“Admit me into your inner chamber!” cries a big, bearded man on the stage of the Tel Aviv rock club Zappa. But Shai Tsabari’s longing isn’t focused on some elusive human lover—he’s talking about God. In the audience, secular young men with tattoos and religious young women in modest kerchiefs close their eyes and sway together, as if Zappa were a synagogue.
Mr. Tsabari is part of a growing movement of Israeli rock musicians who are turning to Judaism for inspiration, fusing tradition with contemporary Israel to find a voice that is both Middle Eastern and Jewish.
Mr. Tsabari, whose family came from Yemen, sings songs that are part prayer, part dance music. Impelled largely by musicians of Mizrahi origin—Israeli Jews from the Muslim world, who form half of Israel’s Jewish population of over six million (another 1.7 million Israelis are Arab)—Hebrew music is being transformed from the longtime carrier of a secular ethos into a force for restoring Judaism to Israeli culture.
Israel’s founders were European-born socialists who hoped to create a “new Jew”—one who relied not on God but on his own efforts for salvation. The Hebrew music created by this Zionist revolution celebrated patriotism and love of the land of Israel, largely shunning religious themes. Even as Israeli music began, in the 1960s, to reflect Israelis’ shift from collective identity in a rigidly controlled socialist society to greater individualism in a consumerist economy, spiritual search remained largely taboo.
Israeli music—and Israeli society—began changing after the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians faltered and then collapsed in 2000. As Palestinian suicide bombers exploded on buses and in cafes, Israelis’ trust in their society’s solidity was shaken. “There’s no one to rely on,” read one popular bumper sticker, “except our Father in Heaven.”
The suicide bombings of the early 2000s have been replaced by periodic terrorist rocket attacks and repeated conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, leaving Israelis feeling besieged. Alongside the resultant hawkish turn in Israeli politics (which helped re-elect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March) has come the growing popularity of spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation. And, increasingly, of Judaism: According to a 2010 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 70% of Israeli Jews now fast on Yom Kippur—in a country whose founding socialist pioneers often treated the Day of Atonement as an ordinary workday.
Musicians are defining this new Israeli spiritualism. In 2007, rocker Meir Banai’s stunning album “Hear My Cry” offered soft, almost reluctant rock versions of Yom Kippur prayers of Jews from Muslim countries, using traditional melodies as the starting point for his own compositions—and won the equivalent of Israel’s Grammy award for the best composer. In 2009, the hard rocker Berry Sakharof released a groundbreaking album called “Red Lips,” a meditation on mortality whose complex Hebrew lyrics were written by the 11th-century Spanish Jewish poet Solomon ibn Gvirol. The themes of vulnerability and judgment resonated in a country under siege, and both albums became runaway hits.
Since then, this trend—fusing devotional music with rock—has become perhaps the most creative force in Israeli music. In recent months, collaborations among leading musicians have produced albums featuring the songs of Eastern European Jewish mysticism, the prayer poems of Libyan Jews, religious hymns sung by European Jews during the Holocaust and several versions of Yemenite prayer.
Israeli musicians are also composing their own prayers. For the most part, the new songs provide a landscape of inner struggle and longing, not a soundtrack of religious triumphalism. Israeli musicians are creating a contemporary spiritual language that is about doubt as well as faith, of searching no less than finding.
“Answer me,” Ehud Banai—Meir’s cousin—sings into the silence of his phone, a metaphor for God’s silence: “Maybe it’s the wrong number, maybe a malfunction / Maybe we should hang up and try again.” Mr. Banai, 62, is this generation’s most beloved Israeli balladeer. In recent years, he has begun wearing a yarmulke. He appeals to listeners not to label him or place him “in a drawer” as he searches for peace between the religious and secular parts of himself.
Relations between secular and religious Israelis are often contentious, but introspection like Mr. Banai’s has allowed Israelis across the religious divide to claim the new Israeli music as their own. “The definition is no longer between secular and religious but open and closed,” says Karen Brunswasser, deputy director of Jerusalem’s annual Sacred Music Festival, which draws spiritual bands from around the world, including some from Muslim countries like Morocco, defying the long-standing Arab boycott against Israel.
Some even hope that the new Israeli music might build bridges not just among secular and religious Jews but also between the Jewish state and its neighbors. By creating devotional music heavily influenced by Middle Eastern intonations, many of Israel’s rockers are challenging the widespread notion among its enemies that the Jewish state is an alien Western transplant.
Consider the unlikely example of Orphaned Land, Israel’s leading heavy metal band, whose lyrics—in Hebrew and Arabic as well as in English—draw inspiration from Jewish mysticism to envision a world of oneness and divine revelation. Though the band is proud of its Israeli identity, much of its fan base is in the Muslim world.
“When we perform in Turkey—the only Muslim country that allows us to play—we draw fans from all over the Middle East who come especially to hear us,” says Orphaned Land’s lead singer, Kobi Farhi. “I look out from the stage and see people waving Lebanese flags, Syrian flags, Iranian flags.”
Orphaned Land appeals to Muslims, says Mr. Farhi, because it speaks a language of faith, drawing lyrics from the Torah and the Quran alike: “We touch the spiritual energy of this land. We’ve proven that music can unite Muslims and Jews.”
On a recent May evening in Jerusalem, on the anniversary of the city’s reunification under Israeli control during the 1967 Six Day War, hundreds of Israelis gathered under a giant tent to pray and sing for the peace of the Holy City. A band of Orthodox Jews and Arab Israelis, playing ouds and violins, offered a song by Orphaned Land, based on a Yom Kippur prayer.
Then the band played, “Praise God, Jerusalem,” and the audience sang words from the Psalms: “The children in your midst are blessed / Praise your God, Zion.” The song is often sung at right-wing rallies that assert an exclusive Jewish claim to the city. Here, though, it became a prayer for all the children of Jerusalem and for a Jewish state at peace with itself and its neighbors.
—Mr. Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His most recent book, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” was published by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp). He often writes about Israeli music at facebook.com/yossikleinhalevi.