‘All Is Well By Me’: The saga of Josie Katz

The legendary singer, who changed the direction of Israel’s popular culture, is soon to be honored with a star-studded concert in celebration of her 70th birthday.

June 5, 2010 02:18
Josie Katz

Josie Katz at 70 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Something wonderful and astonishing happened in Israel to a pretty blonde girl from America almost 50 years ago. Nineteen-year-old Josephine Marcia Katz left her home in Pittsburgh, came to Israel without knowing so much as one word of Hebrew, quickly absorbed the language and culture, and became an Israeli pop superstar.

Along with Arik Einstein and Shmulik Kraus, she formed the musical trio Hahalonot Hagvohim (The High Windows) in 1966, regarded then and now as Israel’s first rock group. Though they remained together for only a year, the phenomenally successful little group managed to start a new movement and change the direction of Israeli popular music with songs that are still popular today.

Soon to be honored with a star-studded concert in celebration of her 70th birthday, Josie Katz took a moment to chat with Metro about becoming a star, adapting to life as a former star, enduring life as a battered wife in a violent marriage, and about being and becoming Israeli. 

“I came to Israel in 1959, on a boat, with 40 other kids,” she recalls. “I came with Habonim, which was a group of young American Jewish kids who came to Israel for a year, stayed on a kibbutz, learned a little bit of the language, sang the songs, and traveled the country.

“Most of the kids I came with were already part of a Habonim group. I never was. But my mother really wanted me to come to Israel. Because she wanted to come to Israel all her life, and she never made it. She had three children, her husband didn’t want to move here. So she wanted me to go.”

Asked if her mother was religious in addition to being fervently Zionist, Katz replies, “Well, my mother was quite religious in her own sense. We went to shul on the holidays. We had two sets of dishes. Every Saturday she went to the synagogue.

“She was Reform, but a little more. She was self-taught. She taught herself how to read and write Yiddish. She was a big part of the Jewish community. So when she heard about this group, we went to have an interview. She said, ‘Maybe they’ll take you.’ And they did.”

Although pushed to go to Israel by her mother, Katz quickly fell in love with the dynamic new country.

“We were sent to Gesher Haziv, a kibbutz that was mostly American. And I loved it. And after a year, we were supposed to return. Well, everyone returned but me. I needed permission to stay. I got permission, then I went to live on another kibbutz in the desert for a year.”

At the end of that year, however, Katz found herself tired of the stringent life of the kibbutz and was planning to return to the US – until another kind of love intervened.

“I said to myself, it’s enough. Enough kibbutz. I want to go back to the States, and maybe try my luck on the stage in New York. I had no training, but that was my dream.

“But then, right before I was supposed to leave, I met someone who became my husband nine years later. And I never left. This man was a very charismatic person. I fell in love. And as one thing led to another, he would play the guitar and we used to sing together.”

The man was, of course, Shmulik Kraus, whom Katz often calls simply “my partner” through much of our interview.

Katz’s involvement with the performing arts soon evolved beyond just singing while her new boyfriend played his guitar.

“I got a job as a dancer. I danced in 1966 in the first production of My Fair Lady here in Israel. They brought the producer over and the choreographer and the director. And it was fantastic. I loved it.

“I didn’t think I was going to get in because I’m not a professional dancer. But I passed the audition. And then for a year I danced in My Fair Lady. And then afterwards they had the show How to Succeed in Business, and I did that, as a dancer, with a few lines.

“And then my partner decided, ‘You’re not going to work anymore as a dancer, you’re going to sing.’ I was totally hypnotized by the guy, so we sat down and started rehearsing.

“We went to Eilat, and we got a job in a club. It was the only club in Eilat. There was one hotel, and one night club, which was called The Last Chance. And we got up and sang.

“The owner said, ‘Hey, you guys have to stay here and sing, because I get tourists coming everyday on buses, and Josie sings in English.’

“And we put together a show. After about six months in Eilat, we came back to Tel Aviv and we started getting gigs.”

It was at this time that Katz and Kraus met the person with whom they would not only change their own lives, but also the direction of Israel’s popular culture.

“Somehow we hooked up with Arik Einstein,” Katz recalls. “He came over because he heard that Shmulik was writing nice songs. He’s always looking for someone to write nice songs for him. And he said, ‘I want you to give me your songs.’

“Shmulik said, ‘No. They’re our songs. If you want them, you’ll sing with us.’ So we started to sing together, and it was like peanut butter and jelly. It was so perfect together – without even trying. Our voices melted together.

“We started every day. He would come over, and he would bring lyrics—because we needed lyrics – lyrics from really good writers at that time. And before you knew it, after three or four months, we were ready to perform.

“And we became an enormous hit, The High Windows. I can compare it with what happened to the Beatles at the same time. It happened here. They were crazy for us here, and we performed all over the country.”

The group opened a club in Tel Aviv, called The High Windows, released an album, also called The High Windows, and reached the pinnacle of its success in the spring of 1967, right before the Six Day War. As it happened, however, the group’s high point also marked the beginning of its end.

Katz recalls: “The Six Day War broke out, and we went to sing for the troops. And after the war ended and we came back, the two guys decided that we should go outside of Israel. We had some gigs, in Paris and in London. Then around four months of travel, with other performers, in France and Spain.

“Then Arik left the group and came back home. He just couldn’t take it. He missed his wife, he missed his daughter. He missed how famous he was in Israel. He wasn’t famous in Europe. People came to see the blonde in the miniskirt with the low voice. He wanted to come back.”

Einstein’s departure put an end to The High Windows – but not to Israeli rock and roll. Other stars, like Shalom Hanoch, and other groups, like The Churchills, soon followed, riding the wave of innovation began by the now defunct High Windows.

Meanwhile, still in Europe, Kraus and Katz pondered their options and looked for opportunities. Katz relates, “I got offered to stay in London and make a record. But at the same time, my partner got an offer to do a movie in Spain, with a famous director and a famous actor, called The Royal Hunt of the Sun. It was with Robert Shaw and a few other good actors that I can’t remember right now.

“So we went to Spain, and I got stuck in an apartment in Madrid, doing nothing. And they kept calling me from London, saying, ‘Please come. You have a great future ahead of you.

“But my partner didn’t agree with all that. And I think now that I look back on it as one of the biggest mistakes I ever made – that I didn’t go according to my heart. I let him control me.

“So I stayed, and when he was finished with the movie, we went to the States for a year. I wanted to work, I wanted to sing, and he didn’t. He was just having a good time in New York.

“We returned in 1970 to Israel. I was offered some work in a few TV productions with Uri Zohar. I did something called Shablul and a movie called Lul. They came out at the same time, in 1971. One was for TV, and one was a movie. Slowly, slowly, me and my partner stopped working together, and I started working on my own. I recorded a few songs. I went out doing gigs with my own group.”

Katz speaks with mixed emotions about the tumultuous 10 years that followed. The couple had two children, both boys. She continued to work in clubs and on TV. At the same time, Katz found herself in a rapidly deteriorating marriage as her husband’s behavior began to spiral out of control.

“Things were not good in the relationship,” she says. “He was very aggressive. Very violent. And he drank. It was very tough on me.”

Asked if her husband hit her, she replies simply, “Many times, many times.”

Katz reflects for a moment, and adds, “It turns out that he was very manic depressive. And when he went through his manic phases, he caused a lot of problems – for everybody, not just for me.”

“In the meantime, I had two boys. I thought things would be better, but they weren’t. Things got even worse. And I was trying to raise my two boys really on my own. Because there was no father around, really. And when he was around, it was bad for all of us.

“We all lived in fear. My children saw a lot of things they really shouldn’t have seen.”

The violence continued, she says, throughout the 1970s, reaching an intolerable level during the summer of 1981.

“I decided, that’s it. I collected my two children and I left. I had some money saved up. I bought a ticket, and went to New York. I’m not from New York, I felt like a total foreigner in New York. And it was rough, it was very, very rough – the first five years in New York.”

At first, Katz tried to make a go of it by singing.

“When I first left, I felt music was dead to me. I had lost my desire to sing,” she says. “But I had to support myself. And to sing in the States – which I tried for a month, in all the clubs in New York, the Israeli clubs – meant getting home at four in the morning and dropping my kids off at six. No way. And to have gigs in America, you’ve got to go to Florida, you’ve got to go here, there.

“But an Israeli from Chicago heard I was looking for work, and he contacted me. So I found work in his company, which distributed flowers all over New York City. I had never done anything like that before – faxes, telephones – and he made me the manager.

“I worked there for four years until business wasn’t going so well, and he said he’d have to lay me off.”

Fortune smiled on Katz the following day, however, as she was offered another job selling jewelry in New York’s fashionable Trump Tower.

“I went there the next day and started to work. The owner helped train me, and I did a really good job. It was funny, Israelis who came to Trump Tower would come by and say, ‘That’s Josie!’ Even Yitzhak Rabin’s wife came in to say ‘Hi.’

“And my boss, who was also an Israeli but hadn’t been to Israel in 15 years, said, ‘What are you, famous?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess. I used to sing.’

“One day a man walked in. My boss introduced me to him and said, ‘This is the vice president of Trump Tower.’ The man invited me for lunch. I asked my boss about him, because he was in his late 50s. I asked, ‘Isn’t he married?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he’s married.’

“So when he called me up and wanted to make plans, I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t go out with married men. I don’t even want to go out with men, and you’re a married man!’

“To make a long story short, he was smitten – I learned that word then. And he fell in love, which he told me was like the first time in his life. He told his wife. They divorced. And he said, ‘Next year, you’ll be living with me, in a home that I buy for us.’

“And that’s exactly what happened. In June of 1987, he bought a house in Englewood, New Jersey – a beautiful home – and me and my children moved in.

“We got married a year later, June 1988, in our home, in the back yard, with all kinds of different people – show-business people, real estate people, business people – and it was really nice.

“In 1990, David was killed in a car accident. And I saw the accident, because we were driving somewhere together. I was in my car, he was behind me. I heard a crash, and I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that a small truck from the other side of the highway had smashed right into him. That was at 8:30 in the morning; he died at a quarter to 12.”

On her own again, Katz moved to California two years later to be near her brother. Her mother had developed bone cancer, so Katz brought her from Florida to live with her in California.

“She made me promise: no hospitals, no home for the aged. I said, ‘You will be with me.’ I took care of her for a year and a half. And there I was, a caretaker for my mom. And when she died a year and a half later, all I did was paint. I painted and painted, oil painting.” And the years passed.

“Then I got a phone call from a friend in Israel, Natan Cohen, an artist. He said, ‘Josie, I want you to come to Israel and record one of my songs on my new album.’ I said, ‘Natan, are you crazy? I haven’t sung in 15 years.’  But when he called he told me what song it was, one of the songs that I dearly loved when it first came out, “I Will Wait for You.” He was doing an album collection of old songs.

“He said, ‘Look, I’m sending you a ticket, you’ll be in a hotel. Come for 10 days. I had just gotten an email from a lady in Israel who read horoscopes, a friend of a friend. She sent me about 11 pages. In one of the sentences, she said, ‘When an opportunity comes to you, you must take it, or you’ll be sorry.’ So, I went.

“I came to Israel and fell in love again with my country. I was at a hotel. I smelled the sea, tasted the felafel. I recorded the song. I did a few TV shows. I didn’t want to leave. So they extended my ticket for another week.

“And I asked, “What the heck are you doing? This is where your star is, where your friends are, where your life is. This is where you belong. So I went back, sold my house in a month, packed a container, and within one month was back in Israel.”

 Returning to Israel in 1997, Katz soon came face-to-face with the various bureaucratic hurdles and hassles that lie in wait for most new immigrants today.

“It was very difficult when I returned, very difficult,” she says. “They told me, you have to go to this office, and then you have to go to that office, then go here, then go there, to Bituah Leumi, and 100 other government offices. It was crazy. On top of that, I couldn’t find an apartment. I needed one with four rooms, because my kids were with me. Finally I did find one, and moved in.

“In September 1997, I started working. The Tel Aviv Municipality asked me to do Piano Week, which they have every year. So I got together with some very good musicians, and we made new arrangements to my songs. And the show was very successful.

“And from there, we started doing gigs. And that’s what I’ve been doing, the last 10 years.

“Around two years ago, I hooked up with a very nice, talented young fellow, Gilad Segev. He asked me to participate in a show together with him, singing the songs of The High Windows, but with slightly new interpretations. So we worked on rehearsals for two months. It was a big success.

“We had 15 shows lined up. And I got a brain hemorrhage.

“I’ve gone through a lot of s---, but this was one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with. I gained 20 kg. from the steroids they pumped into me. They gave me chemo, so my hair got icky. Pills galore. Rehab. It was very hard. I didn’t go out.

“People called to ask me to do this, do that, but I stayed inside and did nothing because I just didn’t want to be seen. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Who are you?’ I looked like a chipmunk!”

Now, apparently recovered and looking quite well, she says, “So that’s where I am now. They’re having a show for me on June 8, in honor of my 70th birthday. I won’t be singing – I don’t feel ready to sing on stage. But there will be great artists, and each one will be singing one or two of my songs.”

Katz makes it clear, however, that this little birthday bash in no way marks a culmination of her career, but rather a way station on the road to more music.

“I want to dive into it, but slowly,” she says. “I’m working on a song now with a very young talented boy. He and another girl wrote a song and asked me to sing it. I said no, and they said, “But it’s in English.’ I told them, ‘You know what? Send me the song.

“I heard the song. It’s sad and sweet, and I decided that I want to sing in English. Nowadays the whole country is singing in English but me.” Katz laughs at the irony as she says this.

“We’re probably going to record it next week. So I’m thinking, maybe I’ll just get together with some good people and do something in English.”

Katz is not particularly worried about finding “good people.” She says, “There’s so much young talent in Israel today. The young Israeli girls are so different than 20 years ago. They write their own music, they sing it, they accompany themselves, and they record it themselves. They’ve become strong and independent, and I respect that.

“You know what the girls did in my day? It was, ‘Sit down, be pretty, and do what you’re told!’”

Perhaps nowhere is the old attitude toward female artists more evident than on The High Windows’ first album cover. There we see Arik Einstein and Shmulik Kraus engaged in what appears to be deep creative conversation, with Katz seemingly draped over Kraus’s back, like an unworn overcoat.

“Yeah,” Katz agrees. “I look like I’m some kind of decoration.”

While Katz may have been more or less typically female in the Israel of the 1960s, she was not content to be typically “Anglo.” Asked how she was able to integrate so well into Israeli society – to the point of becoming a pop idol – she says, “Well, I never went to ulpan. I learned my Hebrew from the streets, and I learned how to read it the hard way.

“I wanted to be able to read what they were writing about me. I was always with Israelis, and I insisted on speaking Hebrew. And they loved my Hebrew – they loved my mistakes.

“I felt like I belonged here. I felt like I had been here in another life. I just felt at home. I feel Israeli.”

And, while she ticks off with her fingers several aspects of what she calls “Israeli mentality” that she thinks show substantial room for improvement –“rudeness, impatience, lack of consideration for others and increasing materialism”– Katz concludes simply, “I love this country. I’m very happy here. I am home.”

“All is Well by Me,” a concert in honor of Josie Katz. 8 June 2010, 21:30. Mercaz Anav Letarbut, 71 Ibn Gvirol St., Tel Aviv.

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