The Banai family: from vegetable market sellers to Israel Prize winners

The story of the Banai family and their impact on Israeli culture

(From left) Tower of David Museum director Eilat Lieber, Gavri Banai, exhibition curator Tal Kobo, musical adviser Yoav Kutner, Eviatar Banai and his parents, Simcha and Judge Yitzhak Banai at the Tower of David Museum (photo credit: RICKY RACHMAN)
(From left) Tower of David Museum director Eilat Lieber, Gavri Banai, exhibition curator Tal Kobo, musical adviser Yoav Kutner, Eviatar Banai and his parents, Simcha and Judge Yitzhak Banai at the Tower of David Museum
(photo credit: RICKY RACHMAN)
Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum, one of Israel’s leading cultural institutions, reopened its doors recently after being closed to the public for three months as a result of coronavirus precautions. It has relaunched with an uplifting exhibition called “The Banai Family – This is Our Song: A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem.” The visitor is given an audio guide with personal earphones to walk through the exhibition, which highlights the creativity of this unique family, whose roots were nurtured in the traditional Jewish Persian culture of Shiraz, but crystallized just as a modern, avant-garde society was emerging in Jerusalem.
“The melodies of Jerusalem are holy as well as secular, ancient as well as trend-setting and, in this exhibition, they accompany the journey of the Banai family through more than a century of tradition, history, development and ultimately, fame and esteem and into the heart of Israeli culture,” says Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum.
The vast repertoire of music as well as a range of literature and art created by the extended Banai family contributed to the intricate cultural pieces that give Israel its unique identity. Throughout the generations, these talented family members and their work have reflected and refashioned Israeli culture, and they are mainstays of Israeli cultural life even now.
The story begins in Shiraz in 1881. “It sounds like a fairy tale,” says Yoav Kutner, music historian and TV and radio personality. “Once upon a time, a long, long ago, in the far away and distant land of Persia (today Iran), in a town of poets, wine and flowers called Shiraz, there lived a Jewish family named Bana. One day, this family decided to make aliyah – to move to the Holy Land, the Land of Israel. The parents, Rachamim and Rachel, and their three sons, Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya’akov, began the long and treacherous journey to the land of the Bible. Finally, they reached Jerusalem.” It was not easy for them to integrate into the small Jewish community they found in the Old City – socially, economically or culturally. The Bana family struggled for their daily existence in Jerusalem, whose residents were just beginning to move beyond the walls that enclosed the Old City and expand into new neighborhoods.
But every Israeli knows the joyous end of the fairy tale. The story of this family of new immigrants, outsiders to the local culture, became, within five generations, a venerable royal dynasty, a cultural powerhouse unequaled in Israeli history.
Eliyahu Ya’akov Bana, who was 13 when he moved to Jerusalem with his father and grandparents, is preserved in the family’s collective memory as the primary talent that influenced the coming generations.
When Mahaneh Yehudah Market was built, he bought his son Meir a store on Agas (Pear) Street, which was immortalized in a song many years later by Ehud Banai. “People think of me as a prince in Israel, but my grandfather sold vegetables in Mahaneh Yehuda Market,” remarked singer Yuval Banai in an interview with Sagi Ben-Nun for the Hebrew website Walla!
Meir had eight children, many of whom were deeply involved and well-known in theater and music in Israel. Among them:
• Ya’akov Banai (1919-1993) was a theatrical and film actor and storyteller. It was, in fact, Ya’akov who changed their family name from the Persian “Bana” to the Hebrew “Banai,” which means “builder.”
• Yossi Banai (1932-2006) was a singer, actor, comedian, director, writer and broadcaster. He was one of Israel’s most successful and beloved artists.
• Chaim Banai (1937-2008) was an actor, comedian and storyteller.
• Gavri Banai (born 1939) is a singer, actor, comedian, and member of the HaGashash HaHiver comedy troupe.
• Yitzchak Banai (born 1930) was a judge and father of entertainers Meir (1960-2017), Orna and Eviatar.
• Avraham Banai (1927-1987) was an educator and some of his grandchildren are budding musicians.
The contribution of the first generation of the Banai family – Ya’akov, Yossi, Chaim and Gavri – to Israel’s entertainment, musical and cultural world is unprecedented in quality and scope. Even in years when artistic activity in Israel was limited and modest, they never stopped working, inventing and constantly improving in a broad range of styles. They performed in serious shows as well as light entertainment. They wrote, directed and performed short skits and popular songs. Some published records, films and books, and participated prominently in radio and television shows.
“The soundtrack of my childhood, especially on relaxed Saturday mornings, were the radio comedy skits of the HaGashash HaHiver trio with Gavri Banai and the routines of Yossi Banai interspersed between Hebrew songs and classical music,” reflects the curator of the exhibition, Tal Kobo.
These skits, first composed in the early 1960s, became iconic components of popular Israeli culture. The idioms and expressions they created have long been integrated into modern Hebrew. One example is the word, Yisrablof (Israebluff), referring to a particularly Israeli way of bluffing or pretense.
In the 1980s, when the first generation of the family were still at the height of their creative activity, younger members joined in, expanding the Banais’ influence on local culture – Meir, Ehud, Yuval and Eviatar.
The rock group Mashina, founded by Yuval Banai, took center stage. The group symbolized everything that was rebellious and exciting at the time, with a pinch of an international flavor.
At the same time, his cousin, Ehud Banai offered another facet of Israeli identity, crystallized in the album, “Ehud Banai and the Refugees.” And all the while, radio stations continued to play Israeli classics – including Yossi Banai singing the French chansons of Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens.
By the late 1990s, it was Orna Banai who had the entire country laughing with her character “Limor” in the satirical television show, “Only in Israel.” The late Meir Banai developed his own soulful musical style then, while Eviatar Banai can still often be heard in local music clubs around Israel.
Each one formed his or her own individual statement that colored Israeli culture, particularly music, in emotional and diverse tones. On the one hand, their styles draw from the Jerusalem family’s roots in Iran, and on the other, from Western culture in which they grew up in modern Israel.
Through their many cooperative efforts with other artists, they have made the sounds of contemporary Israeli music – and now the next generation is continuing the family tradition.
The exhibition is the product of two years of curatorial work and research, work that has focused on the historical-cultural aspect, as well as in-depth contacts with the family members, who gave the Tower of David Museum photographs from family albums along with sentimental items that have passed from one generation to the next.
The exhibits not only tell the story of the family, but also capture the spirit of an important period in the formation of Israeli society. The sheer volume of their activity is astonishing: From the 1950s to the 21st century, the family has earned dozens of theater and television awards, and Yossi and Gavri were awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for their contributions to Israeli music and culture.
These prizes represent a symbolic drop in the ocean of honor and love that Israel’s artistic establishment and the public feel toward the Banai family.
“‘This is our song’ is a line from a well-known hit by Ehud Banai, and is also the Hebrew name of the exhibition,” says Kobo. “It serves as a metaphor for how the historical story of the Banai family and the Banai opus became the common soundtrack of Israeli culture.”