‘Israel grew up on his songs’: Yehonatan Geffen dies at 76

Known as an inseparable soundtrack of the Israel experience, he wrote both for adults and children.

(photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Israeli cultural icon Yehonatan Geffen died Wednesday at age 76.

A songwriter, journalist, author, poet, playwright, actor and satirist, Geffen, the father of Aviv Geffen - was a member of one of Israel's most prestigious and highly talented families – the Dayans.

Much of Geffen's success came from his works for children, like the song "HaYalda Hachi Yafa BaGan" ("The Prettiest Girl in Kindergarten") and the book "HaKeves HaShisha Asar" (The 16th Lamb), but he also wrote many popular songs, poems, plays, and books for adults. 

“Israel grew up on his songs,” said Benny Dudkevitch, Israel Radio’s longtime music and culture reporter. “He was our guide, from “Keves 16” when we were young to all of his great songs later.

“But Geffen wasn’t only a supremely talented author, playright, songwriter and melodist, he also had something to say. His columns were also an important signpost for the country through its troubled times.”

 Geffen was born on Kibbutz Nahalal to Aviva Dayan and Israel Geffen. He was a grandson, nephew and cousin to the Dayans, and like many of them had a distinguished army career as a paratrooper serving under Matan Vilnai. Geffen's mother, who died while he was in the army, was a sister to Moshe Dayan.

Like the Dayans, Geffen was politically active but made no effort to become a legislator.

Although Geffen's manifold talents were to some extent in the same sphere as those of his cousin Assi Dayan, Geffen seldom traded on the Dayan relationship, but carved out an impressive, albeit controversial career for himself.

He was noted for his quick wit and his sense of humor, and often wrote one-man skits which he performed himself. He also produced several plays.

Known as an inseparable soundtrack of the Israel experience, he wrote both for adults and children.

He also wrote the lyrics of songs for many of Israel's leading singers.

As a journalist, he had a regular column in Maariv.

Following his discharge from the army, Geffen went to London to study but returned after two years following the suicide of his younger sister Nurit.


In 1973, together with other well-known journalists Eitan Haber, Eli Landau, Uri Dan, Yeshayahu Ben Porat, Hezi Carmel and Eli Tavor, he published a book called The Failure, which was one of the very first books to document the Yom Kippur War.

Strongly left-wing in his politics, Geffen was often criticized for being too extreme and provocative.

Whether writing for children or adults, he always had a large following. One of the most popular and enduring of his books for children was The Sixteenth Lamb.

Though he and his wife Nurit were divorced, they were each separately and together totally devoted to their children. He had a particularly strong relationship with his son the pop singer Aviv Geffen, who incidentally did not serve in the army, and often spoke against military service, but softened his stance, and made up with Yitzhak Rabin shortly before the latter's assassination.

The Geffen family, like the Dayan family, was born with an overdose of talent. Geffen's daughter Shira is a writer, director and actress.

Many people in the entertainment industry were shocked to learn of Geffen's passing. He was a kind of immortal leprechaun. Even if he had lived to be 100, people would have been surprised to hear that he'd died.

He usually had an impish grin on his face.


Geffen's funeral will be held on Friday in the cemetery in Nahalal, where he was born and raised.

On Tuesday, the radio was filled with songs, which sounded like the soundtrack of a country moving from childhood to adulthood.

David Brinn contributed to this report.