Think you know ‘Mayim Mayim’? Think again.
Do you know the song “Mayim Mayim?” Maybe you learned it at Hebrew School, or sleepaway camp. It’s a celebratory Israeli folk classic based on text from the book of Isaiah about, as the title suggests, water. The song’s composer is Emanuel Amiran-Pougatchov, who would go on to be the country’s Minister of Music Education, and in 1937 choreographer Else I. Dublin created the dance still used today.
But other than your summer camp or Israel, the places you’re most likely to hear this song are Japan or Taiwan.
Seriously, everyone in Japan knows “Mayim Mayim.”
How did this happen? It began in the post-WWII occupation of Japan, led by General Douglas MacArthur. As part of the (admittedly somewhat forced) cultural exchange, the United States decided to teach the youth in Asia folk dances. They enlisted the aid of Rickey Holden, a prominent square and folk dance-caller, scholar, and educator.
Holden does not appear to be Jewish, but he did visit Israel to study folk dance. That’s most likely where he learned “Mayim Mayim.” Over the course of 1957 and 1958, he went on a world tour that included Japan and Taipei. It’s not clear if he’s solely responsible for teaching the dance in Japan, but in Taiwan it’s closely associated with him. (In fact, Israeli dance in general is popular in Taiwan, but it was “Mayim Mayim” that started it all.)
There was a burgeoning folk dance movement in Japan starting out of YMCAs, and they eventually spread to labor movements, youth groups, and even Japanese schools (other hits included “Do Your Ears Hang Low?”). While the iconic Israeli dance persists in popularity (in both Japan and Taiwan), the song was inevitably used on its own. The melody became so well known that it was even used in commercials in Japan.
Then, of course, came the time when Japan started exporting culture to the rest of the world—like anime, and video games. And when you need video game music, how about something in the public domain, something catchy and familiar, something short and easy to loop, something like…
Yes, that is “Mayim Mayim” playing in the background of Sexy Parodius, a 1996 semi-erotic shooter arcade game by Konami (the company that brought you everything from Frogger to Metal Gear). And it wasn’t only one game. Another example would be Nintendo’s Game Boy Camera of 1998, which unlike Sexy Parodius, had an international release. So, if you were an American Jewish child in the ’90s playing with your Game Boy, and you could have sworn you heard a song you knew, feel vindicated now, almost 20 years later.
And then, of course, in the general way that culture propagates and deteriorates in Internet culture, through its video game visibility, the song eventually became a meme. Its peak was 2008-2009, which brings up the uncomfortable fact that Internet memes are starting to hit ten-year anniversaries. It became a popular choice for remixes, or generic upbeat music in parody videos, particularly Japanese ones. It never made it big in the United States (like, say, the Thomas the Tank Engine theme music), except in particularly geeky circles (you know, the ones where you’re likely to be watching video remixes of games). (You can watch a Western example here, but unless you’re a fan of Team Fortress 2, it might as well be Japanese to you.)
And so, flowing through cultures like the water in the title, “Mayim Mayim” has lived many lives. The song, a Biblically-inspired celebration of pre-state Zionists finding water, has eventually become a sort of shibboleth for nerds on the Internet joking about video games.
If that isn’t a Jewish success story, then what is?
Published in Tablet Magazine
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