The Power of Nostalgia (Extract)

Fans win in the fight to save Netiva Ben-Yehuda's anachronistic radio show

09nrally (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. On a hot day in the early summer, about 30 people stood singing loudly opposite the Israeli Broadcasting Authority's (IBA) crumbling office building in the Romema neighborhood of Jerusalem. Some were belting out nostalgic songs of the Palmach, the pre-state underground, others just yelled defiantly. They were protesting against the impending removal from the airwaves of their beloved radio show, "Netiva Talks and Listens." A battle was underway that the show's producer calls nothing less than "a fight to save Zionism." At the center is Netiva Ben-Yehuda, who turned 80 on July 26, the host of this popular nostalgia-laced music and talk show that has gathered a fiercely loyal following in the 14 years since it first went on the air. The cancellation of the show, effective from the end of July, was announced by the IBA as a cost-cutting measure. All late-night shows aired on the "Reshet Bet" station, including Ben-Yehuda's program, which ran every Wednesday night from 1 to 4 am, were to be dropped and replaced with taped reruns. Fans of Ben-Yehuda's program did not take this decision lying down. They held demonstrations, bombarded the IBA with thousands of e-mails and circulated a petition all over the world demanding that the show be saved. The fans - who include young, old, secular and even ultra-Orthodox Israelis at home and abroad - look forward to their weekly dose of songs by the likes of national poets Chaim Nachman Bialik and Natan Alterman - songs which, on other shows, are usually heard only on Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers. And apparently, their voices were heard. Shortly before the last show was slated to be broadcast, the IBA announced that it was re-instating the show - on a different station and in another time slot. An IBA spokesman explained that "I am happy to announce that in light of the thousands of complaints we have received, the radio committee decided to continue with the broadcasting of Netiva Ben-Yehuda's show." Who is the octogenarian who inspired such a loyal following - and what is the secret charm of the show that has endeared itself to listeners from so many segments of Israeli society - and beyond? Netiva Ben-Yehuda is a woman with many faces: a fearless fighter in the War of Independence, an author whose books sit beside the beds of politicians from all ranges of the political spectrum, a lexicographer of Israeli slang, a bohemian who used to take shots of brandy in Jerusalem bars with prominent national leaders, writers, artists, scientists and taxi drivers of her 1948 War of Independence generation, many of them veterans of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the left-wing Hagana, and the right-wing Irgun and Lehi undergrounds. Born in 1928, Ben-Yehuda's father was Baruch Ben-Yehuda, the state's first education minister, and principal of the legendary Gymnasia Herzliya, Tel Aviv's first high school where many of the elite of the pre-state Yishuv were educated. At the age of 18, she joined the Palmach and served as an officer in the war in 1948. During the fighting in Safed, she held the only grenade launcher on the battlefield, thus playing a key role in the subsequent Israeli victory there. In another mission during the war, Ben-Yehuda was part of a unit that set up a mine under a bus filled with Arab passengers, killing 30 of them, and earning her the nickname "the blonde devil." Ben-Yehuda says she is not proud of her part in this incident, and that 60 years later, she still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as a result. After the war, Ben-Yehuda studied art at the Bezalel School of Arts, and philosophy and Hebrew language at the Hebrew University. In the 1950s she began working as a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Labor, headed by former Palmach commander Yigal Allon. Over the years, she also wrote many books about Israeli history and the fighting in 1948. Her two most influential works are a book on Israeli slang and a book cataloguing all Israeli music written before 1948 - which remains the only source for such information. In 1993, at age 65, after taking a break from her public activity, Ben-Yehuda felt she needed to go back to work. "Fifteen years ago," she relates, "I approached the head of the Broadcasting Authority and asked him to give me a job so that I would have money to make it through the month," recalls Ben-Yehuda. "On every Wednesday night since then, I play Israeli music from before 1948, talk to callers, listen to their stories, and have the time of my life." Ben-Yehuda's radio show adheres to two iron rules. Firstly, the show deals only with positive topics, leaving no room for politics, gossip or complaints about reality. Secondly, she plays music only from the period before the establishment of the state. At first sight, these two components seem to suggest a formula for an anachronistic program. However, it seems that it is precisely these features, together with the optimism in the lyrics of the songs she plays, that give the show the flavor that many find magical. Once a regular fixture in the capital's cafés and wild bohemian parties, today Ben-Yehuda leaves her Jerusalem apartment for only one of two places. Every Wednesday she goes to the radio station to broadcast her show, and every day from 11 a.m. - 1 p.m., Ben-Yehuda chats with her fans and passers by at Café Netiva, in a small corner store underneath her apartment on Palmach Street. Ben-Yehuda was rather downcast as she sat at her table one morning in July shortly after the announcement that her show was being canned. "I'm miserable," she told an enquirer after her welfare. "Why is that?" he asked. "What's with you?" she shot back. "Haven't you heard? They are shutting down my show. I feel psycho-spiritually bad," coining a brand-new phrase right there, albeit one that's not very likely to catch on. Ben-Yehuda suggests that it is her use of language that makes her show special. "The Hebrew I speak is a dugri [straight-talking] Hebrew that nobody on the radio spoke before me. When I first went on the air, they complained that my Hebrew was not formal enough. I had a friend who used to broadcast for the radio. I would call her after her shows and say, 'Are you nuts? Do you think that anyone understood what you said?' In a language that is evolving all the time, you must let yourself be led by the change." She also takes pride in her attitude toward her listeners. "The media look at people from above. My show is the only show on the radio where the broadcaster keeps at the same level as the listeners. When I speak to someone, he owns half of the show, and that is what people love." One of Ben-Yehuda's most ardent defenders is radio producer Claude Buchbinder. "Netiva and I define love at first sight. The moment I laid my eyes on her, I said to myself, 'She drinks, she smokes, she speaks from her heart, she is exactly like me.' I was born in 1948 and Netiva symbolizes this year," says the French-born Buchbinder. "Netiva's greatness lies in the fact that she could be a good friend of both (former prime minister) Yitzhak Rabin and (former prime minister) Ariel Sharon, one from the political left, the other from the right. Sharon used to sleep with Netiva's book of songs next to his bed, and would call her after her show to discuss her responses to listeners. (Former president) Ezer Weizman was a regular listener. He would often call and ask to speak with 'Tiva.' One day during his presidency, he invited us to his office. At 75-years-old, Netiva plunked herself down on the arms of his easy chair. They chatted and laughed. Netiva doesn't care if a person comes from the political left or right. She doesn't judge anyone. Anyone who likes Israeli music is fine by her." The kind of music that Ben-Yehuda plays gets almost no airing on any of Israel's radio stations. The songs range from "Ken Latzipor" (A Nest for a Bird) by Chaim Nachman Bialik, a children's song about a mother bird feeding her offspring, to "Omrim Yeshna Eretz" (They Say There Is a Country) by Shaul Tchernichovsky, which discusses the nascent State of Israel that is being talked about all over the world. They include slow ballads like "Pizmon Leyakinton" (Ballad for the Hyacinth) by the poet Rachel, a lullaby which tells of the beautiful flowers that grew around Kibbutz Kinneret, and upbeat marching tunes like "Himnon HaPalmach" (The Palmach Anthem) that served as the pre-state fighters' rallying song. Buchbinder maintains that her struggle to keep the show going "is also a fight for Zionism. Zionism cannot be separated from the songs, and now we are killing them both. Netiva's show represents a kind of purity in a world that is corrupt and dirty." Not everyone agrees with that assessment. In an article in his personal blog, journalist Eviatar Ben-Tzedef wrote: "Something in the nostalgia of this show is cloying and unpleasant. Netiva tries to open one eye only to see Israel strictly in a positive light. Due to her lack of memory, I find a lot of mistakes in her commentary, and the songs are tiring and ancient." "What do they want from me?" Ben-Yehuda shoots back. "I am old, I am supposed to forget. You are young, you need to remember for me." Indeed many of her younger fans are ready to overlook Ben-Yehuda's memory lapses. Even more surprisingly, they demonstrate a nostalgia for a period they never lived through. Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.