Paying tribute to a Mizrahi legend

A difficult childhood couldn't thwart Ofra Haza's rise to stardom.

ofra haza 88 298 (photo credit: )
ofra haza 88 298
(photo credit: )
For days on end, Israelis anxiously awaited reports from the hospital about one of the country's most famous personas. Radio listeners tuned in for almost hourly reports about the comatose patient's condition, while commentators and ordinary citizens alike contemplated Israel's future without her. Ofra Haza may not have been a world leader, but it's taken six years and a figure no less commanding than Ariel Sharon to generate the amount of media interest and public well-wishing that followed the iconic singer's hospitalization and death in early 2000. The YES cable network will mark the sixth anniversary of Haza's passing today, Feb. 23, the date of her death, with hours of broadcasts devoted to the pop star's contributions to Israeli music and culture. Programming will include a concert, some of Haza's best loved movies, and a documentary made in 2004 about her mystery-shrouded final days. Born in November 1957, Haza's life was described frequently and with justification as a modern day fairy tale. The daughter of Yemenite immigrants, Haza grew up in Tel Aviv's poverty-stricken Tikva neighborhood, home at the time to recent arrivals from Yemen and Iraq. But her difficult childhood didn't prevent Haza from soaring to heights reached by few Middle Eastern performers. By the time of her AIDS-related death at age 43, the dark-eyed singer and actress had performed for kings and presidents, climbed global pop charts and recorded several of Israel's most enduring classics. The commemorative day of programming kicks off at noon on YES 5 with a screening of Tsedek Mukhlat (translated in English as Primal Justice), Haza's last Israeli movie. In a nod to the singer's heritage, the 90-minute film features Haza as a journalist researching the lives of Yemeni children when meets a detective working on his own investigation. Released in 1998, the film debuted the same year as Haza's best-publicized overseas release, the Dreamworks-produced Prince of Egypt, an animated retelling of the Exodus story in which the Israeli singer provided the voice of Moses' mother as part of a cast including Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock and Michelle Pfeiffer. Haza recorded her character's signature song in 14 languages, while Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston would turn the film's theme, "When You Believe," into a chart-topping Oscar winner for best original song. Tsedek Mukhlat will be followed at 1:40 p.m. by one of Haza's first movies, Shlager (1979), in which the then-21-year-old sings one of her most beloved hits, "Shir HaFrecha" (The Frecha Song). Released at a time of lingering tension between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Israeli Jews, the song was a declaration of pride in the image of the "frecha," a derogatory term for Mizrahi women commonly but imperfectly translated as "bimbo" or "tart." With a sound as disco-influenced as it is Middle Eastern, "Shir HaFrecha" transcended its ethnic association to become a liberation anthem for young Israeli women of all backgrounds. Showcasing Haza at her most youthful and vibrant, the movie's "Frecha" scene has been infused with additional layers of meaning - and an added sense of poignancy - since the singer's unexpectedly early death. YES 5 will follow-up Haza's movies at 4:55 p.m. with a broadcast of one of her July 1990 concerts, in which the singer performs hits from albums including Shaday, a massive hit by Israeli standards that would ultimately sell over a million copies. The album includes the song Haza became best known for overseas, "Im Nin Alu," which combines an ancient rabbinical saying with captivating background beat. Released in the late Eighties, the song spent months at number one in Germany and topped the charts in a number of other European countries. In a development without precedent for an Israeli performer, Haza's hook and vocals for "Im Nin Alu" were eventually incorporated by Eric B. and Rakim into a remix of "Paid in Full," a massive US hit generally considered one of the formative classics in American hip hop. More recently, the latest album by pop superstar Madonna stirred controversy with a song incorporating the rabbinical saying popularized by Haza almost two decades earlier. Israeli fans were stunned by the abrupt end to Haza's seemingly charmed life, a subject explored in Sodot (Secrets), the Israeli-made documentary about the singer set to air at 6 p.m. In addition to archival footage dating back to Haza's childhood, the documentary includes interviews with Bezalel Aloni, the man who discovered the singer when she was 12 and managed her career during its greatest peaks. Haza was said to have cut off contact with Aloni at the urging of her husband, Doron Ashkenazi, whom she married in 1996. Rumors proliferated following Haza's death that it was Ashkenazi who had infected her with HIV, but Ashkenazi passed away, suffering from AIDS, two years before Sodot was made. Results of an autopsy establishing whether he died of AIDS or a rumored drug overdose were released to his family in early 2001, but never made public. Though bittersweet due to the tragic nature of her premature death, Haza's legacy continues to be dominated by memories of the singer's transcendent voice and artistic vitality. The YES network's anniversary tribute is beautifully conceived and entirely deserved.