Ethiopian-Israeli and Sderot resident Hagit Yaso sang only one song in English as she vied to win “A Star Is Born,” Israel’s version of “American Idol.” It was “Killing Me Softly,” composed by Songwriters Hall of Famer Charles Fox, a tune first made famous by Roberta Flack. The song not only solidified Yaso’s win last year but fatefully brought her onstage at the Saban Theatre with Fox for the Los Angeles leg of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) tribute to southern Israel on Jan. 6, co-sponsored by Israel Bonds.
“She’s an inspiration and a role model,” said Allison Krumholz, executive director of JNF in Los Angeles. “Someone whose parents immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia and arrived in the city of Sderot, which struggled for many years with bombings and with employment issues. It’s really an incredible story of perseverance.”
JNF leaders first met the singer four years ago when she, as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces entertainment troupe, sang Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” at the JNF’s dedication of its gift to the city: a 21,000-square-foot secure indoor recreation center. Southern Israel figures prominently in JNF activities, from providing emergency relief to developing infrastructure and natural resources in the region.
JNF leaders decided to launch an American tour with Yaso (with stops in Phoenix, San Diego, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Jersey) on the cusp of Operation Pillar of Defense last November, which saw hundreds of rockets fired into southern Israel from Gaza. The YouTube video of Yaso singing “Killing Me Softly” became her calling card to American audiences. When JNF’s L.A. associate director Louis Rosenberg saw the video, he invited Fox to perform. The Grammy Award-winning “Killing Me Softly” became the evening’s theme song as the performers, including emcee Roy Firestone, fired back at recent hostilities — with their songs.
Yaso, 23, currently lives in Sderot, commuting to Tel Aviv to work on her debut album. She decided to stay in her hometown mostly for economic reasons — rent, she said, is much higher in Israel’s big city. She also serves as unofficial ambassador for her battered city.
“Unfortunately, I was already very young when it started happening,” Yaso, in a white evening gown, said backstage in Hebrew while doing her makeup. “I try to live normally,” she added. “You can’t stop your routine, but the last conflict was particularly hard.”
A month before the recent conflict, her family was instructed for the first time to build a bomb shelter within their home rather than rely on makeshift shelters. They slept there most nights.
“I took my little sister for a break in Tel Aviv,” she said. “But there were rockets in Tel Aviv.”
This L.A. performance was a welcome, unexpected break from this difficult routine.
“When they told me Fox would be there and perform with me, I was in shock. I didn’t believe it. I was honored.”
To a crowd of some 1,500, Fox took to the piano for the anticipated “Killing Me Softly” duet with Yaso, following her soulful rendition of Zionist crowd favorites like “Haleluya” and “Jerusalem of Gold.” Fox, with a healthy degree of piano virtuosity, then performed some of his greatest hits, including “Ready to Take a Chance Again” and TV themes for “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Love Boat.”
The son of an Israeli mother and Polish Zionist “pioneer” father, Fox recalled how he grew up understanding the importance of Israel. The only piece of art his parents had hanging in their Bronx apartment was a large tapestry of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.
“They asked me to be a part of it, and of course I wanted to be a part of paying tribute to southern Israel and the people there,” Fox told the Journal before the show.
Firestone, who calls himself a proud Jew, kick-started and sealed the night with shtick popular from his corporate shows, including impressions of iconic athletes like Shaquille O’Neil, Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali (who was given a special tribute) and crooners like Frank Sinatra and Neil Diamond.
“I want to entertain people and raise awareness of what JNF does,” Firestone told the Journal. His last trip to Israel was in 1988, and he “loved it.” He is disheartened by today’s hostilities but is “hopeful that the views on both sides will start to change.”
For Yaso, the best song of the night has not yet been written. Fox promised to write a song for her, a song aimed to “kill” wide audiences.
“I love the way she sings, and she has such a beautiful voice,” Fox said. “I’d love to hear her interpreting a new song that I write for her, something that could be meaningful to U.S. audiences here and in Israel as well. Hopefully, with a message that could reach an international audience.”