a popular tourist destination because of the “healing powers” of its salinity, and it’s also the lowest point on earth. The Negev Desert in the southern region actually takes up nearly 60% of the country, but only 8% of the population lives there. 

Sea of Galilee

Israel is the setting for many Biblical stories, so people have been there for thousands of years. There were many villages around the land, mostly supporting themselves by farming and herding animals. It seems to me that the country of Israel is one of those countries where everyone was trying to grab a piece of this area. It has been part of many other empires, including the Persians, the Greeks, the Hasmoneans, the Roman Empire, the Byzantines, the Arabs, Crusaders, Seljuks, and the Ottoman Empire. After the British defeated the Ottoman Empire, they divided up much of their territory between themselves and France; the British placed the Judean area (now Israel) under a mandate called Mandatory Palestine (Geez, could they find a less flattering name? Why didn’t they follow suit as their other territories, colonies, and mandates? I mean, British Judea would’ve sounded better.). During this time, many of the Jewish people here left the country for Europe, the United States, Canada, and other areas in the Middle East. When WWII was finally over, British then found itself at violent odds against the Jewish people here, and to an extent, the Arab community as well. However, at the same time, there were thousands of Holocaust survivors trying to come back to Israel amid the tensions. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence as a Jewish state. Israel’s independence was not an easy thing to establish. Pretty much from the get-go, they were almost immediately thrown into more conflict with several Arab countries over the establishment of a Jewish state. Afterwards, Gaza was annexed to Egypt, and the West Bank was annexed to Jordan. During the 1950s, Egypt banned Israel shipping lines from using the Suez Canal, a major waterway allowing ships to travel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea, which leads to the Arabian Sea. The Six Days War of 1967 led to the taking of the Golan Heights. There were many Israeli athletes killed during an attack at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.  Since then, there have been more conflicts between the same combatants as well as many attempts at peaceful interventions. 

Famous Western Wall in Jerusalem

The de facto capital is Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world—and one of the holiest. It’s an important city in three major religions in this area: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It’s a resilient city, surviving over 121 incidents of sieges, attacks, complete devastation, and capture/recaptures. While it is often listed as the capital of Israel, this is disputed between Israel and Palestine (which operates parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip). The city lays on a plateau that is part of the Judean Mountains. It’s not far from the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus. Jerusalem is known for being divided into quarters based on demographics: the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. Despite uprisings and conflicts, many people still flock to Jerusalem as a cultural and religious center. It’s host to first-rate museums, theatres, universities, stadiums, business centers and markets, parks, and other attractions. American actress Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. 

Israel is one of the most economically advanced countries in its region. It has the second-largest number of start-ups (the United States is the largest), and outside of the US, Israel has the largest number of companies listed on the NASDAQ. Much of this is due to the types of commerce it specializes in: pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, software and electronics technology, rough and cut diamonds, fuels, and military technology/equipment. Israel also has a highly developed agricultural sector as well, exporting products such as grains, beef, fruits, and nuts. Israel is a huge center for science- and technology-based industries, and the country has wrapped its arms around solar energy (must be nice). They are also one of the world’s leading countries in terms of water conservation (California, you might want to talk to Israel about this). 

Israel is the only country in the world that has a Jewish majority. And while that is true, as I mentioned earlier, this country is also a center for many other religions. Judaism itself has different denominations (or maybe more like levels of how “Jewish” you are, perhaps?) like Haredi Jews, Religious Zionists, secular Jews, or traditional Jews. There is also a large Muslim population in Israel as well along with smaller populations of Christians, Bahá’ís, Buddhists, and Hindus. 

Shalom = Hello

Officially, there are two main languages spoken and used in Israel: Hebrew and Arabic (Hebrew being the majority language). Many Israelis speak and understand English because of its international role; school children study English from an early age. Because Israel is a haven for many immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia, and Northern Africa, you’ll also find pockets of Russian, Amharic, and French speakers throughout Israel (mostly in the urban areas). 

Olive tree, an important part of their cuisine
The thing about Israel is that they are at the top or nearly at the top of things I think would surprise a lot of people. Israel is home to many technology companies’ research and development centers, such as Motorola and Cisco. There has been many program developments and inventions produced in Israel: cell phones, voice mail (actually, I think this is the worst invention ever, next to speaker phone), anti-virus software, and computer processors. Israeli paper money has Braille on it so that blind people can identify which bills they have. They were also the first country to adopt the Kimberly Process, which is a process of determining that diamonds came from conflict-free zones. Israel also publishes more books (per capita) than any other country, but that’s not all: they also have more home computers, museums, orchestras, media coverage, cancer survivors, in-vitro fertilization (and it’s free!), immigrants, ratio of university degrees, engineers, scientists, PhD degree holders, physicians, the largest consumers of fruits and veggies, and producers of milk per capital in the world.  It certainly has a lot to be proud of. So, let’s delve into Israeli culture while we wait to eat!

Up next: art and literature