Am Yisroel Chai
Shlomo Carlebach's Version and Earlier Versions
By Jacob Birnbaum
My good friend, Shulamith Berger, has drawn my attention to Gavriel
Bellino's inquiry on the Jewish-Music list, "Four Questions on Am
After initiating the grass-roots movement for Soviet Jewry with the
creation of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in April 1964, I
strove to generate movement songs (now assembled in "Songs of Hope for
Russian Jews," originally "Songs of Protest for Russian Jews").
Our dear friend Cantor Sherwood Goffin became the first troubadour of
these songs, sang some of them in the Soviet Union in 1970 and recorded
some of them in the record "The New Slavery."
I was determined to get one from Shlomo Carlebach. We knew each other
and our grandfathers had become acquainted in 1897 at the first Zionist
Congress in Basle, Switzerland. His zaide, Rabbiner Arthur Cohn, was
Rabbi in Basle and my zaide Dr. Nathan Birnbaum was elected to be the
first Zionist Secretary-General.
Shlomo was constantly on the move and hard to pin down. His mother
Rebbetzin Paula Carlebach was most helpful in forwarding my requests for
a song "Am Yisroel Chai." The request began to resonate with him when he
flew to Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. Later he told me that he had
washed my letter, typed on "Student Struggle" stationery, down the
airplane toilet in some trepidation.
He first sang the song to a group of Prague youngsters. I did not know
about this at the time but had continued to press Rebbetzin Carlebach
that he should have something ready for our great Jericho march of
Sunday April 4, 1965. Late on Friday afternoon April 2nd, my phone rang
and Shlomo's exhausted voice said, "Yankele, I've got it for you!"
Jericho Sunday dawned bright and sunny. We encircled the Soviet UN
Mission on East 67th Street in New York, Jericho style, to the
trumpeting of seven shofars blown seven times and marched to the UN.
Shlomo was inspired and for the first time publicly sang what was to
become a contemporary Jewish liberation anthem. Even Irving Spiegel, the
usually kvetchy New York Times correspondent, basked in the pervasive
joyful spirit of the moment.
Shlomo had added another phrase "Od Ovinu Chai" with which he climaxed
the song on a high note of exaltation. He took this from the Biblical
Yosef's exclamation about his father Yaakov. I would say that this was
the culmination of Shlomo's first musical period, which I would call his
"Neshomo" period, marking the revival of popular Jewish religious music
after the destruction of the great East European reservoir of popular
Jewish music during the Holocaust. I well remember the barrenness of the
Jewish music scene in the post World War II years. It was Shlomo who
revived the "Ovinu" consciousness in the latter 1950s.
When I brought Shlomo into the Soviet Jewry liberation movement, he
entered his second musical phase -- a preoccupation with the physical
rescue of the Jewish people and Israel, the "Guf" phase, one might say.
After the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, he went to the
Wall and sang the new song of liberation but now in reverse order. Now
he began with a high triumphant "Od Ovinu Chai" with "Am Yisroel" in
This also pointed to his third phase, which I'd call his "Mikdosh"
phase. He had not been well and in 1994, my wife and I went to daven
Slichos with him at his shul. Avoiding his more usual sentimental
discursive style, he spoke brilliantly and deeply about contemporary
spiritual challenges and then the service got under way.
In his later years, young Hasidim had become enchanted with him. Many
such were present and the scene became religiously electric, the davenen
becoming ever more intense with his microphone-aided voice soaring
ecstatically over it all. I was startled and moved and faces all around
me were lit up in fervor. As we left, I said to my wife, "This was a
Mikdosh experience and Shlomo's essence."
Shlomo had expanded beyond the striving for the redemption of the
individual soul to the physical redemption of Am Yisroel and finally
penetrated to the holy core of Jerusalem's Mikdosh.
Shortly thereafter, Shlomo passed on.
In sum, with his early neoclassic melodies, he responded to the
yearnings of younger post-Holocaust generations to reach into their
Jewish roots, to hold on and rebuild their Jewish identity. He was
responding to something even larger than a physical Holocaust, to the
pervasive thinning and disintegration of Jewish identity in recent
That is why he later responded to another of my requests, to compose a
song of Jewish resistance and renaissance in the Soviet Union. I asked
him for a rendering of the Psalmic "lo omus ki echyeh" -- "I will not
die but live" (also to be found in "Songs of Hope for Russian Jews").
This covered my Soviet Jewry slogan "Let My People Go! Let My People
Know!" "Lo omus" did not take hold in the same way as "Am Yisroel Chai",
but "Let My People Know" was appropriated by a number of outreach
But in his mind and heart one might say that Shlomo's greatest passion
was "Let My People Rejoice!" Job cried out that "Man is born to trouble
as the sparks fly upward!" Shlomo's preference was surely to overcome
and supplant the pessimistic "born to sorrow" with an ecstatic "born to
As to the origins of the term "Am Yisroel Chai", the discussion of
Cantor Sam Weiss of Paramus on the Internet mailing list jewish-music at
shamash dot org (post of April 29, 2003) fits my experience very well.
Biblical Israel spoke of "Amcho" or "Ami" -- HaShem's People. Much
later, the Hasidim made much use of the term "Dein Folk Yisruel". In
modern times this became "Dus Yiddishe Folk", separating the Jewish
entity from its Divine originator and partner. It figures that the
concept of an independent "Am" was the expression of a modern Jewish
nationalist consciousness -- Zionism. Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, the pioneer
Jewish nationalist long before Herzl, who'd coined the term Zionism and
later became a pioneer Baal Teshuva early in the twentieth century,
sought a reunion of the two with his manifesto "Am Hashem."
I believe I may have first heard a version of "Am Yisroel Chai" in the
1930s during the rise of the Nazis as an expression of Jewish national
defiance and hope. A version appeared in a German Zionist song book,
another was sung in the D. P. camps after Word War II. When Golda Meir
became the first Israeli Ambassador to Moscow in the 1950s, she walked
to the synagogue on the first Sabbath, great crowds gathered and shouts
of "Am Yisroel Chai" were heard. As the Soviet Jewish resistance
movement developed, the distinguished Yiddish poet Yosef Kerler composed
his own version. When I enlisted Shlomo's aid in 1964, none of these
versions were current.
More than two decades ago, I was approached by someone who felt that
Titus' Arch in Rome, displaying the Roman removal of the ritual objects
from the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., was a "busha," a continuing
shame for the Jewish people, and we should find some way of blowing it
up. I responded that the Romans were long gone but we were still here,
truly "Am Yisroel Chai." Later, I heard that someone had scratched the
term onto the monument as graffiti. I hope it is still there! I was
pleased that I had worked on Shlomo to create the song.
© Copyright J. Birnbaum, May 2003.
Keywords: Shlomo Carlebach, Am Yisra'eil Chay.
Jacob Birnbaum is founder and director of the "Center for Russian Jewry
with Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry." He can be reached by e-mail via
fbb6 at columbia dot edu.
This article appeared originally on the Shamash Jewish music e-mail list.