Anyone who grew up in the United States or Britain between the 1950s and 1980s may remember a highly popular TV show called This Is Your Life. It was a sort of biographical program in which some celebrity was surprised by the show’s host, who would then dramatically utter, “This is your life.”
The Israeli version was called Haim She’kaele (Such a Life) and was hosted throughout its 1972-2000 span by Amos Ettinger. Now 77 years old and long retired from the IBA, Ettinger has devoted much of his waking hours – and there are many – to his first love, writing poetry and lyrics. His words have been used for a string of beloved Hebrew songs such as “Kesheor Dolek Be’halonech” (When There Is a Light in Your Window), which was recorded by, among others, Arik Einstein; “Kfar Aharei Hatzot” (It’s Past Midnight), which was a hit for Ilanit; and “Tiyul Leili” (Nighttime Walk), performed by the Dudaim twosome. “Tiyul Leili” was the first song Ettinger ever wrote, in 1958, when he was a member of the IDF’s Central Command band.
While Hebrew hits of yesteryear continue to hold their own on various radio shows, the country’s main stage for live renditions of the perennial favorites is the Yamei Zemer festival, which this year will mark its 20th anniversary at the Holon Theater on April 4 to 8. More than half a century after Ettinger’s lyrical debut, he will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the festival.
The other recipient this year is composer, singer and pianist Shlomo Gronich.
I caught up with Tel Aviv-based Ettinger in downtown Jerusalem, following his appearance on an IBA radio show. It seemed perfectly natural to meet him within the temporal context of broadcasting.
“I worked at the IBA for 43 years,” he notes, adding that no one had planned on his serving such a lengthy tenure. “I came to the radio as a freelancer, but after a while they said I was earning more than the regular salaried employees, so they forced me to join the staff,” he recalls.
“They gave me a hosting test. They checked out my diction with all sorts of complicated words and names, such as Tchaikovsky, but I went to the radio as a producer, not as a host.
Naturally, I failed the test.”
Youth notwithstanding, in fact Ettinger had already accrued a decent track record before he joined the IBA.
“I also worked at Army Radio as a freelancer,” he explains. “Back then, the station worked out of a room and a half in Ramat Gan before they moved to [the present premises] in Jaffa. I did entertainment shows, including practical jokes that we set up outside on the beat. I was working full time at both stations.”
Well past pension age, Ettinger does not appear to be showing any signs of slowing down. He “blames” his wife of 10 years, 32-year-old Ukrainian-born singer Lena.
“Since I stopped doing TV, I have been working harder than ever,” he declares. “Why? Because of my wife.
She gives me energy.”
The couple’s path first crossed while Ettinger was on a performance tour of the former USSR.
Lena begs to differ.
“When we met, you worked liked crazy,” she says.
“But not too happily,” interjects the septuagenarian.
“You love your work,” counters Lena.
“If you do what you love, there’s nothing better.”
“I continue to do Haim She’kaele on a private basis since I left TV, since Barel kicked me out,” Ettinger states, referring to Yossef Barel, who served as IBA director general from 2001 to 2005.
Haim She’kaele went out in prime time,” says Ettinger proudly. “I did shows on all kinds of people – there was [Israeli Police Commissioner Ya’acov] Turner and also on [impresario] Shmuel Tzemach, who brought a lot of big names to Israel.” The latter include Frank Sinatra and the Bolshoi Ballet.
While he has chalked up unrivaled résumé, Ettinger is equally proud of his up and running projects.
“I am marking three important events right now,” he says. “I am releasing an English edition of [poetry books] Ahavot She’kaele (Loves Like This). It is a sort of compilation of six books that came out in Hebrew that all have the word ‘quarter’ in their title – A Quarter after Midnight, A Quarter after the War and so on.”
What’s with the quarter? “It’s something that’s not complete,” Ettinger notes enigmatically.
The new tome contains around 200 songs with fetching illustrations, including reproductions of erotic sculptures by Benny Levy.
“Our lives are erotica and romance,” says Ettinger matter of factly. “The publishers are talking about bringing out editions of the book in Russian and Chinese. I think that’s because my poetry is universal. It is all about relationships between men and women. There’s nothing more universal than that.”
The second slot in Ettinger’s current triad of projects is the Ahavot She’kaele musical show, with Lena singing some of her husband’s best-known numbers and new works dedicated to her, while Ettinger enlightens the audience about the stories behind the songs.
“Our best composers set my lyrics to music,” says Ettinger with undisguised satisfaction, “people like Sasha Argov, [Moshe] Vilensky, [Yochanan] Zarai and Dubi Zeltzer.”
The 72-year-old award-winning composer and musician Nurit Hirsch is also in the music writing mix.
“Nurit wrote the music for Ahavot She’kaele, which is one of the new poems,” explains Ettinger.
Ettinger looks contented, and well he might. He has a happy marriage and appears full of vim and vigor well into his “golden years.” He likes his work and says he does not subscribe to the suffering artist cliché.
“I enjoy writing poems and lyrics,” he states. “When I get the muse, I just sit down and write.”
Easily done. The Lifetime Achievement Award appears to be richly deserved.
For more information about the Yamei Zemer Festival: (03) 502-3001 and www.hth.co.il