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The change is gradual, almost imperceptible, but things are different nonetheless. First, you notice a drop in the volume of traffic along the coastal road as you head north past the Caeserea turn-off. By the time you hit Haifa, it's clear that something isn't right. None of the gas stations on the northbound side of the road are open. The numerous falafel and burekas stands and other cheap food establishments are closed for business, too, and the sidewalks are empty. It's almost a Yom Kippur scene.
On the other hand, there are benefits to the war-induced inactivity surrounding this northward drive - no traffic jams. Speeding further on my way to meet singer David Broza at his Galilee stop of Klil near Nahariya, I catch sight of the occasional burnt field. And there is the muffled sound of mortar and missile fire not too far away.
Broza's van eventually appears and, after a brief handshake, we press on towards Kibbutz Hanita, located right on the Lebanese border. As we pass through the gate, there are several very loud cracks as outgoing missiles begin their intended journey toward some Hizbullah stronghold. The kibbutz guard and the reservist lounging by the guardhouse seem not to notice. By the third or fourth shell, I get used to it, too.
For Broza, this is by now just another day up north. The celebrated singer has been doing the rounds of northern kibbutzim, small towns and army bases for almost two weeks. On this particular trip, he's joined by Israeli-born, French-bred singer/songwriter Keren Ann, who, on her own initiative, got on a Tel Aviv-bound plane Monday morning so she could contribute to Broza's morale-boosting efforts.
The kibbutz members' makeshift music club is jam-packed, and the mood brightens visibly as Broza and Keren Ann, who's now based in New York, carry their guitar cases into the hall. Kibbutz member Esther Rozenfarb is delighted to see them. "We feel we're under siege here," she says. "The roads leading up our hill are shelled, and there's nothing open around here except for a few food stores. It's not fun, but we're not afraid. David coming here is very important for us. It really brightens our day, and it's a chance for all of us to get together. Otherwise, we mostly all just stay at home."
Thirty years into a highly successful career, which arguably peaked in the Eighties with the Spanish-inflected album Ha'Isha She'Ittee, and nearly two weeks into his current circuit in northern Israel, Broza is, by now, on automatic pilot. After a brief "hi" to the 100-plus audience members, the singer launches straight into a rapid Spanish-style instrumental which ends with some playful guitar waving both for sound and visual effect. The kibbutz members roar with appreciation and clap enthusiastically. Even the sound of sporadic missile fire that rattles the windows does nothing to dampen the audience's enthusiasm. The show is definitely going on.
One thing missing here, however, is young faces. Besides a couple of toddlers, the Hanita audience ranges from 20-somethings to senior citizens. "The children and teenagers have been shipped south," explains Rozenfarb. "As soon as the show is over I'm going off to Bat Yam myself to take over babysitting duties from my grandchildren's other grandma."
Just over an hour later, Broza packs his guitar case back in the van. "One gig down, six to go," he says before we head off to Kibbutz Yehiam, the next stop on Broza's punishing seven-gig schedule for the day. "Wasn't that great?" he enthuses over the Hanita show. "It's the same everywhere we go."
The claim is borne out by the reception Broza and Keren Ann receive as they climb down the stairs into the main bomb shelter at Yehiam, which, these days, doubles as a kindergarten. Around 70 adults and children have somehow squeezed into the stifling room, and Broza is on the receiving end of several friendly backslaps and handshakes as he makes his way to a wooden chair and starts the next gig. There is plenty of audience participation, particularly on "Gan Sagur" (Closed Kindergarten), a song taken from the 1978 children's pop album HaKevess HaShisha Assar.
"We're very grateful that people like David come here," says 38-year-old Itai Tzur. "It takes our minds off the bad stuff around us, and it shows us the rest of the country hasn't forgotten us. I was born on this kibbutz, and we've had quite a few scares over the years, but there was always a feeling that the Katyushas won't hit us. This time it's different. There have been some near-misses in the past few days. It's my daughter Inbar's third birthday tomorrow, so this is a great birthday present for all of us."
Mind you, not everyone is quite as enthusiastic over the entertainment. "I can't stand David Broza's music," complains Orly, a 12-year-old from Kfar Vradim whose parents brought her to Yehiam after a missile fell near their home. "I want to go home."
Broza has five more gigs to do before he returns home to the safety of Tel Aviv. During the next show, at Bustan Hagalil, a siren goes off in the middle of the proceedings. But despite the moshav youth coordinator's pre-show advice to enter the cultural center's security room should the siren sound, beers are handed out and Broza and Keren Ann keep up their work.
Later on, with Broza en route to his sixth stop of the day, I wonder how he keeps going. "I'm not tired," he says. "Every little bit helps. We've all got to do our part and hope all this ends very soon."