When you think of country music wafting through the air, you think of the U.S. first and foremost obviously. When it comes to Country Standard Time, Texas and New York lead the pack of readers. Overwhelmingly, most of the CST readers are from the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.
It was late Saturday night, and my family and I were looking for a quick bite of pizza to eat on the main drag of Jerusalem Street in Tsfat, Israel, a city of about 25,000 people. We had the choice of two pizza places on the same block. Fate would have it that we would enter the second one on the advice of my son, Gabi. So imagine my utter amazement when I walk into this small pizza joint, called M Bagel and suddenly realize....I'm hearing George Strait coming through loud and clear. After the music suddenly sinks in, I say to my wife, "Hey, there's country music in Israel."
Don't get me wrong. Country and bluegrass music have not suddenly overtaken Israel. Far far far from it. Fact of the matter is, country has "enjoyed" about zero presence in the Holy Land. And Country Standard Time does not have big expectations exactly either.
But on this Saturday night, anyway, country music was alive and well thanks to Avichai Ben-Shmuel, who was dishing out the country music (and pizza) via mp3s on his player (I had asked if that was a radio station playing it, although that would have been even wilder. I mean if you listen to the radio there, you're not going to find anything that remotely sounds like country, let alone Strait). One look at Ben-Shmuel, to be honest, and you would be extremely hard pressed to think this guy is a big country music fan. He is wearing a green skullcup in this city known for the religiosity of many of its Jews.
Ben-Shmuel is wearing very very long strands of hair hanging down from the sides of his head called peyes, something only very observant Jews do. The city has been ultra big on kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, since the late 1500's. Kabbalah has a lot to do with spirituality, and Tsfat is considered a very spiritual city.
Ben-Shmuel, who looked to be in his late 20s, was born in Jerusalem, but spent a good chunk of time in Far Rockaway, N.Y., also not widely considered a country music hotbed. Ben-Shmuel returned to his native city and studied at a yeshiva, a school of religious studies for Jews. It turns out that the head of the yeshiva was a former U.S. Marine, who was big on country music. "He blasted country music in his jeep in the Golan," said Ben-Shmuel, recalling rides the two took together about six or seven years ago. "It kind of stuck with me."
The yeshiva head went onto other things, but Ben-Shmuel says he also "had the good memories, and I always remembered them." At the time, he was turned on by the likes of Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Johnny Cash, John Denver and Brad Paisley.
Ben-Shmuel admits he finds it hard to keep up with country music given that he works and has a wife and kid to support.
So, what do his friends in Israel think of his love of country? "I have a few friends (in Israel) from Cleveland, who are sort of into country music (okay, there are way more fans than we thought)."
When the music comes in over mp3s he put in his player at the restaurant, the reactions vary from customers. A friend of Ben-Shmuel's who was hanging out with him recalled the previous Saturday night that a customer walked in, saying "Ah, I hate country music."
As for Israelis, Ben-Shmuel says, "They don't have the first clue. They don't know the difference between punk, country or folk."
But at least Israel has at least one mystical looking country music fan in Avichai Ben-Shmuel. You never know what happens when you walk into the right pizza shop. And truth further be told, the pizza was pretty decent too, maybe made even better by the warm sounds of Check Yes or No and True.