Veterans: Spreading joy

Brandt has created two CDs: Doctor Jazz’s Ben Yehudah Street Parade and his own solo album Blowing My Own Horn.

Elazar Brandt 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Elazar Brandt 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A former army helicopter pilot from Los Angeles, Elazar Brandt prepared for his final trip to Israel in 1996. After decades of soul-searching in Texas, New York and LA, Brandt discovered that his passion lay in using music as a tool to transform the tears of those suffering from terrorist attacks.
Both solo and with his Dr. Jazz Dixie Land band, he performs throughout Israel, particularly in places struck by acts of terrorism and violence. He is commonly known for his “senseless acts of simha [happiness]” in Sderot, Hebron, the Gaza perimeter, and Jerusalem’s Rehov Ben-Yehuda.
Brandt’s first thirst for Israel came when he was 13, in 1965, just two years before the Six Day War. During his bar mitzva at synagogue, he heard whispers among the congregation about the Old City of Jerusalem that was now occupied but not forgotten.
“Two years before the Six Day War, I would hear stories in synagogue of people who had been to Israel, actually been to [the] Western Wall with their foreign passports. It fascinated me,” he recalls.
Another seed was planted a few years later when he heard about Israel’s triumph during the war. “I was in high school, and suddenly people were shouting out, we got back Jerusalem! There was a lot of excitement in synagogue, and my yearning to visit Israel intensified.”
After high school, he studied engineering in college, but quickly grew despondent with the program. In 1973, he joined the US Army, where he got married for the first time and flew helicopters during the Cold War.
“I would hear about soldiers being sent to Egypt and Israel to fight, and my connection to the country intensified. I had to find a way to get there,” he says.
Brandt became interested in religious studies and Jewish history. He went back to graduate school in Texas and majored in Bible, Hebrew language and literature.
His first opportunity to venture through the land of milk and honey came when he moved to New York in 1979 and took a job as a reservations agent with El Al.
He was given free airfare to Israel once a year.
“From the moment I touched Israeli soil, I fell in love with the land,” he says. “I was fascinated by how the country was developing out of nothing after hundreds of years. Experiencing what I had learned, being able to touch the history, the idea of being part of it was intriguing.”
After a second trip, an early mid-life crisis and a divorce, Brandt decided it was time for a change.
“At 37, my first wife and I got divorced, and it was almost time for my mid-life crisis. I didn’t have an established career; I was moving from place to place looking for something to do. My dilemma was that I did not want to leave my 10-year-old daughter.”
Six years later, he decided to share his passion for Israel with his daughter and took her on a flight to Jerusalem for her birthday. Two weeks later, he was standing in line at the Interior Ministry, filling out aliya forms.
“I didn’t want to wait any longer. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I did not want to be too old to make a life here. I still wanted to get married again.
So I thought, you know, I’ve just got to go for it.”
Brandt had been told to bring his paperwork “just in case.” The ministry told him to come back in a month, not realizing he would be leaving again to the US. “I didn’t know you couldn’t leave the country. They just said, come back in a month, so I thought, okay, I’ll come back in a few months. I took my daughter back, packed up and arranged for a shipment.”
Three months later, he arrived in Jerusalem and went directly to the ministry for his second visit. They were reluctant to help him, as he had left the country, and they told him to come back in a few months. But Brandt learned how to be Israeli very quickly.
“Three months ago, I gave you my application, you told me to return in a month,” he told them. “I want to start working, take ulpan and receive my shipment.
I don’t have a month.”
Three days later, he was a citizen of Israel.
Born in 1952, less than 10 years after the end of the Holocaust, Brandt understood the need to help those struck by terrorism and violence.
“It was my dream to make simha in the streets. Suicide bombings were going on, bus bombings, war on the Lebanese border. I thought my banjo would help liven up the atmosphere a little bit.”
Brandt started off on Rehov Ben-Yehuda 12 years ago. He played for three hours and earned NIS 11. He now plays 10 instruments and runs the Dr. Jazz Dixie Land Band, which goes around in colorful costumes to make people smile.
“We got used to playing in places that were being attacked during the intifada,” he says. “I decided the best weapon is not to be afraid. I went onto Ben-Yehuda and played. We played for kids, schools and soldiers.
I played in yishuvim, Gush Katif, Judea and Samaria, Hebron. I like to play at normal events and celebrations, but there are also places that get attacked, that need to recover. I like to make balloons, play happy music and try helping people to feel a little bit more human.”
He recalls playing at the back of an open truck in a settlement during a Hanukka celebration. “I was going around playing, and I saw a truck opposite me handing out doughnuts in merit of the holiday.”
Asked about the challenges he has faced as an oleh, he replies, “It’s not easy. I opted not to worry too much about money. I have a small apartment, and I live comfortably.
I have a background in computer work and technical writing, but you have to work a million hours a day in that industry. I came here because I want to do things I enjoy that matter. I like to make music, make people happy. I even play at parties and events with no electricity; once, we even performed in the woods.”
Brandt has created two CDs: Doctor Jazz’s Ben Yehudah Street Parade and his own solo album Blowing My Own Horn. He also found love again, marrying his beautiful bride, Krina. When not performing, he teaches instruments privately and works freelance as a biblical Hebrew consultant with Bible translators, including with local translation teams in India and Africa.
Brandt also dreams of expanding his band. He encourages all those interested in learning an instrument, particularly those around his age who want to sharpen their skills or take up their instruments again, to contact him: “Anyone who would like a chance to play in a band can call me. I want my students to get into my band, so I am motivated to work with them and get them up to speed so they can perform.”
Has he ever considered living anywhere else in Israel? “Never,” he declares. “Jerusalem is my home. My aspiration is summed up by the words of Isaiah 66:10: ‘Make Jerusalem happy; rejoice in her, you who love her.’”