‘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.

Josie Katz at 70 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 her70th birthday, Josie Katz took a moment to chat withMetro about becoming a star, adapting to life as aformer 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 kidswho came to Israel for a year, stayed on a kibbutz, learned a littlebit of the language, sang the songs, and traveled the country.
“Most of the kids I came with were already part of a Habonim group. Inever was. But my mother really wanted me to come to Israel. Becauseshe wanted to come to Israel all her life, and she never made it. Shehad three children, her husband didn’t want to move here. So she wantedme to go.”
Asked if her mother was religious in addition to being ferventlyZionist, Katz replies, “Well, my mother was quite religious in her ownsense. 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 taughtherself how to read and write Yiddish. She was a big part of the Jewishcommunity. So when she heard about this group, we went to have aninterview. 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. AndI loved it. And after a year, we were supposed to return. Well,everyone returned but me. I needed permission to stay. I gotpermission, then I went to live on another kibbutz in the desert for ayear.”
At the end of that year, however, Katz found herself tired of thestringent 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 tothe States, and maybe try my luck on the stage in New York. I had notraining, but that was my dream.
“But then, right before I was supposed to leave, I met someone whobecame my husband nine years later. And I never left. This man was avery charismatic person. I fell in love. And as one thing led toanother, 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 ofMy Fair Lady here in Israel. They brought theproducer over and the choreographer and the director. And it wasfantastic. I loved it.
“I didn’t think I was going to get in because I’m not a professionaldancer. But I passed the audition. And then for a year I danced inMy Fair Lady. And then afterwards they had the showHow to Succeed in Business, and I did that, as adancer, with a few lines.
“And then my partner decided, ‘You’re not going to work anymore as adancer, you’re going to sing.’ I was totally hypnotized by the guy, sowe sat down and started rehearsing.
“We went to Eilat, and we got a job in a club. It was the only club inEilat. There was one hotel, and one night club, which was called TheLast Chance. And we got up and sang.
“The owner said, ‘Hey, you guys have to stay here and sing, because Iget 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 theywould not only change their own lives, but also the direction ofIsrael’s popular culture.
“Somehow we hooked up with Arik Einstein,” Katz recalls. “He came overbecause he heard that Shmulik was writing nice songs. He’s alwayslooking for someone to write nice songs for him. And he said, ‘I wantyou to give me your songs.’
“Shmulik said, ‘No. They’re our songs. If you want them, you’ll singwith us.’ So we started to sing together, and it was like peanut butterand jelly. It was so perfect together – without even trying. Our voicesmelted together.
“We started every day. He would come over, and he would bringlyrics—because we needed lyrics – lyrics from really good writers atthat time. And before you knew it, after three or four months, we wereready to perform.
“And we became an enormous hit, The High Windows. I can compare it withwhat happened to the Beatles at the same time. It happened here. Theywere crazy for us here, and we performed all over the country.”
The group opened a club in Tel Aviv, called The High Windows, releasedan album, also called The High Windows, and reachedthe pinnacle of its success in the spring of 1967, right before the SixDay War. As it happened, however, the group’s high point also markedthe beginning of its end.
Katz recalls: “The Six Day War broke out, and we went to sing for thetroops. And after the war ended and we came back, the two guys decidedthat we should go outside of Israel. We had some gigs, in Paris and inLondon. Then around four months of travel, with other performers, inFrance 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 wasin Israel. He wasn’t famous in Europe. People came to see the blonde inthe miniskirt with the low voice. He wanted to come back.”
Einstein’s departure put an end to The High Windows – but not toIsraeli rock and roll. Other stars, like Shalom Hanoch, and othergroups, like The Churchills, soon followed, riding the wave ofinnovation began by the now defunct High Windows.
Meanwhile, still in Europe, Kraus and Katz pondered their options andlooked for opportunities. Katz relates, “I got offered to stay inLondon and make a record. But at the same time, my partner got an offerto do a movie in Spain, with a famous director and a famous actor,called The Royal Hunt of the Sun. It was with RobertShaw 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, doingnothing. 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 lookback on it as one of the biggest mistakes I ever made – that I didn’tgo according to my heart. I let him control me.
“So I stayed, and when he was finished with the movie, we went to theStates 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 TVproductions with Uri Zohar. I did something calledShablul and a movie called Lul.They came out at the same time, in 1971. One was for TV, and one was amovie. Slowly, slowly, me and my partner stopped working together, andI started working on my own. I recorded a few songs. I went out doinggigs with my own group.”
Katz speaks with mixed emotions about the tumultuous 10 years thatfollowed. The couple had two children, both boys. She continued to workin clubs and on TV. At the same time, Katz found herself in a rapidlydeteriorating marriage as her husband’s behavior began to spiral out ofcontrol.
“Things were not good in the relationship,” she says. “He was veryaggressive. 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 verymanic depressive. And when he went through his manic phases, he causeda lot of problems – for everybody, not just for me.”
“In the meantime, I had two boys. I thought things would be better, butthey weren’t. Things got even worse. And I was trying to raise my twoboys really on my own. Because there was no father around, really. Andwhen 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 hadsome money saved up. I bought a ticket, and went to New York. I’m notfrom New York, I felt like a total foreigner in New York. And it wasrough, 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 desireto sing,” she says. “But I had to support myself. And to sing in theStates – which I tried for a month, in all the clubs in New York, theIsraeli clubs – meant getting home at four in the morning and droppingmy kids off at six. No way. And to have gigs in America, you’ve got togo to Florida, you’ve got to go here, there.
“But an Israeli from Chicago heard I was looking for work, and hecontacted me. So I found work in his company, which distributed flowersall 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 offeredanother job selling jewelry in New York’s fashionable Trump Tower.
“I went there the next day and started to work. The owner helped trainme, and I did a really good job. It was funny, Israelis who came toTrump Tower would come by and say, ‘That’s Josie!’ Even Yitzhak Rabin’swife came in to say ‘Hi.’
“And my boss, who was also an Israeli but hadn’t been to Israel in 15years, said, ‘What are you, famous?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess. I used tosing.’
“One day a man walked in. My boss introduced me to him and said, ‘Thisis the vice president of Trump Tower.’ The man invited me for lunch. Iasked 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 hislife. He told his wife. They divorced. And he said, ‘Next year, you’llbe living with me, in a home that I buy for us.’
“And that’s exactly what happened. In June of 1987, he bought a housein Englewood, New Jersey – a beautiful home – and me and my childrenmoved 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 estatepeople, 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 wasbehind me. I heard a crash, and I looked in the rearview mirror and sawthat a small truck from the other side of the highway had smashed rightinto 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 nearher brother. Her mother had developed bone cancer, so Katz brought herfrom Florida to live with her in California.
“She made me promise: no hospitals, no home for the aged. I said, ‘Youwill be with me.’ I took care of her for a year and a half. And there Iwas, 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 theyears passed.
“Then I got a phone call from a friend in Israel, Natan Cohen, anartist. He said, ‘Josie, I want you to come to Israel and record one ofmy songs on my new album.’ I said, ‘Natan, are you crazy? I haven’tsung in 15 years.’  But when he called he told me what song it was, oneof the songs that I dearly loved when it first came out, “I Will Waitfor 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. Comefor 10 days. I had just gotten an email from a lady in Israel who readhoroscopes, a friend of a friend. She sent me about 11 pages. In one ofthe sentences, she said, ‘When an opportunity comes to you, you musttake it, or you’ll be sorry.’ So, I went.
“I came to Israel and fell in love again with my country. I was at ahotel. I smelled the sea, tasted the felafel. I recorded the song. Idid a few TV shows. I didn’t want to leave. So they extended my ticketfor 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, andwithin one month was back in Israel.”
 Returning to Israel in 1997, Katz soon came face-to-face with thevarious bureaucratic hurdles and hassles that lie in wait for most newimmigrants 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 goto that office, then go here, then go there, to Bituah Leumi, and 100other government offices. It was crazy. On top of that, I couldn’t findan apartment. I needed one with four rooms, because my kids were withme. Finally I did find one, and moved in.
“In September 1997, I started working. The Tel Aviv Municipality askedme to do Piano Week, which they have every year. So I got together withsome very good musicians, and we made new arrangements to my songs. Andthe 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 youngfellow, Gilad Segev. He asked me to participate in a show together withhim, singing the songs of The High Windows, but with slightly newinterpretations. So we worked on rehearsals for two months. It was abig 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 hardestthings I’ve had to deal with. I gained 20 kg. from the steroids theypumped 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 anddid nothing because I just didn’t want to be seen. I looked in themirror and said, ‘Who are you?’ I looked like a chipmunk!”
Now, apparently recovered and looking quite well, she says, “So that’swhere I am now. They’re having a show for me on June 8, in honor of my70th birthday. I won’t be singing – I don’t feel ready to sing onstage. But there will be great artists, and each one will be singingone or two of my songs.”
Katz makes it clear, however, that this little birthday bash in no waymarks a culmination of her career, but rather a way station on the roadto more music.
“I want to dive into it, but slowly,” she says. “I’m working on a songnow with a very young talented boy. He and another girl wrote a songand asked me to sing it. I said no, and they said, “But it’s inEnglish.’ 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 tosing in English. Nowadays the whole country is singing in English butme.” Katz laughs at the irony as she says this.
“We’re probably going to record it next week. So I’m thinking, maybeI’ll just get together with some good people and do something inEnglish.”
Katz is not particularly worried about finding “good people.” She says,“There’s so much young talent in Israel today. The young Israeli girlsare so different than 20 years ago. They write their own music, theysing 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 evidentthan on The High Windows’ first album cover. There we see Arik Einsteinand Shmulik Kraus engaged in what appears to be deep creativeconversation, with Katz seemingly draped over Kraus’s back, like anunworn 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 ofthe 1960s, she was not content to be typically “Anglo.” Asked how shewas able to integrate so well into Israeli society – to the point ofbecoming a pop idol – she says, “Well, I never went to ulpan. I learnedmy 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 wasalways with Israelis, and I insisted on speaking Hebrew. And they lovedmy 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 shecalls “Israeli mentality” that she thinks show substantial room forimprovement –“rudeness, impatience, lack of consideration for othersand increasing materialism”– Katz concludes simply, “I love thiscountry. I’m very happy here. I am home.”
“All is Well by Me,” a concert in honor of Josie Katz. 8 June2010, 21:30. Mercaz Anav Letarbut, 71 Ibn Gvirol St., TelAviv.