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A member of the Black Hebrews, Dimona-born singer Eddie Butler will present a lesser known side of Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest finals this weekend
For even the most laidback of English teachers, reading notes from an interview with Eddie Butler would be nothing short of a nightmare. The 34-year-old singer from Dimona speaks in reckless run-on sentences, defiantly merging independent clauses and barely ever remembering to pause for a period.
That characteristic energy is part of what Butler will rely on this weekend as he represents Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest finals, which take place this year in Athens and will be broadcast starting at 10 p.m. Saturday on Channel 1. Butler, who automatically qualified to the final based on Israel's fourth-place last year, will take the stage third among the 24 competitors Saturday night, singing in Hebrew and English to an estimated TV audience of well over 100 million people. His hope, of course, is to win the contest and earn Israel the right to host next year's Eurovision in Jerusalem, where Butler represented the country once previously, placing fifth in the 1999 contest alongside his brother and two other members of pop quartet Eden.
Regardless of how he fares in Saturday's finals, Butler will likely surprise TV viewers across Europe, representing a side of Israel unfamiliar even to many Israelis. A member of the Black Hebrews, a community of roughly 2,000 ethnic African-Americans concentrated in the Negev, Butler was born in Israel but has yet to receive voting privileges and other benefits that come with being a citizen. His parents, who immigrated to Israel from Chicago nearly 40 years ago, have been granted permanent residency but not citizenship, their in-between status the result of the sometimes strained relationship between the Israeli government and the Black Hebrews since members of the community began to arrive in 1969.
But Butler, who covered an impressive range of topics last week during a 45-minute phone interview from his home outside Tel Aviv, has nothing but praise for Israel, which has been home his entire life and has embraced him enthusiastically since he was named the country's Eurovision representative in March. "I love Israel," he says at several points during a rapid-fire monologue. "We have a great and important place. We're trying to be more European and American than America and Europe, but we need to be Israel. We need to be an example. We're trying to be Bill Gates and George Bush and Mike Tyson and Michael Jackson, but I'm going to be me and stay here . . . let's go out and show the world the real Israel, because those guys don't know us. They can talk and beat us down, but they really don't know."
If Butler frequently speaks with the fervor of a new convert, it's because he is. Almost, anyway. Raised with the Black Hebrews' view that their community is descended from an ancient Israelite tribe, Butler is currently undergoing the traditional Jewish conversion process, and speaks energetically about his ongoing Jewish education and observant lifestyle. He keeps kosher and strictly observes Shabbat, he says, commenting warmly on Russian-born classmates in his conversion classes. On Friday mornings, he enjoys visiting Jerusalem's Western Wall.
He's friendly and outgoing, but also clearly ambitious. He thanks God for his success so far, repeatedly expressing the belief that his fate at Eurovision is "in God's hands" even as he makes note of certain competitors' potential advantages. And he loves his two children, his fianc e Orly, and "Zeh Hazman," his musical entry at the contest.
The rhythm and blues-tinged song, which is being translated as "Together We are One," will set Butler even further apart at Eurovision, which is alternately beloved and mocked for the cheesy music and dance numbers that usually end up near the top. (Not that they should be written off. Past Eurovision winners include ABBA, Celine Dion and Cliff Richard, while past non-winners include Olivia Newton John, who took fourth place competing for England in 1974.) Butler's song may not have the instantaneous catchiness of the contest's most memorable entries, but it's delivered with charisma and in a voice as smooth as melted wax. He's made some excellent alterations to the song since first performing it on TV two months ago, adding energy to the melody and depth to its soulfulness. His delivery is impeccable.
"The American market is important," Butler says, "and I would love for them to love my song as well." But while he's interested in traveling to promote his music following Eurovision - as he did after his last appearance there - he quickly returns to his commitment to Israel, mentioning nieces and nephews in the army and the affectionate treatment he's now accustomed to on the street. He's completed a comprehensive go-around on the Israeli talk show circuit and says he may appear as a judge on the new season of Kochav Nolad. An album is in the works.
"I hope that people will see that I'm reaching out to all of you," he says, taking a breath near the end of his phone call. "I'm going to give it my all."