Susie Surprise: Israeli pop star makes a comeback

Last month, the debut episode of their show I Speak English was aired on TV, in which they sing songs and tell stories that help children learn English in a creative fashion.

 STILL THAT wacky kid: Susie Miller (R) with Hila Harari. (photo credit: Guy Zeltzer)
STILL THAT wacky kid: Susie Miller (R) with Hila Harari.
(photo credit: Guy Zeltzer)

When singer Susie Miller took to the stage with Hila Harari to sing the song “Susie Surprise,” which had catapulted Miller to youth star status in the 1970s on Israeli Educational Television, neither of them could have predicted that kids would still be singing the song 50 years later. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be back on stage singing ‘Susie Surprise’ after all these years,” Miller says. 

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be back on stage singing ‘Susie Surprise’ after all these years.”

Susie Miller

“I feel like so many amazing things are happening now. I never thought I’d team up with Hila and that my professional life would take such a surprising turn. Not only have I ended up starring in a new children’s TV production with Hila, but we’ve taken our show on the road and performed for children all around the country. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see the children’s faces light up with excitement during our performances. We have upcoming shows in Eilat, Haifa, Jaffa and a few other cities. This has brought so much happiness into my life.”

The two women first met during the pandemic. “We bumped into each other at the recording studio in Givatayim,” recalls Harari. “I was there recording content as my character Hilali, and Susie was there to record her own content. Our music producer, Yair Satvoy, got it into his head that the two of us could collaborate and come up with something new and exciting. So we set a date to meet up at the studio together, and by the end of the session we saw that the dynamic between us was fantastic. Susie brought her knowledge of English and her impressive music skills, and I used my experience teaching music to kids, and together we created a quality show.”

“You just never know when you’re going to be in the right place at the right time – and at the right age,” adds Miller. “I don’t know – maybe it was the hand of God that brought Hila to me. It’s just incredible how smoothly we work together. Hila has taught music classes to children for years. This kind of collaboration happens once in a lifetime.”

Last month, the debut episode of their show I Speak English was aired on TV, in which they sing songs and tell stories that help children learn English in a creative fashion. Harari performed as her character Hilali, and Miller performed as Savta Susie (aka Susie Surprise).

 SAVTA SUSIE, back in the day. (credit: Yaki Zimmerman) SAVTA SUSIE, back in the day. (credit: Yaki Zimmerman)

Before the debut episode was shown on TV, however, the duo taped a pilot episode that was uploaded to social media. “Almost immediately after the post went up, we started receiving tons of positive feedback – so much more than we had expected. The clip totally went viral, so the TV channels immediately gave us a thumbs up, and we took off running,” says Miller.

“Almost immediately after the post went up, we started receiving tons of positive feedback – so much more than we had expected. The clip totally went viral, so the TV channels immediately gave us a thumbs up, and we took off running.”

Susie Miller

In the pilot episode, the two stars teamed up with Cogomelo Studio to deal with a topic that does not often appear on kids’ shows: parents of LGBTQ+ kids. 

“I’ve been teaching kids through music for 22 years,” Harari states. “Many of the songs describe mothers and fathers in extremely conservative gender roles. In more recent years, I’ve been less comfortable using these songs; instead, I’ve been adding to my repertoire songs about single-parent families or families with same-sex parents. It’s important that kids who are growing up in these types of families don’t feel uncomfortable or ostracized. Lots of children’s books touch on these subjects, and Susie and I decided that it was important for us to use this type of content, too.” 

Adds Miller, “We want children to know that every type of love is acceptable and that not all families look alike.”

Miller has not performed for the screen since 1982. “I was used to having people in their 30s and 40s approach me on the street. But it is a completely different experience to have a three-year-old yell out to me excitedly, ‘Savta Susie!’ I can’t explain how wonderful this makes me feel. It’s really something.”

“It’s so much fun that all these different generations love Susie,” says Harari. “The parents and grandparents enjoy seeing Susie perform just as much as their kids and grandchildren. For that reason, we’ve included a few of the oldies from the ‘70s so the adults can feel a bit of nostalgia.”

MILLER, WHO is 69, grew up in the US and made aliyah in 1971. Soon after arriving in Israel, she joined the band The Brothers & the Sisters, one of Israel’s most popular music groups in the ’70s. Miller also worked in the English teaching department at Israeli Educational Television, starring in a number of shows, such as Sing a Song. 

“I began working for Israeli TV pretty soon after moving to Israel,” she recalls. “In the 1970s, I was involved with writing scripts for the shows, as well as performing in them, with songs like “Here We Are, Neighbors,” in which I performed as the character Susie Surprise alongside Jerry Heyman. At the time, there was only one TV station in Israel, and they would broadcast me singing that song over and over again, so pretty much every Israeli knew it by heart. They didn’t always have new content, so reruns of our shows were on TV all the time. I’ve always loved children, and to some extent I still feel like the wacky kid I was in my childhood.”

After leaving her job at the TV station, Miller began her career as a folk singer, performing in Israel and abroad. 

Harari, 47, says that going to the Festigal (the annual song and dance show for children) music performances was the highlight of every year when she was growing up in Israel in the 1980s. She carried out her IDF service in a musical ensemble and began developing her career in music immediately afterwards, recording a number of hit songs. “I produced my first album in 2005 and also completed a bachelor’s degree in music and music education. I already knew back then that I wanted to work with little kids,” she explains. “Teaching music makes me a very happy and balanced person.”

Susie, did you ever imagine that you’d become a children’s pop star at the age of 69?

No way! Sometimes I have to pinch myself, since it feels like I’m dreaming. Our performances are sold out, and we’re still taping more episodes. This is definitely a dream come true for any singer. I’ve also received so much support from singers and performers who are my age, most of whom are no longer working in this field.

What did you two know about each other before you met in person?

Harari: I grew up watching Susie on TV. I absolutely loved singing along with her.

Miller: I’d heard about Hila and the wonderful kids’ performances she’d been in. I have 14 grandchildren, and they’ve all seen Hila’s shows. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I’d be working with her on an English-language learning program. I’m having so much fun!

Was it clear from the start that your collaboration would focus on teaching English?

Miller: Yes, I think so because the market is inundated with kids’ programs, but there really wasn’t anything for teaching English to Israeli kids aged three to seven. We focused on how to quickly and simply help kids increase their vocabulary and improve their comprehension, without them needing any help from their parents or teachers. We do this through songs. I wrote some of the songs, and Hila wrote some as well. 

Harari: It was obvious to me that if I was going to collaborate with Susie Surprise, then of course the focus would be on teaching English, since she’s the most competent person in all of Israel to teach English to youngsters through song. Every Israeli who is over 40 knows who Susie Surprise is. Our focus is on familiarizing children from a very young age with spoken English. Nowadays, everyone needs to be able to communicate with people from different countries.

Miller: Our goal is for kids to love hearing and speaking English and to feel confident with their language skills.

What changes have taken place in the world of children’s music?

Miller: The world was much more innocent than it is now. Today, even young children have their own smartphones. Nonetheless, it seems like kids still enjoy the kind of songs that Hila and I sing, which I guess proves that children still love this type of quality content.

Harari: I don’t think we’ll ever be able to go back to that level of innocence, but parents of kids under the age of seven are still in control, for the most part, of what type of content their children are exposed to. We’ve received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from parents telling us how happy they are that we are providing such wholesome content that their children adore.

The duo is already busy preparing content for the upcoming season. “In addition, we recorded a special remake of one of the most famous songs that Susie performed with The Brothers & the Sisters,” concludes Harari. “For this endeavor, we are promoting ourselves as Hila Harari and Susie Miller. Who knows where this will lead us.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.