Exemplifying the universal power of pop music on screen is a key scene in the FX limited series “Fleishman Is in Trouble.” As Jesse Eisenberg’s protagonist Toby Fleishman, a divorced father mired in loneliness and existential angst, walks down a New York City sidewalk with his two tweenage children, Hannah and Solly, an acoustic, Hebrew-language cover of Rachel Platten’s 2014 radio hit “Fight Song” soars in volume.
It’s a tender sequence, and a wistful one, marking a pivotal flash of radical acceptance for Toby, a Jewish hepatologist whose ex-wife (Claire Danes) has gone missing, leaving in her wake a fractured family struggling to remain afloat amidst the detritus of modern-day divorce. The rendition, by Israeli musician Yuval Ben-Ami, is stringy and raw — no polished mixing here — and acts as an anthem and a protest dirge, signaling Toby’s resolve to venture forth despite the dizzying loss.
It’s the second appearance of the song. Platten’s original version accompanies a scene where Hannah starts out on her own path toward self-determination. Later, in a rabbi’s office at their family’s synagogue, she makes the decision to not go forward with her bat mitzvah. The burden weighs too heavily on her. “We’re a mess,” she tells her father. “I want to make my own traditions.”
“Pop songs are powerful — especially for kids,” says Ben-Ami, a Jerusalem-born book author, musician, National Geographic travel journalist and tour guide who leads cultural expeditions in Israel for Israelis and Palestinians.
“The whole story deals with crisis,” he says of “Fleishman.” “And there’s a moment in crisis, whenever we go through a crisis, where we recognize that there is an opportunity, that we can grow. We don’t recognize it right away, we don’t go into crisis thinking there is this opportunity for growth, but there is that moment. It doesn’t immediately heal us. It doesn’t necessarily redeem. But as the song comes, that is that moment for both Hannah and for Toby. It comes as a crucial moment, at a cathartic moment.”
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a New York Times pop culture writer and author of the best-selling novel upon which the series was based — as well as the show’s creator — discovered Ben-Ami’s work when searching for a Hebrew song to accompany her son’s bar mitzvah slideshow montage. She landed upon Ben-Ami’s Hebrew-language rendition of Lorde’s “Royals” on YouTube.
“It was mesmerizing,” says Brodesser-Akner, who was penning the “Fleishman Is in Trouble” novel while planning for her son’s big day. Hannah’s would-be bat mitzvah was not in the book — and was the only scene in the TV adaptation added anew — but after listening to Ben-Ami’s “Royals,” Brodesser-Akner filed away a mental note: “If this show gets made, I would like to commission a Hebrew ‘Fight Song’ from him.”
“I did not have the audacity to contact him and say, ‘Listen, I’m just this Jewish woman in New York who’s looking for a bar mitzvah song,’ says Brodesser-Akner (who, incidentally, during this interview learned “Fleishman” was nominated for a WGA Award). When she did reach out to Ben-Ami, who makes his home in Aix-en-Provence, France, it was through a mutual friend.
“I asked him if he would do this, and it was like a scratch track for not very much money,” she recalls. “And he said yes. And then everyone loved it so much, as I knew they would. So, we recorded it in a studio and it was amazing. It was one of my favorite parts of [making the series]. And every time the song comes on, it’s just so meaningful.”
Ben-Ami, whose upcoming memoir, “The Monumental Trees of Italy” is based on his experience traveling Europe as a street musician in his 20’s, recorded the demo for “Fight Song” in Israel, where he happened to be visiting his parents. Later, he notes, “the proper track was recorded in France.”
“It was a six-hour session, at the end of which Taffy heard the different versions that were recorded,” says Ben-Ami. “And she said, ‘I want it raw, like you did the demo.’ So, we went back and I sang it with the guitar. She wanted that rawness and I love that. She understood my art.”
Coincidentally, Ben-Ami first heard Platten’s “Fight Song” on the radio while driving his car, just days before Brodesser-Akner contacted him.
“I hadn’t heard it when it was a big hit. It was new to me,” he says.
Still, he was “struck” by its message, its meaning. Throughout the process of translating the song from English to Hebrew, Ben-Ami remained ever-conscious of how American audiences might relate to it.
“I decided to keep the word ‘fight’ in English,” says Ben-Ami. “Because you could write ‘ze shir ha krav sheli.’ But krav, in an Israeli context, is very militant. It alludes to the whole IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] experience. But ‘fight’ works as contemporary Israeli slang — especially young slang. So it ties to the younger generation. It makes it sound like pop. It also makes the song sound more recognizable. And I knew that Taffy would like for the viewers to understand that that is the song that they’ve been hearing previously in English, but now it’s in Hebrew and in this Jewish context, with a twist.”
Since the Hebrew language has both feminine and male versions of verbs and nouns, Ben-Ami also made the creative choice to translate the lyrics into “the feminine.”
“Only when I read the book did I realize that the lyrics also reflect on the dad’s experience–because from the series adaptation, I only knew about the girl,” he says. “But there really are four crises in this story–that of the two women, one girl, one man. They all deal with these crises in different ways. So, I thought, it makes sense that it’s in the feminine eye.”
Ultimately, says Ben-Ami, “Fleishman” is “a story about New York, but also a story about the Jewish experience.” He wanted to weave in elements of both in the “Fight Song” cover. He also wanted to explore that dichotomy between the American Jewish and Israeli Jewish communities — memories of which we see in “Fleishman” as we learn of Toby’s group-bonding experience with friends in Israel on an organized junior year study abroad program in college.
Because while there are definitive cultural similarities between American and Israeli Jews, there are also chasmic differences. Through music, Ben-Ami aimed to bridge those societal divides.
“There is a tension between these identities, and as an Israeli I am drawn to the Jewish American experience — I am very curious about it,” he explains. “Now that the song has come out as part of the series — and on the soundtrack — I get echoes from this specific community. And I am moved by that, that I managed to move this community with something that I created. And I think the relationship between where I come from and where [American-born Jews] come from plays out in this very beautiful way.”
Listen to the song below.