Never lost for words

It is almost impossible not to stray into the realms of hyperbole when talking about Haim Hefer’s contribution to our national musical identity.

Haim Hefer 521 (photo credit: Courtesey)
Haim Hefer 521
(photo credit: Courtesey)
I t is almost impossible not to stray into the realms of hyperbole when talking about Haim Hefer’s contribution to our national musical identity.
Hefer, who died last month at the age of 86, was responsible for penning the lyrics to some of our most enduring pop and folk songs. He was around when it all started, with the first IDF troupe, the Chizbatron, which began life in 1948 as the Palmah band. The Hefer roll call of hit songs from those early years includes “Hafinjan,” “Yatzanu At,” “Hakrav Ha’aharon” and “Hen Efshar,” and there were countless successful synergies with a whole slew of our best-loved composers, such as Sasha Argov, Moshe Wilensky and David Zehavi.
Hefer’s life and life’s work will be lauded by an all-star cast at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta on October 21, with the two shows – 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. – featuring evergreen 76-year-old multidisciplinary performing artist Israel Gurion; 74-year-old wordsmith Yoram Taharlev; 77-year-old actor Gabi Amrani; and 85-year-old Naomi Polani.
It is Polani perhaps who is the spiritual linchpin of the Tzavta tribute and the most relevant participant.
Polani, who now lives in Kibbutz Kinneret, was a member of the Chizbatron troupe and toured the country with Hefer and other members of that inchoate entertainment outfit, such as Shaike Ophir, Shmuel Bonim, Shmuel Rozen and Rivka Mednik. This is where it all began. It is fair to say that all the army bands, including the legendary Nahal bands of the 1950s and 1960s, owe an inestimable debt to Hefer and his pals.
Even so, Polani says she doesn’t feel she and the rest of the gang were trailblazers for all the army entertainers that ensued in the following six-plus decades. “That’s rubbish,” she declares in her trademark no-nonsense manner. “We weren’t pioneers. We weren’t even the first. There was [satirical and revue companies] Hamatateh and Li-La-Lo before us.”
There may be some debate about that, but Polani has plenty of good reasons for being grateful for having had the opportunity to work with Hefer. “He was so sharp and witty,” she recalls. “You know, poets don’t often get the applause they deserve.
It is the performers who get most of the kudos. But Haim deserved all the praise he got, and more.”
Hefer wasn’t only known for his succinct penmanship in the light entertainment field. For many years he had a regular satirical-political column in the weekend Yediot Aharonot, in which he poked fun at many of the country’s elected representatives.
The column was something of a boon for new olim because the Hebrew text was written with vowel points.
“Haim was very much into current affairs,” Polani continues. “If things aroused his interest, or bothered him, then he’d say his piece.
Haim knew how to respect people, but he also know how not to respect certain people.”
I HAD the great fortune to get a measure of the man at close quarters last year. Hefer had just been given another Lifetime Achievement Award, this time from Bar-Ilan University, and that seemed as good a time as any to chew the fat with him and get an idea of how he felt about his golden age appreciation and how things once were in these here parts.
I arrived at his Tel Aviv apartment to find the iconic man of letters ensconced on his living room sofa, happily imbibing vodka. I had been forewarned that the gent could tend toward the somewhat irascible side, but I found him to be nothing less than a delight. When he suggested I partake of the transparent beverage, I declined but added that I wouldn’t say no to some decent whiskey, whereupon a bottle of very passable amber nectar was produced.
So there we were, at 11 o’clock in the morning on a warm late spring day in Tel Aviv, supping our respective poisons and talking about Hefer’s take on life and how he felt about the award he had just received.
“I don’t know about getting a Lifetime Achievement Award,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I think you should get that after you die, no?” Initially, Hefer seemed a bit ambivalent about the addition of Bar-Ilan University’s recognition of his work.
“Look, I received the Israel Prize, the Sokolow Prize (awarded by the Tel Aviv Municipality for excellence in journalism) and the Acre Prize, and at Ein Gev, Ra’anana and Petah Tikva they had special tribute events for me. There’s not much room for anything else here. Mind you, I put the Israel Prize in the bedroom. It’s fine to get something from Bar-Ilan, too. My daughter studied social work there,” he said.
Hefer, who was staunchly secular, said he didn’t have any problem with the university’s religious leanings.
“When they said they wanted to give me the prize, I told them I had only one sink at home and that I rode in a car on Shabbat, but they said that was fine. I also asked them whether they ordained rabbis, and Prof. Kaveh, the university president, said they didn’t.”
Hefer was just having a bit of fun, as was his wont.
“They [the religious community] know exactly what I believe and don’t believe in. I wrote “The Death of a God” [a lengthy satirical poem] when I returned from a visit to Auschwitz [in 1987]. I have had all sorts of to-dos with them [the religious community].
Then there was ‘Yehezkel,’” he said.
The latter is Hefer’s light-hearted poem about the biblical prophet, which was set to music by Shmulik Krauss and became a hit for the late- 1960s pop group The High Windows, comprised of Krauss, Josie Katz and Arik Einstein. At the time there was an outcry from religious quarters about Hefer’s “disrespectful attitude towards the Bible.”
“It seems you can make fun of anything but religion,” Hefer noted with a wistful smile.
Hefer also got around a bit, both in his professional capacity and for leisure pursuits.
“I was in Sharm e-Sheikh. Sinai was a real gem, a bit like Scotland. I was there too – Dundee and Edinburgh,” he recalled. “I hitchhiked around with a friend, and we saw a show in Edinburgh during the festival there.
They have wonderful smoked fish there. You take half a loaf of bread with a smoked fish, and you’ve got a complete breakfast.”
This was in 1962, and it was some trip. After Scotland, Hefer and his pal made their way to Sweden, where they stayed with the parents of a friend, and Hefer got an opportunity to meet one of his heroes.
“I met Ingmar Bergman. I’d seen all his movies, so I was excited to meet him. I asked him if he had any plans to come to Israel, and he said he didn’t have the time. That was a shame.”
Hefer’s travels brought him into contact with all sorts of cultural and artistic influences.
“I wrote “Sayarim Sayarim” [Anu Kitat Sayarim – We Are a Squad of Scouts] based on a tune by [Jewish French troubadour] Serge Gainsbourg.
I met Serge in Copenhagen, and I told him I’d written the words to his melody. He was charmed that someone had written Hebrew words to his tune. I also met [Gainsbourg’s celebrated partner, English singer and actress] Jane Birkin. What an amazing woman she was.”
Hefer also drew inspiration from music by Chopin and Cole Porter, as well as Russian, Italian and Arabic folk tunes.
During the two and a half hours we spent together, Hefer talked about many chapters of his long life, smoothly meandering betwixt and between his writing exploits, trips he made and people he met and worked with along the way. He recalled that during the War of Independence he often had to rustle up some lyrics at the drop of a hat.
“Fellow Palmah generation writer Haim [Gouri] and I were in Beersheba, and we had to write some words for a song in no time at all. There were tanks and half-tracks and soldiers all over the place, and it was dusty and noisy. I couldn’t concentrate there, so Gouri and I went to the British cemetery nearby. The British know how to take care of their dead. It was peaceful and orderly there.”
Hefer didn’t remember exactly which song he put to paper that day, but a volume I purchased at the annual Poetry Festival in Metulla a few weeks before I met Hefer, of poems written by Hefer and Gouri for the Palmah troupe, corroborated his recollection.
The orange-backed tome, which was published in 1974, is entitled The Palmah Family: An Anthology of Adventures and Song. It contains the lyrics to more than 100 songs written by the pair. The preface went by the whimsical retrospective heading “Words a Long Time Later” and talks about how the lyrics were written on “rocks in the field, crates of oranges, the hood of a jeep or an ammunition box.”
“That’s how it was back then,” confirmed Hefer. “You just got on with it.”
POLANI HAS fond memories of the man, even though she says they weren’t close. “We worked together, and we did what we had to do at the time,” she states matter-of-factly.
She does, however, feel we have lost a great writer, someone who could capture the spirit and sense of a moment without spelling things out.
“Haim wouldn’t say his lover left him, he’d write how he followed her departing ponytail bobbing its way from him, and we could complete the picture in our hearts and minds. It’s not all this ‘I love you and you love me’ rubbish you have today. Haim could sketch the scene for us, without all the nitty gritty, and you’d have a whole world to look at,” she says.
I apologized to Hefer for not bringing the anthology with me but I’d come by bicycle and it was quite a weighty item to carry on my back.
“Never mind,” he said benevolently.
“You can pop by with it some other time.”For more information about the Haim Hefer tribute event: