New Israeli TV series explores life of pop star Ofra Haza

Haza’s life helped change the Israeli music industry’s perception of Mizrahi music, had a huge international career and died tragically young, at age 42, from AIDS.

Israeli pop superstar Ofra Haza who passed away 20 years ago (photo credit: YAKI HALPERIN/COURTESY HOT 8)
Israeli pop superstar Ofra Haza who passed away 20 years ago
It’s been 20 years since the death of Israeli pop superstar Ofra Haza and her life is the focus of a new, three-part documentary series, which airs on HOT 8 on Sundays at 9 p.m. starting on August 16.
Haza’s life was a rags-to-riches story in which she soared high, helped change the Israeli music industry’s perception of Mizrahi music, had a huge international career and died tragically young, at age 42, from AIDS, concealing her diagnosis even from those closest to her.
It wasn’t easy telling the story of her complex life, with its elements of triumph and tragedy, in just three hours, but the documentary-making team (and real-life husband and wife) Dalia Mevorach and Dani Dotan did their best. The two, who have previously collaborated on other documentaries about Israeli music, including films about Matti Caspi and Zohar Argov, tried hard to create an in-depth portrait of Haza.
“We could certainly have had a fourth part, and even more,” said Dotan.
The result is a fast-paced, gripping story about a woman who was both incredibly famous but also extremely private, even mysterious.
“We wanted to create a multifaceted portrait of Ofra,” said Mevorach. “She had a lot she hid, and we wanted to show all the different sides of her.”
It was important to them not only to make a series about an Israeli artist, but to focus on one who had a deep impact on Israeli culture.
“We thought of Zohar Argov as the king” who pushed Mizrahi culture front and center in the Israeli music scene, said Dotan. “And we thought, ‘Who’s the queen?’ And of course, it was Ofra.”
Haza was one of nine children born to a Yemenite immigrant family in the impoverished Hatikvah neighborhood of Tel Aviv.
“She grew up in a musical family. Everyone sang. Her mother was a popular singer at henna celebrations,” said Mevorach.
It was a natural step for Haza to join a local musical theater group, where her talent caught the eye of Bezalel Aloni, (who did not participate in the documentary) who ran the group. Sensing her star potential, he became her manager, grooming her and getting her gigs. He moved her out of her home and in with him and his family at the age of 14. He had her take voice lessons with an acclaimed coach, and Haza was launched on a musical career, although her road to the top was filled with obstacles.
Distinguished composers did not want to give her their songs and some thought she was too Mizrahi for the mainstream. Her breakout moment was when she sang “Shir Ha’freicha,” in Assi Dayan’s 1979 film, Schlager, embracing the stereotypes about Mizrahi women and proclaiming, in a sexy dance number, “I’m a freicha,” a word that was negative slang for bimbo and was usually applied to Mizrahi women. Following this opportunity, she made several hit pop records, and in 1983, she achieved the pinnacle of Israeli success by representing Israel at Eurovision with the upbeat, life-affirming song, “Chai,” which came in second and was a European hit.
“It was complicated for her, because she was from a Yemenite background, to achieve the mainstream success that she did,” said Mevorach. “In a certain sense, they ‘whitened’ her, straightening her frizzy hair, erasing her accent. Only once she had conquered the mainstream could she begin to explore her Yemenite identity musically.”
Her performances of Mizrahi classics helped bring positive attention to Mizrahi music in Israel and around the world. Her version of the song “Im Nin’alu,” a 17th-century poem set to music and given an electronic arrangement by Izhar Ashdot, became a surprise international hit.
“In 1987, if you had told me that the biggest hit in Europe would be a Yemenite/Arabic/Hebrew song, it would have sounded like science fiction to me,” said Ashdot. “It definitely marked the beginning of world music.” Haza had no problem rolling with the electronic sound, even though it was something she had never done before, Ashdot recalled.
The song topped the charts all over Europe, reaching the No. 1 spot in West Germany, Finland, Norway, Spain and Switzerland, and making it to the 15th spot on the US and UK charts. This hit propelled her to what is arguably the highest level of success ever by an Israeli pop musician abroad, and Haza moved to Los Angeles, apparently poised for a crossover career.
While she did record a Yemenite song, “Daw Da Hiya” with Iggy Pop in 1992, her career abroad did not develop. The documentary details how her manager, Aloni, turned away many music producers and artists seeking to collaborate with her and she returned to Israel.
Some late triumphs in her career included her being cast in a key role in the 1998 animated musical The Prince of Egypt, and singing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1994 honoring recipients Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.
Aloni’s refusal to allow her to grow musically in this period is just one part of the curious saga of their collaboration. Haza lived with – or next door to – Aloni’s family for most of her life. While there was gossip that the two had a romance, Aloni remained married and his wife was also involved in Haza’s life and career.
But the documentary shows again and again how he kept her isolated, cutting her off from her childhood friends and discouraging her from forming new relationships, particularly with men. Haza, who lived so much of her life in the public eye, never had a boyfriend she acknowledged publicly until she became engaged to businessman Doron Ashkenazi in her late 30s.
While some accuse Aloni of treating Haza as a goose that laid golden eggs, the documentary raises the possibility that Haza chose on her own to focus on her career and was not manipulated by her manager. Clips of her appearing on talk shows – notably one with Dudu Topaz, who proposed marriage to her – and being asked again and again why she was not married show how difficult it was for a woman to choose to be single in this era.
A KEY and very sad part of Haza’s story was her death from AIDS in 2000. In the winter of that year, she was hospitalized and the story released to the public was that she was suffering complications from the flu. A few weeks later, she died, at the age of 42, amid rumors she had AIDS, a disease that was then associated mostly with gay men and IV drug users.
Not long after her death, articles appeared in the press saying she died of AIDS, which the documentary confirms. The fact that she had AIDS raises more questions than it answers, though. It is popularly believed that she contracted the virus from her husband, who died of a drug overdose about a year after her death and who was thought to have gotten the virus himself through sex with other partners or from drug use.
However, friends interviewed in the documentary say Haza and Ashkenazi each believed they had infected the other. Interviews with family members reveal that Haza was severely ill with the virus for years – she learned she had AIDS when she went for IVF treatment following a miscarriage and received a routine HIV screening – but refused to get treatment.
This was in an era when life-prolonging retroviral treatments were already available for HIV, but Haza would not take them, apparently terrified of her diagnosis becoming public. Some thought the news reports revealing she had AIDS were an invasion of privacy, while others felt that if Israel’s sweetheart had spoken publicly about her diagnosis, it would have helped lift the stigma of AIDS being a “gay disease.”
But her silence about the AIDS diagnosis was perfectly in character, as she had always kept quiet about everything personal in her life.
“She had to hide so much of her real life, all her life,” said Mevorach. “But she was a strong person. Everything she did required strength... A tiger doesn’t stop being a tiger just because you put it in a cage.”