Peres poems turned to song on his 86th birthday

TEL AVIV, Israel — Shimon Peres has been a prime minister and a peacemaker. Now he’s a poet.

To mark the 86th birthday of Israel’s elder statesman and ceremonial president, Israeli artists launched an album featuring songs adapted from the largely unknown poems he penned over a political career spanning nearly seven decades – including some scribbled during meetings of Israel’s Cabinet.

On Sunday, some of Israel’s top musicians sang Peres’ poems at a gala concert honoring him.

The sentimental odes include a collection of love songs, impressions from his youth and earnest paeans to the beauty of the Land of Israel.

He also wrote songs that were inspired by his illustrious political career, such as “Be not sad, Israel,” chronicling his feelings after a 1996 suicide bombing in Jerusalem. “Why should an Israeli visit Doha?” speaks of his groundbreaking visit to the Arab city.

“The sounds ring out ‘recover and renew’/An east sinking in blood and fire,” reads a line from “A new Middle East,” which takes its title from Peres’ famous political mantra. “The time has come for a new vision.”

Peres has said he wrote his first song when he was 8, during his childhood in Poland. In later years, he said, he was inspired to write when he was “happy or sad or bored during Cabinet meetings.”

Yoram Dori, a Peres adviser for nearly 20 years, said he often saw Peres scribbling away on a pad during long drives. He said poetry was his boss’ way of relaxing.

“Among busy people, some relax by playing basketball, some by playing cards, and then there are those who write poems,” Dori said. “He has a very sensitive soul and has a real romantic side to him.”

The project, the brainchild of Israeli producer Kobi Oshrat, includes a limited-edition album with 12 of Peres’ songs performed by top Israeli artists, and a single in English, entitled “Ray of Hope,” performed by famed Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Israeli singer Liel Kolet.

Oshrat, a longtime friend of Peres, said that when the president’s former secretary sent him several drafts of the poems, he was immediately struck by their richness.

“I felt it was important that the nation know that in addition to everything else, their president is also a songwriter,” Oshrat said.

Peres, beaming after hearing his songs performed for the first time, told the audience that he was “truly humbled.”

“We can speak to one another much more in song than we can with words,” he said.

For years, Peres has been one of Israel’s most popular personalities internationally, but he was not nearly as well liked at home, where many Israelis saw him as too cerebral. Since becoming president two years ago, however, Peres has enjoyed broad popularity.

Peres was born on Aug. 2, 1923, but he marks his birthday according to the Hebrew calendar. This year that date – the 20th of the month of Av – fell on Sunday.

At the concert, artists serenaded Peres with his own words, ending the performance with “Ray of Hope,” sung by Bocelli’s Israeli duet partner.

Profits from the single, soon to be released in Europe, will go to the Peres Center for Peace – a nonprofit organization founded by Peres after he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“And bless streams with love’s sway, provide my foe and friend a bloodless day,” the poem reads. “Invite boys and girls for peace to pray, then send a ray of hope for a new day.”