Mordekhai Zeira was born in Kiev, Russia, in 1905. Although he was born to a musical family, his musical education consisted mostly of a handful of piano lessons, which he received as a reward for listening quietly to his sister's lessons. During his childhood, Zeira listened to classical music in both Operas that he went to with his mother, and through his sister's playing. He was also exposed to Jewish melodies, while accompanying his father to the synagogue. He also heard Hassidic music in his house that was "full of Jews who could sing a Hassidic Niggun and sing Russian Zionist songs," as explained by Zeira when asked about the source of his melodies. He studied for a short period in the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, but left due to financial problems, and began studying to be a shoemaker, later joining his comrades in the "Shoemakers Commune."
Zeira immigrated to Palestine in 1924, and joined a group of "Hashomer Hatza'ir" youth movement, which later founded Kibbutz Afikim. His first song, Hultza Kehula for which he wrote both lyrics and music, was composed for a play that was performed at a party of this group.
In 1929 Zeira joined the Hartom Theater, which only staged one show. In the Theater, Zeira worked as an actor, composer, piano accompanier, stage worker, decorator, and repairperson. For this theater he composed the song Beshe'arey Moledet (known more as Pakad Adonai), composed in the style of Yemenite music, in accordance to the theater's request. From 1930 to 1933 he worked at the Dead Sea factories, and on the weekends he copied musical notes for Prof. Rosowsky, in exchange for piano lessons. In 1934 he began working for the Israel Electric Corporation, first in manual labor, but later changed to clerical work due to his poor health, where he continued until his death. In the same year, he wrote the song Shir Hareshet which he dedicated to Pinhhas Rotenberg, the founder of the Naharayim power station.
Zeira collaborated with several poets, with each for a period between two and three years. Among the poets with whom he worked with are: Yehudah Burla, Zeev, Emanuel Harusi, Abraham Shlonsky, Yaakov Orland, Sh. Shalom, Aharon Ashman, Natan Alterman, and others. He also wrote several songs with Alexander Pen, the most famous of which is Al Gva'ot Sheikh Avrech, a memorial song to Alexander Zaid, written in 1939, a year after his murder, at the request of his widow Tsipora Zaid.
One of Zeira's longest and most fruitful collaborations was with the poet Yaakov Orland. Their names appeared together so many times, that many thought that Zeira's first name was Orland. Their collaboration lasted over forty years, ending with Zeira's death in 1968, and produced many songs that constitute an integral part of the Hebrew folksong. Many of their songs played a documentary role in the history of the Hebrew settlement in Israel.
In an interview, Hayim Keynan asked Yaakov Orland if they had a sense of mission while writing "documentary" songs. Orland replied: "No. Today it seems that way. While paralleling the songs to the historical events one can see a relation. However, the passing time is what dictates it. What I mean is that today these songs sound very Zionistic, but back then, they did not sound so Zionistic, because Zionism, the sense of mission, the events, and the history, were all part of life. There was a feeling as if you were accompanying the events because you were part of them. For example, a young man from Kibbutz Hanita died in action. This inspired me to write a song, and when I came to Mitieh (Zeira), I did not have to say 'I have a song,' because it was so natural. I assume that if I would not have come to him with the song, he would have probably asked me, 'didn't you write anything about Hanita?' Namely, how could one not have reacted? We did not write because there was a need for it, but because it was impossible not to write."
In 1939 the duo wrote the song Hayu Leilot, probably their most famous song.
When World War II broke out, Zeira was among the recruits for the British army. He composed dozens of songs inspired by his military service; among them are Shir Hagdodanim (Song of the Battalioners), and Shir Haligyonot (Song of the Legions), which was the most famous song during the war. Another song is Hodaya, to which he wrote the music and lyrics on February 19, 1945, on the train that took him to Cairo. There, through the windows, he saw the whitening almond trees referred to in the song: "you have accompanied me, my land, in the whiteness of the almond tree…"
In 1947 Zeira suffered a heart attack. After recovering, in 1948, he went to the southern frontier of Israel's independence war, and went from base to base to teach his songs to the soldiers. One of the soldiers, Ori Avneri, put a piece of paper in his hand, containing lyrics to a song he wrote about his unit, "Shu'aley Shimshon" (Eng. The Shimshon Foxes). Zeira took the page, changed a few words, and composed a melody in which he expressed the foxes' howls and the jolts of the jeep ride.
Two of Zeira's most important songs were composed by him in the forties: Shney Shoshanim (1943) by Orland, and Layla Layla by Natan Alterman. Through his career, Zeira has also written children songs, such as Bar Kokhva, Orhat Gmalim, and probably the most famous, Pil Pilon.
After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Zeira continued to follow current events, but to a lesser extent, largely due to his medical state. The songs he wrote at the time are Shir Same'ah, Im Gam Roshenu Sah, Ma Omrot Eina'ikh, Hineh Tam Yom Karev Arvo, and the anthem of the Nahal Brigade. His last song, with words by Orland, was Shir Lakotel, which he composed one month before his death, but did not finish.
Appreciations of Zeira's work
Dr Herzl Shmueli and Miryam Gros-Levin wrote on Zeira: "Mordekhai Zeira's list of songs is impressively long, but even more impressive than that is the number of songs that became rooted in Israeli society. A large part of these have become a loved asset, popular, and even "taken for granted," so much so, that we cannot imagine the normal Israeli atmosphere without the "Zeiraesque" ingredient. This is true for "Erets-Yisrael" of the past as for Israel of the present. In his songs, Zeira transmits a vast narrative of the people in Israel: Lemoladeti, Havo Lebanim, 'Al Gva'ot Sheikh Avreik, Hanita, Shir Ha-ligyonot, Hashir La-nahal, Shu'aley Shimshon, etc. Zeira the man, escorts this history with his mind, body, and soul, and his reactions to it come out in the form of melodies. If anyone would ever want to deal with the magical subject of 're-enactment of the history of the Yeshuv (Zionist settling of Palestine), as it is captured in the melodies of the various generations,' Zeira's melodies would be one of the most important sources for understanding the atmosphere of each period, as it is expressed in its hopes, sorrows, enthusiasm, yearning for nature, or dedication to a cause… His songs have survived the test of time and have become national cultural assets. They are folksongs of the same kind as those of nations that did not taste the taste of exile, and are ascribed to anonymous authors."
According to Moshe Ben Shaul, Zeira always searched for the origin of his music. He adds that Zeira looked for the local source (a source that comes from the land of Israel) of the Eastern sound, but in fact his songs were based on three elements: 1. Melodies of Russian revolutionary songs; 2. Russian romances that he knew well from his childhood; 3. The refreshing feeling of the new Israeli musical idiom, based on modes and syncopation, to which he was introduced during his first days in Palestine.
Eliyahu Cohen, in an introduction to Zeira's songbook Layla Layla, writes, "In the lectures Zeira gave among his colleagues, he expressed the wish that Israeli composers would receive their inspiration from the springs of Jewish Music. He wanted them to use in their works musical materials of the different sects of Judaism from both east and west, such as Ta'amey HaMikra, Hassidic melodies, or Yemenite singing. Zeira himself has fulfilled this wish, as can be seen in the opening sounds of Shir Hakad, which he composed using Nussah "Akdamot" for Shavu'ot, and in Havo Levenim, in which he used themes of a Hassidic niggun that he heard as a child in the Synagogue in Kiev. He saw in these elements a fruitful and enriching source for the new Hebrew Folksong (Zemer Ivri). As Orland put it, 'if there is a Kibbutz Galuyot (gathering of exiles- a term used to refer to the gathering of the Jewish people in one place) in the string of a violin- it is Zeira's violin.'"
Mordekhai Zeira was highly esteemed by his generation. This can be seen in the words of Moshe Vilensky, who, as a new immigrant, was the arranger and musical director of the Ahva record company in the years 1933-1934, where Zeira's first recordings were made. Years later he confessed that "in my first years in the land, all of my aspirations and dreams were to be able to compose like Zeira."
"I got to know him by coincidence," Orland relates, "I was a sixteen year old student, a guide in 'Hano'ar Ha'oved,' and an amateur songwriter. One night I went to a 'Homeland's Songs Prom,' as it was called back then, which took place in a small room that belonged to the Jerusalem workers' council. The room was full, and the crowd sang the songs together with a female singer whose name I do not remember. At my right sat a young man, and though he was older than me by several years, he had a tanned face and gleaming eyes full of soul. I did not pay him attention because I was totally immersed in singing one of the most beautiful and well known songs of that time: Pakad Adonai. Suddenly, this guy sitting to my right pulled my sleeve and asked: 'Do you like it? I mean the song.' I think that I did not have to answer him, because my face said everything about how fervent I was from hearing the song. Then, with much humbleness, almost whispering, he said to me, 'I wrote it, I mean, the melody is mine, and the words are by Avihanan' (Avihanan was among the writers of the satirical theaters of those times- Hakumkum, Hamatate). At the beginning I did not believe him. He added that his name is Mitieh Grabin, but that here he is called Mordekhai Zeira. 'Do you like to sing?,' he asked me. I confessed that not only do I love singing, but that sometimes I like to write the songs I sing. This is how our friendship began."
Stories about songs
The first song, for which Zeira wrote both lyrics and music, was Hultsa Kehula (blue shirt) which was written for a play that was performed at a party of his youth group. The play was accompanied by an orchestra of one concertina and a group of comb players conducted by Zeira who was an expert comb player himself. The song was a satire about workers' institutes of that time. It was inspired by the workers' theater that evolved in the Soviet Union at the time of the communist revolution, in which actors wearing blue shirts went to the factories to spread workers' consciousness through songs. Hultza Kehula turned into a big success. Originally, it contained these phrases among the rest of the verses: "Blue shirt, in its factory, attracts the hearts of all of the workers," and "Blue shirt, it is, without a doubt, superior to all the newspapers" ("Hultsa Kehula Bemif'ala Timshokh Libam Shel Kol Hapo'alim," and "Hultsa Kehula Vehi Olah Bli Shum Safek Al Kol Ha'itonim"). Over the years, the word "'Itonim" (newspapers) was replaced with "'Adayim" (jewelry), and the song became the anthem of the socialist youth movements (with a slight change for the Boy Scouts).
The story goes as follows: In 1939 in Tel Aviv, there was a small satirical theater called "Lekol Harohot" (to hell). Orland and Zeira were asked by the theater to write a romance. One day prior to the deadline for the song, the duo sat in 'Mo'adon Hameltsarim' Café that was operated by Hezkel. The time was two in the morning, and they were not very sober, according to Orland. Despite the late hour, Hezkel let them sit in a secluded room with half a duck and a bottle of cognac, and mumbled while half asleep, "time to work." They finished their work at dawn, and the new song was first sung by the exhausted waiters at the end of their shift. The singer Shely Sharona, unknown today, sang it at the theater, and it soon spread across the land.
In a newspaper interview, Sarah Zeira said that, "it was written in Kasit Café. Two knights sat there- Orland, Zeira and me. A flower seller passed by. Zeira took a red rose and gave it to me. Orland took a white rose, and handed it to me as well. I thanked him and what could I have done then? I told them: 'Well, guys, do something! I have two flowers.' Together they sat, and on that occasion, one gave a phrase, the other a few musical notes, and so they sat and sang."
About "Layla Layla," Orland relates, "Alterman sat in a café and was humming monotonously to himself 'Layla Layla.' Zeira heard it and said, 'what are you mumbling? Do you have words? Give them to me; I'll do something with them.' He pretty much forced him to give him the words. Zeira worked on the song for an entire week and then went to Alterman. When he began singing, Alterman hugged him and said, 'now we have a song.'"
Eliyahu Hacohen, from the introduction to the book, Layla, Layla, p.5.