Grapevine: Farewell to Israel’s ambassador of song

Yaffa Yarkoni was part of the fabric of the birth and growth of the nation.

Yaffa Yarkoni 311  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yaffa Yarkoni 311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
■ CHANNEL 1 changed its program line-ups on Sunday night to pay tribute to the memory of Yaffa Yarkoni, whose warm and husky voice has stirred generations of Israelis from the pre-state period to the present day.
Yarkoni, who died on January 1 and was laid to rest at the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, was part of the fabric of the birth and growth of the nation.
Channel 1 re-ran the program in which Yoav Ginai, who had interviewed her for his Touching the Spirit series on Channel 1 a year or two before Alzheimer’s robbed her of her memory, engaged in conversation with a vivacious woman with a delightful sense of humor who felt a little out of place in the modern world. But, she told him, she didn't think about death; firstly because her mother had lived to the age of 99 and secondly because there were still so many things she wanted to accomplish.
Yarkoni, Israel’s ambassador of song, was an extraordinarily charismatic woman who made friends with Sammy Davis Jr, Danny Kaye, Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson and many other celebrities. She told Ginai that one had to be sufficiently alert to be able to deal with the unexpected. When she appeared on The Johnny Carson Show, there was a box of corn flakes on the table to advertise one of the products of the show’s sponsor. Carson, accidentally knocked the box to the floor, scattering its contents beneath the table. He was very embarrassed but Yarkoni immediately said it didn’t matter and offered to help him scoop up the mess. The cameras followed them under the table. In the course of picking up the corn flakes, Yarkoni popped one into her mouth and pronounced it delicious, which was more than any advertiser could have asked for.
Songwriter Haim Hefer told Israel Radio’s Arye Golan that, when singing to the troops, Yarkoni used to go to isolated and often dangerous places and take down the names and phone numbers of soldiers who, in those days, didn't have cellphones from which to call home. She would get back to Tel Aviv after midnight and start calling wives and mothers to tell them that she had talked to their husbands and sons and that they were okay.
Other somewhat younger songwriters said in other interviews that they owed their careers to Yarkoni, who was never a snob when it came to listening to songs of unknown writers and composers, and frequently gave them their entry card into the profession by recording their songs when no one else wanted to listen. She maintained contact with all of them and made them a part of her extended family.
When Ginai asked her how she wanted to be remembered, she said that people should just sing her songs.
She is survived by three daughters, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
■ IT’S SAD when someone dies, but it’s even sadder when they only get only in death the recognition they deserved in life. Most of the daily papers in Israel published Yarkoni’s passing on the front page and gave her huge coverage on the inside pages after she was no longer able to delight in the publicity. Her voice was heard and will be heard several times a day this week on radio and television, after it had barely been heard at all since she took ill. Even before her illness, organizers of annual memorial events for Yitzhak Rabin did not call on her to participate, an omission that hurt her deeply.
■ BUT DEATH can also be a healer. For the past three decades there has been a feud between Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and his predecessor, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau – so much so that Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, where Lau is an honored guest several times a year, has never invited Metzger to deliver a sermon from the pulpit. But Metzger may be invited to do so in future, because the death last week of Lau’s halfbrother Rabbi Yehoshua Hager-Lau served to heal the 30-year rift. Metzger decided to pay a condolence call on Lau who, obviously touched by the gesture, welcomed Metzger into his home. People close to the two men cannot remember the reason for their dispute but are happy that it’s over.
The rivalry between the two was particularly potent in Tel Aviv’s religious circles, largely because Lau is the better orator. Metzger would often find himself with a small audience when he had anticipated a large one, simply because Lau was delivering a lecture in another part of the city at the same time. The one occasion on which Metzger did speak at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue was memorable and particularly poignant in view of the current controversy over haredi attitudes to women. At his inauguration as chief rabbi, Metzger looked up into the women’s gallery and thanked his wife Ofra for “walking with him in the wilderness.”
■ INDIA’S MINISTER for External Affairs Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna will arrive next week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Israel. In fact, 1992 was quite an amazing year for Israel diplomatically speaking, with the establishment of ties with China, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Moldova, the Russian Federation, Seychelles, Slovenia, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan. But 2012 is not just a 20th anniversary year in the context of Israel’s diplomacy. Other celebrations this year include the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Japan, the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties with the Republic of Korea and with Jamaica and the 10th anniversary of diplomatic relations with East Timor. Considering all the controversy surrounding Israel and the many efforts to delegitimize the state, it is pleasantly surprising to discover that with full diplomatic relations with close to 160 countries, Israel has far more bilateral links than some other nations. Israel also has trade relations with several countries not included in the 160, either because they have never cemented full diplomatic ties with Israel, or because they have official severed relations for the time being, without closing all channels of communication.
■ ISRAELI-IRISH celebrations are always an interesting cultural mix, and Hanukka is no exception. With traditional Hanukka lyrics sung to the tune of Irish folk songs followed by a unique blend of fried festive fare washed down with Guinness and Busmills, there was no mistaking that this was the annual Hanukka get-together of the Israel Ireland Friendship League. The party, hosted by league chairman Malcolm Gafson and his wife Leah at their Ra’anana home, was attended not only by league members but also by many Irish expats and other friends from all over Israel. The guest of honor was Yanky Fachler, former head of the English-language Tel Aviv Community Theater, who has relocated to Dundalk, Ireland. The author, professional communicator and Irish- Israeli networker gave a highly original, enthralling and entertaining talk on “the Maccabean Spirit Rekindled by a Trailblazing Irishman Leading 750 Mules.”
The Irishman in question was Lt.-Col. John Henry Patterson who, together with Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor in 1914, formed the Zion Mule Corps that subsequently developed into the Jewish Legion. The longer version of the story can be read in Fachler’s highly acclaimed book, 6 Officers, 2 Lions, and 750 Mules.
Another honored guest was Dublinbased visitor Motti Neuman, who is chairman of the Irish Jewish Museum. Neuman, who met with league members when he visited last year, updated members on the progress of expansion plans for the development and modernization of the museum. He is working on the project in cooperation with Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People.
Irish Ambassador Breifne O’Reilly, who goes out of his way to attend league functions, missed out on this one because he was on vacation. Nonetheless, he did send a message with season’s greetings.
The Gafsons are always bubbling with hospitality, but more so on this occasion because they’d recently become first-time grandparents. Between the L’chaims and the Slaintes, it was Mazal Tov for a large part of the evening. The Gafsons’ daughter Rhona has given them a gorgeous little granddaughter, whose name is Kerem.
■ WHEN SENDING out invitations for the openings of art exhibitions, major museums in Israel usually print them both in Hebrew and in English, partially because a large number of donors to the museum have a command of English and not of Hebrew. But for the retrospective exhibition that opens at the Tel Aviv Museum on Thursday, January 5, the invitations were trilingual. The third language was Arabic, in deference to artist Walid Abu Shakra. Senior curator Ellen Ginton, who will address art lovers at the official opening of the exhibition, will be joined by Said Abu Shakra, the director of the Umm el-Fahm Art Gallery, who will also speak about the paintings on display.
■ LOOKING AT the Israeli media, it’s interesting to observe how many sports writers have gravitated to being political writers, veering easily from sports to politics and politics to sports. Joe Hoffman, a former sports editor of The Jerusalem Post, is an exception to the rule. His second hat is not politics but art, about which he writes extensively. It’s hard to tell which is the true love of his life, but what will occupying him primarily for the foreseeable future is sports, as he is writing a book about Jewish sporting memories. He aims to amass first-hand accounts of sporting events, or even a single play, that has had an impact on a person’s later life. The moment can be either as a spectator or as a participant. For instance, Los Angeles Dodger Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur in the 1965 World Series presumably had a profound influence on many Jews who practiced “Judaism light.” Another example could be getting lost in a snow storm while in a skiing contest, or getting a game-winning home run in a Little League game. If you would like to immortalize your story you can get in touch with Joe Hoffman at 052-2401-692 or at
■ POPULARITY IS something that almost everyone craves, and of all the ministers in the government, one of the most popular is Moshe Kahlon, minister of communications, welfare and social services. Kahlon was honored last week by the Senior Citizens Association, headed by former MK Gideon Ben-Israel, which named him as its Man of the Year. At the award ceremony in Tel Aviv, Kahlon was praised for his sensitivity, his managerial skills and his ability to identify with the needs of the public. He was also honored by members of the Jabotinsky Institute. Executive-director Yossi Ahimeir and board members Mordechai Sarig and Amiram Buckstein visited him in his office in Tel Aviv and presented him with several books that were recently published by the institute. Kahlon was so pleased to receive them that he immediately began leafing through the volumes. There’s no better way to express appreciation for the gift of a book.
■ JABOTINSKY, WHO died in the United States in 1940, left a will stating that he wanted his remains to be transferred to Israel once the state was created. His wishes were ignored by Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who was opposed to many of Jabotinsky’s views, and who treated all right-wing politicians with disdain. It was not until Levi Eshkol came to power that Jabotinsky was reinterred in on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Animosity does not necessarily run into the second and third generations, which is why Ze’ev Jabotinsky, named for his grandfather, and Dr. Yariv Ben- Eliezer, who is the grandson of Ben- Gurion, have agreed to share a platform in which they will discuss what was and what will be. They will participate in a nostalgic weekend at the Kinar Hotel in the Galilee at the end of January.
■ IF YOU’VE never heard of Pesach Lvov, Solomon Rozovsky, Michael Gnessin, Yoel Engel, Josef Achron, Alexander Krein, Lazare Saminsky, Leo Zeitlin or Moshe Milner, chances are high that you’ll come across their names sooner than you think. All of them were Russian Jewish composers who were interested in creating something that could readily be identified as a Jewish national musical expression. Along with several of their colleagues, they traveled through pre-Holocaust Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, collecting folk songs, hassidic music and cantorial music, and used the melodies as a foundation for their European-style compositions. They were all part of the New Jewish Music School. Those of them who were not murdered by the Nazis or the Communists, or did not live under the oppressive and repressive conditions of Communism after the war, were scattered around the globe. Most did not survive, and just as they were forgotten, so were their works.
A group of Russian immigrant singers and instrumentalists wants to recapture what they call Jewish Art Music and to create a living Russian Jewish Composers “Museum.” This amazing effort, which has already yielded a lot of fruit, is being supported by the Ministry for Immigrant Absorption.
■ THE GUIDING force behind the project is singer Shirelle Dashevsky, a soprano with an impressive vocal range. She happens to know a large number of singers and musicians who want to be part of this musical voyage of discovery and who are happy to perform the works as they come to light. Last week Dashevsky was joined at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem by singer Noah Reshef, string instrumentalists Ekatarina and Andrei Shapelnikov and pianists Zina Goldin and Inerssa Shpak, who performed 15 of the “lost” works that have been rediscovered. The performance was accompanied by an interesting video presentation created by David Ben-Gershon, who managed to find portraits of some of these forgotten composers. It’s the kind of program that requires narration – firstly to introduce each composer and secondly to explain the work – which was admirably done by Yoel Landshut.
■ FLEXIBILITY IS the name of the game, especially when you’re a grandparent with a large clan of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That’s the way it works with well-known Melbourne couple Nossen and Nechama Werdiger, who frequently travel between Australia, Israel and the United States where they have close family members. They make a point of hosting sheva brachot for each of their married grandchildren, and the most recent celebration at the Terasa Restaurant in the capital’s Begin Heritage Center last Saturday night was for Benyomin and Sari Goldschmidt, who were married at the conclusion of Hanukka.
The Werdigers have so far married off 18 of their 28 grandchildren, so there are still a lot of celebrations to go. For Nossen Werdiger, a Holocaust survivor with an Auschwitz number on his arm, there is no sweeter revenge against the Nazis than looking at his ever-growing family, which comprises many streams of observant Judaism and yet all get along because, after all, blood is thicker than water.
The sheva brachot the Werdigers host in Israel are a great opportunity for reunions between relatives and friends who live in the country as well as those who are visiting from Australia. The keynote speaker on this occasion was retired diplomat and acclaimed author and orator Yehuda Avner, who served inter alia as Israel’s ambassador to Australia and first met the Werdigers when Isi and Naomi Leibler, who now live in Jerusalem, took him with them to a Friday night dinner because his wife Mimi had not yet arrived in Australia. The Avners and the Werdigers have remained close friends ever since.
In reference to Nossen Werdiger’s ability to build a new life for himself after the Holocaust, Avner told the story of how, during a recent walk through the capital’s Jaffa Road, he had seen an elderly man and a young man, whom he presumed to be grandfather and grandson, talking to each other animatedly. Suddenly the elderly man rolled up his sleeve to show the young man the number on his arm. The young man in turn reached inside his shirt, withdrew his army dog tags, and showed the elderly man his identification number. Reflecting on the symbolism of the sharp contrast between the two, Avner almost gave in to emotion.
Master of ceremonies David Werdiger, one of the Werdiger sons, said that in gematria the number of Werdiger grandchildren, 28, is “koach,” which means strength. Coincidentally, the numbers on his fathers arm also add up to 28.