Yaffa Yarkoni, Israel's Queen of Song dead at 86

She was known as the singer of the wars, a tradition that began during her own IDF service.

Yaffa Yarkoni 311  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yaffa Yarkoni 311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
She was known as the singer of the wars, a sobriquet that she detested, but when Yaffa Yarkoni, Israel’s queen of song who delighted generations of children, soldiers and all audiences died on Sunday only a week after her 86th birthday, she was remembered more for fading out of the limelight.
In recent years, Yarkoni suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, a fact which her family made public.
Yarkoni was the kind of trouper who would have continued singing until her last breath, had she been able to do so. There was no point in pretending that she had gracefully retired, because retirement was not her style. She was a vibrant personality who simply loved to give of herself, whether singing to small children or asking adults in a crowded concert hall to sing along to some of the nation’s most nostalgic melodies.
Born Yaffa Abramov, she was the middle child of three children born to Malka Alhassof and Avraham Abramov, who had individually migrated from the Caucuses early in the 20th century and who met and married in Tel Aviv.
A dealer in fabrics and carpets, Avraham Abramov later abandoned his family and settled in South Africa.
Malka, who was left to raise three children alone, opened the Tslil coffee house in Givat Rambam, now known as Givatayim. Tslil is the Hebrew word for tune, and her three young children had great talent in singing, dancing and playing musical instruments.
The three adolescents formed an entertainment group called Basmati, which loosely translates to ‘my stage’ and is also an acronym of their first names – Binyamin, Tikva and Yaffa.
The coffee house was frequented by stage and screen personalities, painters and sculptors and people involved with security. One such visitor noticed that of the three siblings, Yarkoni was the most talented, and used his influence to have her enrolled at the Gertrude Kraus Dance School.
After several years of study, Yarkoni earned a place for herself in the dance company of the Palestine Opera where she remained for several years.
When she wasn’t performing on stage, she was entertaining the patrons of Tslil. It was there that she met Yosef Gustin. They fell in love and married in September 1944, when Yarkoni was only 18- years-old. Gustin served with the Jewish Brigade in the British Army and was sent to Italy. There he was killed a month before the end of the Second World War in one of the last battles of the region between the allied forces and the Nazi troops.
Meanwhile, Yarkoni had joined the Hagana and after the Declaration of Independence served in the Givati Brigade. During the War of Independence, she initially served as a wireless operator, and when things were quiet, the soldiers asked her to sing.
This led to her being co-opted into an army entertainment troupe. She sang love songs to the soldiers to the tango tunes that were so popular in those days. She was an Israeli version of a blues singer, but with the passage of time decided that her favorite songs were ballads.
While she was still in the army, Shaike Yarkoni entered her life. A romance developed and they were married in 1948. Two years later, Yaffa gave birth to Orit, the first of their three daughters. Tamar arrived on the scene three years later, and Ruth, the last of the three, was born in 1956.
Yarkoni’s first record, “Green Eyes” in which she accompanied herself on the piano, was recorded when she still went by the name of Yaffa Gustin. It became an instant hit.
One day, Yarkoni dropped by Café Nussbaum, where the record was one of the most popular in the café’s collection.
She asked the proprietor to play the record for her, but he refused on the grounds that it had been played so often that it had become scratched as a result of which the sound had become distorted. Yaffa was now more determined than ever to hear the recording.
“I’m Yaffa Gustin. I’m the singer who made the record,” she protested. The proprietor, with a look of disdain on his face, told her she was already the fifth girl who’d come in that day claiming to be Yaffa Gustin.
After that hit record, Yarkoni’s career soared. The recently formed Hed Artzi recording company signed her up and produced numerous records which to this day remain firm favorites at community singing events all over the country. Among them are Bab el Wad, Hen Efshar, Hayu Zmanim, and Ha’amini Yo Yavo.
She recorded not only in Israel, but also in the United States and was the first Israeli artist to record for Columbia Records. When an American radio interviewer was amazed at the number of languages in which sang, her response was “You can sing in any language without knowing the language.”
She said at the time that she was in the process of making a record in Yiddish, a language which she did not speak. She also recorded a jazz album with Dizzy Gillespie.
Yarkoni regularly appeared at Israel Song festivals and in concert halls around the world, which were regularly sold out.
Over the years, she learned to sing in many languages, including Spanish, French and Japanese, often singing translations of Hebrew songs.
Her stage costumes were very dramatic with full kimono sleeves, and she often wore exotic, eye-catching jewelry.
There was a mythical rivalry between Yarkoni and another great star, Shoshana Damari, who died in February 2006 at age 83.
Both women were part of the national folklore. Each was a celebrity in their own right with a vast following at home and abroad. Each had served their country by entertaining tens of thousands of soldiers in times of war and by appearing in benefit concerts for Israel, when the country was in desperate need of funds.
Each was also an Israel Prize laureate.
Following Damari’s death, reporter Talya Halkin wrote in The Jerusalem Post that “While in the annals of Israeli music history Damari and Yarkoni will doubtless go down as archrivals, Yarkoni said the reality of their relationship was very different.
“‘We weren’t the kind of friends that meet all the time, I knew hardly anything about her life,’ Yarkoni said. ‘When we performed together, we would talk, but we never met to speak about our problems.’ Yarkoni, whose artistic debut was as a dancer with the legendary choreographer Gertrude Kraus, remembered running over after performances to the club Damari sang at to listen to her while still dressed in her dance costume.
“One day, she remembered, a performance was canceled, and she entered the club where Damari performed. ‘She was singing Kalaniyot, and when
she was done her husband told her there was a girl who came to listen to her every night, and who wanted to say hello,’ Yarkoni said.
“‘She shook my hand and asked me what I did, and I told her I was a dancer. People always used to call us rivals, but they forget she was already a star when I was just starting out. I couldn’t believe I was shaking her hand, I was so happy.’” “Later on, Yarkoni and Damari met again when Yarkoni was invited to Paris with her husband and children to act as Damari’s understudy while she performed there at the Olympia Theater. ‘One evening she lost her voice, and I had to replace her,’ Yarkoni said. ‘I wore one of her dresses, which was too short, so I went onstage barefoot, and mouthed the words.’ Later on, as Yarkoni’s career as a singer developed, the two appeared together numerous times.”
Mostly when they appeared together, it was for benefit performances.
They shared a dressing room and when they saw journalists outside they pretended that they weren’t talking to each other, thus fueling the mythical fire of rivalry. Although the feud was more of a publicity gimmick than anything else, Yaffa was more than a little envious when Damari was awarded the Israel Prize in 1988. It took another 10 years for Yarkoni to be mollified, when finally she too was a recipient.
Aside from being one of Israel’s most beloved singers, Yarkoni was a great gourmet cook, whose children, grandchildren and friends absolutely loved to come to her home in the heart of Tel Aviv to sample her delicacies.
In a career that spanned well over half a century, she made hundreds of recordings, the last in 2000. Late in her life, she appeared on one of Yehoram Gaon’s television programs.
They sang a duet together and she forgot some of the words. Fortunately, he knew them and was able to cover for her.
In the interim, she lost the power of speech and could no longer recognize anyone including members of her own family.
Her daughters never made a secret of her condition and appeared on various television programs where they spoke openly about what had happened to her, perhaps to convey the message that none of us is immune to the vicissitudes of life.
Both President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu published memorial tributes to Yarkoni. Peres said that when the IDF went out to conquer the enemy, Yarkoni conquered the hearts of the soldiers.
Netanyahu sent condolences to Yarkoni’s family, saying she wrote the musical score for Israel from the prestate days, through the establishment of the state, and up to the present day.
“Her unique voice will be missed by us all,” Netanyahu said, adding that the country was taking leave of her, but not the rich cultural and musical legacy she left behind.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat also published statements praising Yarkoni for what she had done for Israel and expressing regret at her passing.
Yarkoni will be laid to rest in a plot next to the grave of her husband Shaike Yarkoni, at the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in Tel Aviv on Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.