Translated from Hebrew by Josh Friedlander
The “Gate 13 Empire!” WhatsApp group, which includes the occupants of rows 20, 21 and 22 of Block 302 in the Jaffa district’s Bloomfield Stadium, began to boil only a few minutes into Maccabi Tel Aviv’s first, crowdless match since the resumption of Israeli league football. I watched the game a scant two kilometers from the stadium, in bed, from my laptop, wearing a Maccabi shirt.
To our horror, the recorded Maccabi supporters’ chants—playing behind the TV broadcaster’s chatter, in an attempt to compensate for the weird silence of an empty stadium—in no way matched the correct order of chants that we dedicated and ritual-loving Maccabi season ticket holders belt out from the stands each and every week.
Some chants recurred monotonously three or four times in a row, completely oblivious to the game’s momentum, while others, of immense emotional importance, were inexplicably absent. Worst of all, once in every few songs, a chant for our archrivals, Hapoel Tel Aviv, had somehow snuck in. The guy or algorithm who’d prepared this amateurish playlist had probably added every football chant he could find that included the words “Tel Aviv.”
“Can the players hear this monstrosity on the pitch?” asked Elazar, now watching the game from his home in the fancy Kikar Hamedina neighborhood. Every Saturday throughout the last ten seasons, he has serenaded to my left in a husky, almost sonorous singing style.
“I sure hope not. They said it was just for the broadcast,” Aya responded. She is known for her clear voice, about an octave higher than the average in our stand; for the last eight seasons, she has sat next to Elazar. She was now watching the game from her new apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. In Ramat Gan stadium Maccabi won our 94/5 title.
“This is a complete and total nightmare,” said Danny, a fifty-year-old tenor who usually sings to my right. He was probably wearing a full tracksuit.
In the early 90s Danny was the leader of the fanatical Gate 11, and famously originated, during a 1995 match against Beitar Tel Aviv, the renowned two-word chant “Yellow Up!” The chant, an immediate classic, remains to this very day the first chant sung by 20,000 Maccabi supporters right before the opening whistle.
I often wonder how I deserve the honor of singing it every week to the left of the celebrated composer.
“12th minute, and they still haven’t played Manny Levy’s song,” I added glumly.
Levy, a young Maccabi-academy-raised right back, collapsed on the grass during an away match in Jerusalem in the 2002/3 season, and has been bedridden ever since. From that game on, we have sung his chant every game during the twelfth minute, honoring the number he wore on his back.
It was the first time in 18 years that the 12-minute mark had passed without Levy’s song being heard.
This first Covid-19 league match wasn’t the first we’d had to watch remotely, naturally. But it was the first time we’d watched a ghost Maccabi match, a match with empty stands and no supporters—a match in which the singing had continued without us.
The heated WhatsApp correspondence continued long after the game had ended, turning, over the hours, into a discussion of the history of Israeli bleacher chants. All of us, it turned out, remembered by heart not only Maccabi’s chants from every single season since we’d begun to sing in the stands, but also most of our rivals’ music.
When we began sending short recordings of chants to each other, singing in a half-whisper, half-shout so no one else around the house would hear us, a surprising fact became clear to me: Although my voice is not at all sweet, and despite the fact that music has never held a significant part in my life, for the past thirty seasons I’ve performed weekly, with all my heart, in a wandering choir of 20,000 lead singers.
My debut performance took place in Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield stadium during the 1990 season. I don’t remember much of it, aside from the great excitement occasioned by the discovery that Tel Aviv contained several thousand other people who loved Maccabi as much as I did. The idea that all those older fans around me had sung for Maccabi many years before I was even born was one of my first significant encounters with the concept of time.
A stadium’s stands resemble a palimpsest, made of layers of old chants and past glories.
Next to me, in a single row in Bloomfield, sits the abovementioned Danny, who sang as a child to the winners of the 1979 league. Three seats to his left is seventy-year-old Avraham, who still remembers the cheers for the title-winning side of 1966. Elazar, to my left, used to watch Maccabi games in his youth, seated next to a 91-year-old supporter named Akiva, who had the pleasure of chanting to our legendary 1950/1 season top scorer, Mr Shaya Glazer.
The passage of time is absorbed in our bleacher chants themselves, adding to them weight and beauty, like the rich, greenish shade of patinated metal.
Our fixed setlist of songs before the Tel Aviv derby includes to this day an imprecation against Pini Balili, a centre-forward who last wore Hapoel’s colours seventeen seasons ago. Hapoel supporters, respectively, have not yet retired a line anathemising Nir Klinger, Maccabi’s captain of the 1992/3 season, even though the same Klinger is leading their team this year to nice achievements as head coach. And Haifa supporters are still counting loudly to ten before the opening whistle of every match against us, in memory of the black Saturday of 14.5.1988, when they beat us 10:0.
Sometimes the same bleacher song transforms over the seasons, changing meanings and shades. “In Winter, Summer, Autumn and Spring – Maccabi” was commissioned in 1976 from local pop star Jacky Elkayam, in an attempt to copy the anthems of the big European clubs of that era. The song expressed the self-image of Maccabi as liberal, cosmopolitan and middle-class (“we are one big family, everyone can join in / we have the most successful family / Maccabi is a word that sounds so nice – in summer, in winter, in fall and in the spring.”) This, in opposition to Hapoel, a flagship of Israeli trade unions and the ruling Labor party.
The song became an immediate hit in the stands, catching the spirit of our club’s golden 70s. But by the late 80s, after a full, sad decade without a single league title, the stands’ interpretation of the song changed, turning melancholic; a yearning paean to past, almost forgotten glory. In my first few games I got to perform this late version. But that season, Maccabi won its first title in 13 years. The old, yearning song had disappeared from the stands by the following year.
Recently, one line from the old song (“the Star of David against my heart”, which had originally referred to the club’s logo) was yanked from its naive, cosmopolitan pop context to win an unfortunate revival among a small number of the new, ultranationalist and xenophobic generation of Maccabi’s fanatical Gate 11 supporters. Their new song opens with the line “no spears, just Jewish blood / against my heart, the Star of David.”
The long memory of a bleacher song—the way generations of players, rivals and supporters are preserved and woven into it—is what grants pathos to the game.
And pathos is what the fans’ chant soundtrack on the television broadcast could not conjure without us.
A few days later, a message appeared in “Gate 13 Empire!” from Yuval, an energetic, fiery singer, who usually sits a row below my seat. In the wake of the recent travesty, he informed us, he had decided to take action. He’d installed an enormous screen in his brother’s spacious yard in north Tel Aviv, and was inviting all of our group members to watch and sing together during the next game against Maccabi Haifa.
Participation was total.
As I watched my fellow row-members burst out into “Yellow Up!” in Yuval’s brother’s yard, I understood another valuable lesson I’d gained from thirty years of bleacher singing. Singing from the stands accustoms you to empty yourself out for two or three hours a week, letting your own voice be absorbed into a bigger harmony, a background to someone else’s excellence. This humility, this willingness to rejoice, with entire sincerity, in the extraordinary achievements of strangers, is a quality shared by all stand singers.
But thirty years of singing praise to the footballers of the Israeli league—among the most mediocre in Europe—had endowed me and my friends in the yard with another important skill: we enjoy praising beauty, even when it is incomplete, and even in the knowledge that better, far more beautiful things exist far away.
Pindar, the great Greek bleacher singer, understood it perfectly as early as the fifth century. In an ode he dedicated to Aristocleides, a pankration champion at the Nemean Games, he wrote:
Every achievement has a different thirst,
but victory in the games loves song most of all,
the most auspicious attendant of garlands and excellence…
For highest justice attends the saying: “Praise the good”,
And let no man desire what is alien.
Search at home; you have won glory that lends occasion for sweet song.Victory Odes: Nemean 3, trans. Diane Arnson Svarlien & Richmond Lattimore