May 4, 2006
Musical Journey in Time
Geula, Hedva and Aliza look back on singing careers and fame born in Israel.
Ah the '60s. Those were the days when Geula, Aliza and Hedva would prance around in their khaki skirts in the Israeli military band -- they were the highlight in entertainment for the young and na?ve Israel. After their army stint, they continued performing, singing passionately about the Western Wall and the Kineret and were young, beautiful and adored.
But today? Geula Gil, Aliza Kashi and Hedva Amrani -- three of the most successful Israeli female singers of their time -- no longer frequent the Israeli stage. And although they might not openly admit it, it is clear that over the years, Israel became a bit small for their ambitions.
All three women married Americans; they now live in beautiful villas in Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Westwood. And not surprisingly, all three share intense and passionate memories of old Israel, the place where they grew up and where their international careers were launched.
I recently spent long and enchanting afternoons with each of them in their homes, with the smell of eucalyptus and the private pools, the old magazine covers and the moving stories from the past. The three were part of a country that had "artists" instead of "talents." The army bands controlled the music scene and dictated songs with national and Zionist context.
Unlike today, singers would not express personal feeling and mostly sang someone else's words. The wars, especially the glory of the triumph of the Six Days and later the shame and doubts of the Yom Kippur tragedy were eminent in many of the songs.
The highlight of a career was performing in front of troops in the battlefields. America's influence on Israeli culture was not yet to be found: No commercial TV or radio, no McDonald's or Nike, no big cars or Hummers. Instead, there was the open Jeep, the Kol Israel broadcast with its pathos-filled news announcements and the embroidered dresses.
For me it was a journey back in time; for them a glimpse at an old photo album. For both, a look at Israel that some believe doesn't exist anymore.
It is lunchtime and Gil stands in her lovely kitchen, facing the Seinfelds' Bel Air home. ("Jerry is a lovely man, but his little daughter can't stop nagging, like a Jewish yenta," she says.) She prepares a light meal with a precision rare to be seen; it is the same seriousness she always applied to her career.
"What can I do?" she shrugs while cutting the sweet papayas she got from the farmers' market that morning. "I'm a perfectionist."
In the background, a small waterfall trickles and gathers into a petit turquoise pond. Sometimes, deer come running down the hill and gaze at their home, Gil says. It's a far cry from Lahakat Hanahal, the famous military band and hothouse for many of Israel's top entertainers that Gil was part of 50 years ago.
"I miss the band," she says quietly more than once during the interview.
Everybody always thought the beautiful Geula was Yemenite, because of her tanned, dark skin and large black eyes. But her parents came to Israel from Russia. She joined the army in the late '50s and was accepted to the prestigious lahaka (band) almost by default.
"I was in Kibbutz Dafna in the northern part of the country, and I hitchhiked to Tel Aviv in the back of a pickup truck, when the rain started pouring on me. By the time we got to the big city, I was miserable as a dog, and my hair was frizzed out like a ball."
Dubi Zelzer, the leader of the band, took pity on her and made her a hot cup of tea. "Well, after that, he couldn't refuse me, of course, and I got a part in a musical production that they were working on at the time."
Zelzer's tea developed into a hot romance, and the two married. The well-known composer, responsible for some of the biggest hits of the '60s, such as "Ya Mishlati" ("My Base") and "Hora Heachzut" ("The Dance of the Settlement"), wrote songs for Gil that made her a superstar: "Kineret Kineret," "The Western Wall," "Why Does The Zebra Wear Pajamas?" and, especially, "Talk to Me in Flowers," one of the greatest romantic Hebrew ballads of all time. Later, when she finished her military service, the couple toured the United States and South America as part of the Oranim Zabar trio, playing to packed venues -- mainly Jewish crowds.
"Gil's voice competes with her beauty -- and that's no easy task," an American critic wrote after watching her show.
Gil was the first Israeli singer to tour the former Soviet Union in a set of historical performances in front of Refuseniks, Jews who were denied the right to immigrate to Israel and practice their faith by the communist regime.
"Those were probably the most moving performances of my career," she says. "I'm still moved to tears when I remember the people who saved a whole month's salary just to get a ticket to see us. They grabbed me, tore my chiffon dress out of excitement and yelled 'Geula, Geula, Geula!' You could see the desperation in their faces, and I just couldn't stop crying."
Later on Gil fell in love with New York and left Israel for good. Her marriage to Zelzer went downhill, and, finally, they divorced. Gil performed in Jewish clubs in New York, and from time to time was invited to appear on TV, including on "The Ed Sullivan Show." She was even nominated for a Tony for her role in the musical, "The Grand Music Hall of Israel."
In the late '70s, she made one more attempt to attract an Israeli audience. Her brush with the then more commercialized Israeli entertainment business disappointed her.
"Let's just say that promises weren't kept, and the whole attitude by music producers in Israel toward me was not fair," she says. "And my second husband [producer Richard Cohen] just couldn't understand why people were driving in Israel the way they do and why they kept trying to con us. It was a culture shock for both of us."
She keeps feeding me all afternoon with her homemade baked oatmeal cookies, while we look at pictures of her with such celebrities as Bill Cosby, Kim Novak Charles Aznavour and Salvador Dali. Finally, before I leave, I ask her one more time if she plans to return and perform in Israel one day.
"Maybe," she smiles coquettishly. "If there was a serious offer that would be well executed. I've been thinking about it a lot, and I would like very much to try one more time."
Just after she sang gracefully about a dovecote ["Sho, sho, shovach yonim"], Kashi spread her wings and left Israel to see the world. That was in the mid-60s, and Kashi has hardly looked back since. When she did come back to visit Israel, it wasn't always pleasant.
But we'll get to that in a second.
Because first, her elegant husband, Marvin Spatt, 85, pours more wine into the glasses and opens another bottle of red, which he pairs with terrific Gouda cheese. And you can hardly bring up scandals when everybody is toasting and giggling in their colorful Westwood home.
Kashi, who retired from the stage five years ago, even agrees to sing "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" (Naomi Shemer's famous "Jerusalem of Gold") for us in her very own dramatic interpretation. Nobody sings like that anymore -- with pathos, bravado, arms in the air and all.
Kashi started in Lahakat Hanahal slightly after Gil did in 1959. A singer with a distinct voice and charm, she became the soloist in hits such as "Ya Mishlaty" ("My Base") and "A Desert Lullaby."
"We were young and beautiful, and it was lovely," she says. "I had a boyfriend in the group, and we kept hiding so we could kiss. But they kept finding us. How embarrassing."
Kashi's civilian career took off soon after her release from the army, and she became a soloist in Green Onion, one of the top bands of the '60s. Then came her biggest hit, "Night Comes," which won the national singing contest and put her right at the top. But Kashi wanted to see the world and moved to Argentina.
"Two agents came to see me and invited me for a two-week tour. I left for a moment -- and was gone forever," she laughs.
Kashi performed all over South America before landing in New York. Ed Sullivan, the TV show host, sent a representative to the Israeli nightclub Sabra to scout for talent for his show. He picked Kashi, more for her spunk than for her vocal abilities.
"I was crrrrrazy back then," she says with her rolling R. "And he wanted me to fool around with him and with the audience. So I did."
During her first appearance, she turned to the crowd and yelled, "Hello peoples!" Her mistake in English later became her signature entry in many guest appearances to come -- 78 by her own count.
"Did I miss Israel?" she asks rhetorically. "Of course I did. But my life in the Big Apple blossomed, and I didn't want to stop the ride."
She came back to perform in Israel during the Six-Day War and once more during the Yom Kippur War, when she made an offensive remark about Arabs on live TV. The newspapers highlighted the story, and the public broadcast authorities, then the only network airing in Israel, were shocked and vowed never to invite Kashi to appear again. That decision insulted her deeply.
"I was very sad that day because my nephew was killed in that war. So after finishing my song, I said what I said without being aware that the microphone was still on, and everybody could hear me. So what? That was what my heart cried out at that moment."
She went back to New York, performed with Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis and others and refused to get married for years, until she met Spatt in 1980, who became her personal manager and companion. Then, in 1996 just before retiring for good, she made one quick comeback in Israel and sang on TV. This time the event was successful.
Kashi is nostalgic; her house is filled with collages of pictures from the past. She does still perform these days, although rarely and mostly for charity concerts. She visits her sisters and nephews in Israel occasionally, but says she doesn't miss the stage.
"The music business today is so different, and that's not my style anymore. I had my time, but now I prefer living tranquilly here in sunny L.A., just the piano and Marvin and me. "
Quietly, unannounced, she goes alone to Israel every couple of months, stays with her cousin and chooses material for her next Hebrew album, the comeback album. The one that, she hopes, will bring her back into Israeli hearts.
After almost 20 years of separation from the Israeli crowds, Amrani feels it's time to try again. The graceful Yemenite singer, who burst onto the music scene in Israel with megahits, such as "One Heart" (better known as "Salam Aleicom") and "I Dream of Naomi," believes it's time to remind people back home who she is.
"I know the older people in Israel still remember me," she says as we sit in her Beverly Hills living room filled with ornaments and statues, where she lives with her husband, Dr. Dudley Danoff, a urologist. "But the younger generation doesn't.
"They know the songs but don't connect my face to them at all. I want to change that. And I miss the crowd so much. But I'm also very scared of discovering they won't throw their arms around me after all these years," she says.
Her career took off during the '60s, when she performed with singer David Tal as Hedva and David. They sang together for almost 10 years. Their most famous hit, "I Dream of Naomi," made it all the way to Japan, where it won first place in a prestigious singing contest, prompting a two-year Japanese career. They finally broke up in 1973. Tal died six years ago, after a long battle with drug addiction.
Ironically, it was only after moving to Los Angeles in the late '70s that her solo career in Israel really took off. She began going back and forth -- setting up a home and a family with Danoff and their two children here and promoting her singing back in Israel. It almost paid off in 1978, when her song, "One Heart," tied for first place with "Abaniby" in the pre-Eurovision contest, once the top showcase for pop culture in the country.
The committee debated and finally, to her dismay, decided to send Izhar Cohen's "Abaniby" (which means "I love you" in gibberish lingo) to represent Israel in the international Eurovision contest. Cohen won first place, became a European sensation for a couple of years and Amrani stayed home, somewhat embittered.
"I don't wish to harp on this anymore," she says today. "Just one thing I don't get: How did 'Abaniby' win Eurovision? What is this song about -- can you explain this to me?"
Amrani returned to compete in the pre-Eurovision contest two more times. She didn't win, but added another huge hit to her resume, "The Two of Us Together," before settling in the good life here for good.
"I was na?ve to think that I could go back and forth forever. And in my last contest, they started taunting me that I am a yoredet [a derogatory term for a person who left the country]. And once I started raising my kids here and taking care of my ailing parents, it was clear that my career takes a backseat."
Now she is hoping for a comeback but only something small.
"I can't go back to Israel for good; there is no way. It's impossible," she says. "I have my life here, and in my profession you cannot make a decent living, especially in Israel.
"So everything I own here is from my husband. I'm just hoping I could get a small condo in a nice area in Israel, perhaps not far from the beach, so I could come visit once in a while, perform, then open the door and smell the fresh air of the Mediterranean Sea and feel I am home again. That will be wonderful," she said.