The first lady of Israeli songwriters

Nurit Hirsh, composer of some 1,600 songs, including Eurovision hits, is to be honored at the annual Yemei Zemer Festival.

Nurit Hirsh (photo credit: ILAN BESOR)
Nurit Hirsh
(photo credit: ILAN BESOR)
Some years ago I asked late Israel Prize winner songwriter, radio and TV presenter and translator Ehud Manor how he managed to churn out such an amazing volume of work. He was modest about his achievements and said he even found time for a daily siesta.
Composer Nurit Hirsh, who worked with lyricist Manor on many memorable songs, has a similarly gargantuan oeuvre for which she will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Yemei Zemer Festival, which will take place at Holon Theater from April 16 to 19.
Hirsh’s output is simply astounding.
“You have written the music for over 1,000 songs,” I note when we meet at her Tel Aviv apartment. “Actually, it’s over 1,600,” she corrects me without a gram of hubris, adding that she works hard at her craft. “I practice writing every single day, but you have to have talent for that too.”
Hirsh is clearly blessed with plenty of natural gifts, and has been writing the music for some of this country’s most enduringly popular – some bordering on the anthemic – songs for close to half a century.
Now a very youthful looking 71, Hirsh’s résumé makes for eye popping reading. Her voluminous repertoire includes the music for “Bashana Haba’a,” to lyrics by Manor, and for “Oseh Shalom Bimromav.” And there is the not too inconsiderable matter of composing the melody for “Ei Sham,” Israel’s 1973 Eurovision Song Contest entry sung by Ilanit, which placed fourth, and the music for Israel’s first ever Eurovision winner, “A-Ba-Ni-Bi,” sung by Yizhar Cohen, which won the contest in 1978.
Other Manor-Hirsh synergies include “Lalechet Shevi Aharayich,” “Habatim Shenigmeru Leyad Hayam,” and scores of other hits, many of which were recorded and performed by Manor’s wife, Ofra Fuchs, and Rivka Zohar. Hirsh’s professional portfolio also features film scores for 14 Israeli movies, including the soundtrack for the 1971 classic The Policeman, written and directed by Ephraim Kishon and starring Shaike Ophir, which was nominated for the 1972 Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Small wonder the Yemei Zemer organizers were keen to salute Hirsh’s efforts to date.
Hirsh started out on her musical path at a very early age.
“As a kid all I wanted to do was sit by my piano and practice,” she recalls, although her mom had other ideas. “My mother was a lawyer but she was also active in sports, and she’d take me to the beach as often as she could,” Hirsh continues. “She did a parachute jump at the age of 80.
She was a yoga teacher too – I learned yoga with her. She was made of sterner stuff.” Her daughter appears to be a chip off the old block.
The composer clearly did her homework prior to the interview, and occasionally referred to notes she jotted down before I arrived. “I can’t remember all the things I’m doing,” she says by way of explanation. Considering her workload it makes perfect sense to keep tabs.
“In the last four years I appeared at hundreds of primary schools, and performed a special Education Ministry program called Singing Heritage,” she recites from her writing pad.
“For some years now I have been performing with a group from the IDF Education and Youth Corps, with a program of my songs, and at all sorts of song events, and at other events in Israel and around the world. I do a lot concerts abroad,” the notes continue.
“In the past year I composed the music for the lost poem written by Hannah Szenes [who was executed by the Nazis in Hungary in 1944] “Hora Shel Bat Gola,” which was sung by Yardena Arazi, and in the past month I composed a special song for the Or Family NPO [which supports the parents of fallen IDF soldiers].”
There’s more. “A few weeks ago I did the recording [of the Or Family song] with [singer] Amir Benayoun, to lyrics by Rachel Shapira, It is not easy to write the words to a song for bereaved families,” says Hirsh. “The song came out neither sad nor happy, only emotive.”
More recently Hirsh wrote the music for song that we will hear at the Independence Day torch lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl, with Ester Rada fronting a vocal ensemble of no fewer than 100 singers.
Hirsh says she probably inherited her love for music from her father.
“He was a violinist and an opera singer in Vienna,” she recalls. “I started learning the piano at the age of seven, and it filled my life. I loved to play and to practice. To this day the piano is like a close friend for me.”
By the time Hirsh started her army service she had added the clarinet and the accordion to her instrumental arsenal – although they did not feature in her military career and she soon reverted to exclusive pianistic endeavor.
“I wanted to be in an army band, although I was accepted for the IDF orchestra. I acted a bit, danced a bit and sang a bit. I wanted to be part of the gang.” She also gained invaluable professional experience. “The most important thing I got out of my army service was that I learned how to perform on a stage,” notes Hirsh.
It was soon after that that she discovered her true vocation. She wrote her first song, “Perah Halilach” (“The Lilac Flower”) [recorded by Arik Einstein] at the age of 20, and that was that. “All I knew was that my passion was that I should write songs and that they should be performed,” Hirsh declares.
She initially delved into the classical world, and developed a liking for improvisation when she was in her teens.
I studied jazz with Zvi Keren – he taught everyone here jazz. I also played jazz with my mother’s cousin, Yitzhak Kadishson, at The Theater Club, and with [Bulgarian-born Israel jazz pioneer] Stu [HaCohen], when I was around 16. I loved jazz. My son, Danny Rosenfeld, is a jazz drummer.”
Hirsh’s daughter Ruti Rosenfeld is an opera singer and lives in Berlin. Mother and daughter appeared together at the Mann Auditorium several years ago.
Hirsh lived in New York for several years, and caught many of the jazz greats of the time, also taking the opportunity to further her classical music education, in New York and at UCLA in Los Angeles, to augment her instruction in orchestration, courtesy of Noam Sheriff, and conducting with Laszlo Roth.
Although some way past the official retirement age, Hirsh shows no signs of slowing down. “I am so happy to go to schools to play for children,” she says. “Education is so important. I feel it is a privilege to play for children. There are schools which have an end of year event, at which all the children prepare some kind of rendition of one of my songs. They play songs, sing them, dance to them. That is a real joy for me.”
For more information about the Yemei Zemer Festival: (03) 502-3001 ext 3;