As a little girl, something in this song pulled at my heartstrings. Even as I was so young and blessed to be surrounded by loving family and friends and understood little about life’s deeper moments of pain and the human condition, I was very sensitive to the emotion of this song. The loneliness, the deep yearning, the living and dreaming for “one day.” The magic of Jerusalem and the dream of a complete and rebuilt Jerusalem one day.
The song was called “Al Kapav,” “He Shall Bring Forth With His Own Palms.”
I used to belt out the lyrics from the depths of my soul, imbibing the deep yearning of this simple carpenter and cobbler. I’m honored to have sung “Al Kapav” as a solo.
While the following won’t have the ring of the Hebrew that interlaces the words into a simple poetic dance, nonetheless here is the first stanza and chorus:
In our narrow street
Lives a strange carpenter
He sits in his hut
But doesn’t do a thing
No one comes to buy from him,
And no one even comes by to visit,
It’s already been two years
Since he’s actually done any carpentry
For he still carries but one dream in his heart
To build a throne for Elijah when he arrives
With the palms of his very palms,
He will bring it,
To Elijah The Prophet.
And he sits and awaits his arrival,
For years he has been dreaming he will be worthy,
He guards his secret and awaits his arrival,
When will this day finally come?
The melody, too, is searing, giving musical shape to this carpenter’s unactualized dream, and state of waiting.
At the time, I didn’t yet know the word “abeyance,” But it’s this state of abeyance that is captured in these lyrics, so poignantly.
While there are two more personas who in their own way also await Elijah, the chorus is the same for all three: “And he sits and awaits his arrival . . . ”
A few years ago, I shared this song with someone who thought the melody had some resemblance to Belle from Notre Dame de Paris. In Hebrew, “Al Kapav” (the song is sometimes known after its opening words, “Birchoveinu Hatzar,” “In Our Narrow Street”), has been sung by many a singer. When I was growing up, it was regularly heard on the radio.
It brings to life the yearning for Elijah, the forerunner and harbinger of geula, redemption, that we each in our own way await. It touches the Jerusalem of each of our dreams, as well as the loneliness of the carpenter and the shoemaker, waiting and waiting, in their huts — for their dreams beyond their present lives to unfold.
Last week, the famous Israeli poet who wrote these beautiful lyrics, Yoram Taharlev, died.
I never knew the genesis of this song, nor the inspiration behind it, until the flood of memories, stories and elegies for this dear Israeli poet, writer and author were shared.
It was the 1960s. Taharlev was a journalist on assignment. He was sent to the town of Ramle (not Ramallah, an Arab town), where new immigrants were being housed. His assignment was to report on the new immigrants.
Taharlev found a gentleman, maybe 50 years old, in an apartment, who enthusiastically answered all of his questions. At one point, Taharlev asked him what he does for a living, to which the gentleman replied, he is unemployed, and he doesn’t care to discuss it further.
The conversation continued and when it reached its conclusion, Taharlev was ready to photograph him for his story. The gentleman said, “you know what, let’s do the photograph outdoors.”
The gentleman walked Taharlev past a pile of broken wood pieces until they reached a high box, covered in an elegant cloth, that when pulled back revealed an ornate wooden Elijah’s chair, the likes of which is used at brit milahs. The gentleman turned to Taharlev and said, here, please photograph me by this Elijah’s chair. Taharlev took the picture of the gentleman near the ornate chair.
He then turned to him and asked him, why did you want your photograph taken here with this chair? The gentleman, a Moroccan immigrant, said, this is my craft. In Morocco, I crafted Judaica for synagogues.
When I arrived here, I took this Elijah’s chair with me, and went from synagogue to synagogue, asking for work, to craft Judaica for their synagogues. Each synagogue replied, right now we don’t need anything, but if we will need hand crafted Judaica, we’ll call you. Wait.
So, the Moroccan gentleman replied, I’m waiting.
So it turns out that this song about yearning for Elijah, within the dreams of Jerusalem, was in fact born in Ramle. Inspired by a Moroccan immigrant whose passage to Israel brought his busy, sacred carpentry work of Elijah chairs to a halt. His life, along with that of Elijah the Prophet, was in abeyance.
Waiting. Dreaming. Yearning.
No wonder this song of Taharlev’s pierced so very many hearts.
Now the displacement and challenge of the immigrant experience becomes another layer of this timeless song.
I do hope Elijah the Prophet, the harbinger of geula, one day arrived at this anonymous Jewish Moroccan gentleman’s apartment with the good news, and that his handiwork of Elijah’s chairs grace synagogues across the land of Israel, from Ramle to Jerusalem.
Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News