The ambassador of Israeli song

After half a century of performing around the world, Ran Eliran headlines the Yemei Zemer Festival in Holon and reminisces about his rise to the top.

Ran Eliran 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Ran Eliran 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
It's been said that "nostalgia ain't what it used to be," but that doesn't seem to bother the organizers of the Yamei Zemer Festival, which starts at the Holon Theater today. The cast list of the five-day event features a host of veteran entertainers, including the likes of pop-folk singers Rika Zarai, Miri Aloni, Avi Toledano and Shulamit Aharon, comedians Tuvia Tsafir and Hannah Laszlow, middle-generation rockers Rami Kleinstein and Pablo Rosenstein, as well as younger performers like singer-songwriter Shlomi Shaban and vocalist Rona Keiman. Considering Yamei Zemer is now in its 13th year, the festival chiefs are evidently following a tried and tested path to the heart of their audience. Big names will draw big crowds. The doyen of this year's festival is 71-year-old troubadour Ran Eliran, who has been plying his trade across the globe for half a century, singing a host of long-beloved numbers, including "Lach Yerushalayim" and "Sharm e-Sheikh," the latter becoming something of a personal anthem. He honed his singing and playing skills and by his teens was already adept on violin, accordion and guitar. Between 1955 and 1958 he met and teamed up with singer Nehama Hendel in an IDF band. After being demobbed, he and Hendel embarked on different career paths for a while, and Eliran hit the road - initially accompanying a dance troupe to Europe as principal instrumentalist. His big break came when legendary TV presenter Ed Sullivan came to the Middle East to search out Israeli entertainers to appear in a special Sullivan show to mark the 10th anniversary of Israel's independence. Eliran was chosen along with Hendel. Both subsequently carved out successful careers outside Israel. Now, exactly 50 years on, Eliran spends much of the year performing in the States, both for professional and personal reasons. "I have an 11 year old son, Michael, in New York. I am very proud of him and he has already started singing with me on stage," says Eliran. The Sullivan gig not only exposed Eliran to the American public, it was also a chance to do some PR work on behalf of our young country. "People didn't really know much about Israel back then," Eliran recalls. "There were no Israelis in New York in 1958." It was also a good time to be a folk singer in the Big Apple. "I got to meet everyone on the scene then. I got friendly with Pete Seeger, I met Bob Dylan and used to hang out with him in the [Greenwich] Village. He asked me if I thought he could join a kibbutz for a while." Eliran was also of the right political ilk. "Everyone on the Village scene back then was left wing. I hung out with guys like Peter, Paul and Mary, and Judy Collins. We all sang protest songs about civil rights and the Vietnam War. I had lived on Kibbutz Tel Katzir and I came from a family of halutzim (pioneers). My dad's family came from Poland in 1919, and my mother's side was related to [first chief rabbi of the pre-state Yishuv] Harav Kook. I felt at home with those guys in the Village." Eliran was also the first Israeli to perform in Las Vegas and in the mid-'70s he tasted success with the Broadway musical Don't Step on My Olive Branch, starring veteran Israeli performers Rivka Raz, Ruti Navon, Riki Gal and Hanan Goldblatt. He also wrote all the numbers for an off-Broadway musical called Night Song. But to paraphrase a well-loved Dylan song, the times have been a-changing. Israel is not only a well-known commodity in the States now, but for many it conjures up all sorts of negative political connotations. That has narrowed Eliran's professional options. "Ed Sullivan called me 'Israel's Ambassador of Song.' That made me very proud. But, today, I mostly perform for Israelis and American Jews." Nonetheless, Eliran believes he still has something valuable to offer the contemporary scene. "My generation is dying out. I am the genuine article. I come from the roots of Israeli music, the music that came out of a different era when life was simpler and we had great leaders. I think we can all take a lot of strength from those roots." With the revival of community singing still in full swing, it looks like Eliran is in good company.