Divas...no society of worth is worth anything without a prominent group of accomplished, larger-than-life women. Their triumphs and tragedies appear impossibly important and dramatic, giving us all much to aspire to.
Hebrew culture, emerging as it has from Jewish society, has produced many strong, talented women. Whereas traditional Judaism mostly allowed women to be the Prima Donna (literally ‘first lady’) of her husband’s home--the power behind the throne--in secular, modern Hebrew culture, space was made (or taken) for her to shine in her own right.
Below is a list of women who helped give shape, substance, style and sensationalism to Hebrew culture. Individually, each found her unique path and voice, together they form a truly impressive cohort. They have all moved on to a better place, hopefully one that truly values and rewards their personalities, gifts and contributions made while guests on this mortal coil.
This list of departed Divas comes from my furtive imagination and is a reflection of my somewhat oddball, admittedly eclectic taste. I fully expect another list to pop up in the future, there are simply so many departed Hebrew Divas and so little space...
* Don't forget to click on underlined text for links to music and outside sites of interest
1. Naomi Shemer
Songwriter, poet, performer, this highly talented high priestess of patriotic music was diva through and through! She certainly earned her title of “The First Lady of Hebrew Song” by almost always understanding and reflecting the mood of the Israeli public. Whether it was ubiquitous songs for preschoolers, or arrangements for the moody poetry of Rachel, Shemer had an almost magical gift for crafting music that just begs to be sung, most especially “b’zavta” (with a group).
Born to founders of the legendary Kvuzat Kinneret, Shemer iconized the kibbutz with her first big hit “The Eucalyptus Grove” (which almost no one can sing unscathed--the high part is killer!). She wrote for and performed in the Nachal army band, but it was her uncannily timed “Jerusalem of Gold” just prior to the 1967 Six Day War, that made her a household name. Her Hebrasized treatment of the Beatles “Let it Be”--most especially in the mouth of Chava Alberstein--is sublime and remains one of the most important artistic responses to the horrors of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Undaunted by her uneven signing voice, Shemer loved to perform and despite berating audiences at times for singing along at the ‘wrong’ time (I was a witness to this), she was much beloved in this too. In true Diva style, she took charge of her own death, made amends with all and left a death-bed confession, which (after a suitable period of mourning), confessed to ’borrowing’ the tune for “Jerusalem of Gold” from a Spanish-Basque lullaby. My personal favorite pair of Naomi Shemer songs are her polar descriptions of Paris and Tel Aviv called (respectively) the “Grey” and “White Cities”.
2. Yona Volach
Hebrew poetry’s first and most prominent feminist voiceYona Volach wa, s the epitome of the wild-child Diva. Born to a founding family of Kiryat Ono, Volach became a pivotal member of the 1970’s Tel Aviv gang of recalcitrant and outspoken bohemian writers, musicians and artists who gave voice to the post-Independence generation. She not only wrote but performed her work as part of a rock band.
Everything about Yona Volach was countercultural and mutinous. She flagrantly rejected the collectivist ethos of Zionism by highlighting the individual. She chafed under the strict linguistic definitions of gender imposed by the Hebrew language and by the corresponding tightness of society, which she felt was not open to the power of the feminine. She rebelled both in the form and content of her poetry, liberating her work from previous conventions of structure, celebrating an unbridled sexuality. In some of her works, she assumed a domineering female voice, in others a masculine, boyish pose, both disliked by others to the point of violence.
It was, however, her sexualization of that most masculine and sacred of Jewish objects, the Tefillin in a 1982 poem, for which she is most remembered and in some cases hated (most famously by her friend the poet Zelda who abandoned her). A subsequent photo shoot of her in a meditative state flanked by a naked male figure wrapped in phylacteries, added fuel to this fire. Her delicious poem entitled “Strawberries” (a musical version can be heard here), is sexually playful and fantastically gender indeterminate.
A podcast about Yona Volach can be heard at Radio TLV1. For English translations & other resources go here.
3. Shoshana Damari
Iconic, trail-blazing and utterly individual, Shoshana Damari created the mold from which almost all Hebrew Divas have subsequently been cast. A singer of great passion with a voice that was commanding, deep and somehow real, Damari’s repertoire formed the cornerstone of Modern Hebrew music, be it for children’s, songs of shepherds or ballads praising the land of Israel. No one else could roll their ‘rrrrrrrrrreysh’ or gutterlize their ‘chhhhhhet’ like Shoshana Damari and no one else could pull off the embroidered caftan and two-kilo chandelier earrings in quite the same way.
Damari is a Diva who might never have been, she was nearly forcibly abandoned in her native Yemen as her parents left on foot for Israel when she was a toddler. This seems to have left a lasting impression on her, she celebrated rather than hid her roots, though her kinsmen were treated as second-class in the early days of Statehood. Born into a family of performers--her mother was a singer and professional mourner, her brother an actor--Shoshana had her first solo concert at the age of 17. Later, she would star in cabaret shows, musicals and even the first color film made in Israel as well as reigning over the Hebrew music scene for nearly half a century.
Shoshana Damari’s signature song was “Kalaniyot” (released 1948), about the famous red Anemones that bloom in winter. The British once tried to stop a performance of the song, guessing correctly that it contained a coded message of resistance to their Mandatory presence. Later, she would sing Haim Guri’s “Song of Friendship” which epitomized and immortalized the emotion and loss experienced by the generation who fought in the 1948 War of Independence.
In true Diva style, Damari ended her life destitute and alone, befriended only by the much younger singer Idan Raichel, who gave her one final hit song.
4. Yaffa Yarkoni
Often remembered principally as the archrival to fellow early Statehood Diva Shoshana Damari, Yaffa Yarkoni was very much her own, powerful presence on the Hebrew music scene. True, she was much that Damari was not; paler skinned with European graces, gifted with a voice that was smooth, fluttering and at times lilting. If Damari was known as the “Queen of Hebrew Song”, Yaffa Yarkoni was given the equally respectful moniker of “Songstress of Wars” due to her immense popularity with the troupes. Her renditions of “Bab-el-Wad” (about the battle for the road to Jerusalem) and the Tango-like “Do Not Say Goodbye--Only Farewell” have become cannon in the Hebrew Songbook and perpetual favorites at annual memorial services.
By performing songs that were filled with wartime pathos and love, in a style that was considered international and modern, Yaffa Yarkoni helped change the tone and temperament of Hebrew music, giving it new depth and maturity. She certainly sang from experience, both as a member of the Hagana (pre-State army) and a war-widow. Singing the post-war ballads “Believe me, the Day Will Come” and “Is it Possible?”, helped to create a whole new genre of Israeli music which envisioned a peaceful end to conflict in the region.
In the 1950’s and 60’s Yaffa Yarkoni gained an international reputation, performing Hebrew music (sometimes in translation) across Europe and the Americas. She is remembered in this period for representing Israeli culture with elegance and grace (sometimes sporting Jackie O inspired gowns and coiffed). In fact, for many outside the country, she was THE definition of Israeli Folk music. It is during this period that she began to sing works written by the then up-and-coming (later Diva in her own right) Naomi Shemer.
Later in her career, Yaffa Yarkoni came to be associated with a sense of camp and nostalgia that rendered her beloved, but no longer cutting-edge. Undue emphasis on her supposed rivalry with Shoshana Damari added to her Diva status, but also to mockery and mimicry. This is sad, since lost in this are her many gifts to Hebrew music, chief among them her truly game-changing choice of songs and song-writers.
5. Chana Rovina
“Rovina”--as she preferred to be called--was an actress who played the part of Diva as the role of her life. The so-called “First Lady of the Hebrew Stage”, all of Rovina’s roles were played to perfection (if a little loud and over enunciated), but never left a shadow of a doubt that behind them was the lady herself. The sheer number and variety of parts she played was matched only by the number of years that she remained active upon the stage, setting precedent for generations of Israeli Divas (in all the arts) who followed.
Born in Russia and trained as a Hebrew preschool teacher, Rovina had a chance meeting with Nahum Zemach, who urged her to join in his efforts to establish a “Lovers of Hebrew” drama society. Abandoning a teaching post in Baku, Rovina moved instead to Moscow in order to found the socialist, all-Hebrew ensemble that became known as “Habima”. There, she was schooled in the acting method of the great Stanislavsky, while working to establish modern Hebrew as a language of the stage. The chance departure of lead actress Shoshana Avivit left Rovina with the part of Leah in the Hebrew adaptation of the famous Yiddish story “The Dybbuk”, a role that came to define her and the Habima ensemble. Never mind that she was well past Thirty when she first took the role of the adolescent possessed by the spirit of her departed lover, she would repeat the part several times, even in her late sixties.
Along with her feats as an actress and early Hebrew celebrity, it was her personal life that garnered Rovina much attention. After moving Habima to Tel-Aviv in 1926, her first husband divorced her when she disclosed that she carried a child from a lover (she subsequently terminated the pregnancy). She went on to have highly public affair with the married, dashing (and often drunk) poet-prince of early Tel Aviv, Alexander Penn. In her forties, she gave birth to Penn’s child, but not before banishing him from her life (and that of her child) when he proved abusive and disloyal. Her daughter, Ilana, followed in her mother’s giant footsteps, choosing to take to the stage as a singer and Diva in her own right. Penn wrote one of his most successful poems about their doomed affair, a musical rendition of which was masterfully sung by the fruit of that love, Ilana.
Considered Israel’s first supermodel, Tami Ben Ami defied and then redefined previous local notions of beauty. Unusually tall, with an aggressive presence that matched her macho facial features, Ben Ami exuded strength and sexuality. The fact that she was neither light-skinned nor Ashkenazi was an impediment rather than a barrier to her career, which she built very much despite the fashion elite’s fetishistic obsession with Scandinavian blondes.
After winning several beauty competitions in the late 70's, Ben Ami was chosen to be the first in-house model for Gottex, the emerging super-star of the bathing suit industry. At first, her height and unique beauty were meant to be kept strictly in the show-room, but as photographers and art directors soon discovered, her look was perfectly suited to the 1980’s ideal of the broad-shouldered, ultra-dramatic, larger than life power woman.
Tami Ben Ami's memorable photo shoots show her to be a woman of great magnetism and control, almost dangerous in her sexuality and presence. The image of her clad in a skin-tight bodysuit of gold-lame snakeskin, stretched out on the desert floor like a massive, sinuous python, pretty much sums her up. When she dated the African-American import basketball star Aulcie Perry, the two literally became the reigning giants of the local glitterati.
Like any good Diva, she died young, at the height of her career, shrouded in mystery (she was determined to keep her cervical cancer a secret). She left behind a culture whose beauty ideal was vastly different thanks to her and though Israel has since produced more blonde, more famous supermodels, she opened local eyes to the beauty of non-normative, ethnically diverse, and non-demure feminine energy.
7. Esther Raab
In a world of writers that was almost exclusively male, Esther Rabb was a forceful and talented female pioneer. From her first poem (published in 1922) onward, Raab became famous for her unusual punctuation and use of the emerging richness of the Hebrew language, which she described as “new and shining with a wealth of colors…”
Considered the first native-born Hebrew poet, Raab’s writing attempted to embody qualities of the so-called ‘New Jew’ --it was unencumbered by the past and felt entitled to equality, power and freedom. Her poetry reflected this perfectly, both in its free form and bold ideology in which the land and the dweller are inseparable. “Blessed is the one who created me woman, I am earth (adama) and human (adam).” In her work she describes herself and the land as wild, erotic, bursting with fertility. Ultimately, Raab chose Hebrew poetry, rather than children as the fruit she would bear.
Raab infused her personal life with the liberty she espoused on the written page. Attracted to to partners whose gender identity was non-conformist, she was drawn equally to effeminate men and masculine women, most notably the pioneer and co-founder of the first Zionist self-defense unit Manya Shochat. Almost always in or passionately out of love, Raab married for money, pined for unattainable men and apparently took a lover half her age when she was in her eighties.
Read more about Esther Raab here. For Raab's poems in English go here.
8. Sara Levi Tanai
Many were involved in the invention of the new lingua franca known as 'Modern Hebrew', few, however, have been credited with inventing their own language. Sara Levi-Tanai enriched the vocabulary of local art and culture by creating what has became known as the “dance language of Inbal”, a style of movement that magically blends east and west, modern and ancient.
Born in Jerusalem to parents who arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century from Yemen (on foot no less), Sara was orphaned when most of her family succumbed to illness after being forced into a refugee camp during the first world war. Steeped in the cultural language of her departed parents, Sara was exposed to the arts, music and dance of the west, of local Arab tribes and of the emerging Hebrew movement by foster parents who saw her talent and potential. The arrival of masses of Yemenite Jews in 1949, following “Operation Magic Carpet”, allowed Sara to reconnect and work with the movements, music and poetry of her home community. She was inspired to take the best from all of the cultures that surrounded her and create from them something entirely new.
The result was the birth of a new dance company, known as “Inbal”, which used as its basis the traditions of Yemen, streamlined and refined through the fresh lens of the modern and international. Early Inbal works drew on inspiration from biblical narrative as well as Jewish customs, most notably those connected with weddings. Crafting these into contemporary ballets, Levi-Tanai gave pride of place to the often downtrodden “Oriental” Jews, but also a means of conveying, through dance, the creation of a new nation-state whose culture was evolving out of diaspora and into a new, native expression.
In addition to her tremendous contribution to the world of Hebrew dance, Sara Levi-Tanai, much like her Divo counterpart Baruch Agadati (inventor of, among many other things, the Hora), was a true renaissance Diva. During her first career as a preschool educator, she answered the paucity of modern Hebrew resources by writing stories, songs and rituals that to this day, form the backbone of most Israeli early childhood classrooms (her Chanukah and Purim Songs in particular). When she lived on kibbutz Ramat Ha Kovesh in the 1940’s, she helped reinvent the notion of collective celebration, using Jewish narrative and tradition to create folk music and agricultural festivals for the staunchly secular kibbutz society.
A wonderful translation of a lecture on the language of Inbal dance can be found here:
hereFor a filmed version of her stunningly choreographed dance "song of Songs" look.
9. Chana Maron
When Chana Maron left the stage at age 90, she took with her a certified world’s record for occupying it longer than any other human. She began her acting career as a child of four in her native Germany and grew into one of the grande dames of theater, film and television in her adopted home of Israel until shortly before her death.
Maron appeared in dozens of plays, helping to shape the nature and repertoire of the iconic Cameri theater in Tel Aviv. Promoting tmodern, original Hebrew drama, Meron garnered special acclaim for her portrayal of the Shoa-survivor Mika in “He Walked in the Fields”, a play that epitomized a generation of tough, self-sacrificing Sabras (native Israeli). Off stage, she had an air of friendliness and often brutal sincerity (colleagues and friends called her “Chanaleh”); onstage, she was able to convey a sense of silliness, seriousness and eroticism--even at an age when most women were desexualized.
A prototypical Israeli Diva, Chana Maron always knew when to share the stage for the good of the collective: She served in the British military and later the Jewish Brigade entertainment troupe, lowered the flame on her red-hot career in order to allow her second husband to shine as an architect and was vocal on social and political matters. In 1970, while on her way to audition for a lead in the film version of "Fiddler on the Roof", her flight was hijacked; she was seriously injured and her leg eventually amputated. Undaunted, she was back to work within a year. Later, she publicly criticized the bureaucratic hardheartedness of the National Insurance Institute when it initially refused to pay for a replacement prosthetic limb.
A local version of Grace Kelly, Nechama Hendel was an artist of great refinement and talent, who at the top of her career, chose to leave (for a time) in favor of love and spirituality.
Born in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, Nehama Hendel was drafted to the Nahal army band. Her clear, tender but commanding singing voice and patrician stage presence gained her popularity with fellow performers and audiences. Attending acting school in Paris after her service, Nechama was called home to join Batzal Yarok (Green Onion), the first successful popular music group to emerge from the army bands. Later, she teamed up with Ran Eliran and the two became locally and most especially internationally successful, working for over a year on the US club scene after appearing on the immensely popular Ed Sullivan TV Show as "Ran & Nama".
Upon her return to Israel, Nechama hosted a world-music radio program, was cast in the lead of a translated version of "The King and I" and appeared in the film "Pillar of Fire". The pinnacle Hendel's achievement in this period is folk-inspired recording of national Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik’s most cherished works. Known as one of the finest albums ever recorded in the Hebrew language, it remains the definitive version of Bialik songs and the work for which Nechama Hendel is most remembered (much of the album can be heard here).
In the late 1960’s, just as her career was at its height, Nechama left it all behind to marry the German guitarist Leonard Regnier, moving with him first to Europe and then Australia. There, she became involved in an Indonesian spiritual movement called “Subud” and changed her name to "Helena". All this proved too much for Israeli audiences and her popularity waned. Returning to Israel in the 1990’s, Nechama Hendel was unable to regain her Diva status, fading, rather than flaring from the scene. Despite the fact that her early work is very much part of the canon of Hebrew music, in her lifetime, she was never fully recognized for her contributions to Hebrew culture.
11. Tirza Atar
“Protect your soul, protect your life” begged the legendary writer Natan Alterman in a poem to his fragile, mercurial daughter Tirza after she attempted suicide. “Tell me why your life quivers like a bird in the hand...like a bird in a room seeking an escape”. (listen here to Chava Alberstein's sublime version of this)
Tirza, who took the pen name “Atar”--presumably to allow for some professional distance from her famous father--was the only child of Alterman and his actress wife Rachel Marcus. The bond between father and daughter was unusually close, despite his very public adulterous affair with artist Zila Binder that ripped into their family. This might explain the somewhat bizarre relationship she had with him when it came to her poetry; Tirza was determined to gain a name for herself outside of her father’s shadow, but sought his constant approval and editorial assistance.
Headed at first, for a career on the stage, Tirza Atar was a singer in the army band (listen here) before studying acting in New York with her first husband, actor Oded Kotler. After a nervous breakdown that saw her leave both the marriage and acting, she turned to writing. Here she found both solace and success, penning poems, stories for children, translated works for the stage and popular music (Listen for some of my favorites here, here and here).
Though a second marriage brought her children and an apparent sense of safety and satisfaction, Tirza remained brittle, never quite calm or confident. Her life ended in true Diva tragedy, when at age 36, she fell (or perhaps jumped) out of a sixth story window, a day after being hit by a taxi. She left behind much potential and many unanswered questions, but also five books of poetry, seven children’s stories and thirty translations of plays. She remains an enigmatic and much beloved figure in Hebrew literature and Israeli culture. (for trailer of a superb documentary about her life here)
12. Bracha Zefira
Bracha Zefira’s biography reads like the prototypical Diva diary. Orphaned at a young age, raised in multiple Sephardic homes in Jerusalem and eventually discovered as a major musical talent while in boarding school, she became one of the most famous and colorful celebrities of her day. Bracha's ability to belt out a number in clear, Yemenite accented Hebrew, her brooding ethnic look and her melodramatic moves both on and off the stage, easily earn her a place in the Hebrew Diva pantheon. (listen here to her mighty Tel Aviv tribute)
After garnering a reputation as a strong singer and actor in her own right, she fell in love and joined forces with the pianist Nachum Nardi and the two gained international fame as THE representatives of the fledgling genre of Hebrew Folk music. When they performed in Berlin in 1929, a reviewer noted that Zefira not only sang, but acted her songs with such flair, that one was instantly transported to middle east. The two spent the better part of a decade performing a repertoire of traditional Yemenite, Arab, Jewish and Bedouin music, along with new Hebrew Folk. They were so famous locally, that the 1936 founders of the first Hebrew Radio station invited Zefira to make history by broadcasting its inaugural song (listen here).
Naturally, there was a dramatic break-up between Zefira and Nardi and a remarriage to Ben-Ami Zilber, a violinist with the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. These marriages produced not one, but two talented offspring, Naama and the rocker Divo, Ariel Zilber. Bracha Zefira was active as a singer and musical collaborator for many years, eventually turning to painting when she lost her voice.
For me, Bracha Zefira will always be associated with Bialik’s “Song of Work” (listen here). Controversial for its prayer-like structure and purposeful removal of the Divine in favor of human effort and industry, it was THE anthem of early Hebrew pioneer Palestine. In the mouth and hands of Bracha Zefira, the song is a tour de force as she not only sings, but acts and encourages others to join in both the melody and ideology.
When Meir Dizengoff (Tel Aviv’s iconic first mayor) wanted to create a public square in honor of his late wife Tzina in 1934, he wisely chose Genia Averbuch ’s concept. Clean and practical, it had a sense of artistry and femininity to it, reflecting perfectly the legacy of the honoree. The circular Dizengoff Square formed a harmonious and enveloping public space, a homage to the Bauhaus-International style, instantly beloved among Tel Aviv’s residents.
A classic Diva, Averbuch insisted on controlling every aspect of the project, including the style and composition of the buildings circumferential to the square. All had to conform to the curved
pattern, needed to be modern-clean in design and offer residents balconies-- justifiably deemed by her as necessary in pre air-conditioned Tel Aviv. The resulting set of buildings are rather glorious; my personal favorite is the Cinema Hotel, with its uber-Bauhaus polish and impeccable sense of wave and flow.
Averbuch correctly predicted that Tel Aviv would become a city of cars and her original design included a raised central circle to accommodate parking and public transport. Her advice was not heeded and in the years that followed, the square was pulled apart, raised, and allowed to sink into disrepair. After Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus structures were declared international treasures by UNESCO in 2003, city elders have begun a lengthy process of restoring the once glamorous Dizengoff Square to its former glory, including the addition of underground parking. Lesson learned, best to follow the advice of a Diva!
Following this, her most famous project, Genia Averbuch designed important and lasting buildings all over Israel that reflected her commitment to design, social equality and Hebrew ideals. In the 1930’s, she was the director of city construction for Tel Aviv and part of a team that built the Levant Fair, a grand showcase of goods and trends in the Middle East (but most especially Hebrew ingenuity). Her cafe Galina, with its sea views and bold rotunda, remained a crowd pleaser for many years, a star in Tel Aviv’s cafe society.