My Word: Culture, corona and the Banai clan

Two years in the making, the exhibition couldn’t have come at a better – or stranger – time.

Retired judge Yitzhak Banai and his wife, Simcha, their son Eviatar Banai, music historian Yoav Kutner, exhibition curator Tal Kobo, Gavri Banai, and Eilat Lieber, museum director, pose for a photo at the Tower of David Museum. (photo credit: RICKY RACHMAN)
Retired judge Yitzhak Banai and his wife, Simcha, their son Eviatar Banai, music historian Yoav Kutner, exhibition curator Tal Kobo, Gavri Banai, and Eilat Lieber, museum director, pose for a photo at the Tower of David Museum.
(photo credit: RICKY RACHMAN)
Music and museums. It’s a perfect combination, so I was excited to be invited to a press tour this week of an exhibition at the newly reopened Tower of David Museum: “The Banai Family – This is Our Song: A Musical Journey from Persia to Jerusalem.” There are showbiz families and then there are the Banais, an entire clan in the realm of Israeli entertainment.
Two years in the making, the exhibition couldn’t have come at a better – or stranger – time. It was hard to ignore the lack of visitors – and pilgrims – in Jerusalem’s Old City where the iconic David’s Citadel marking the museum is located. Tourism and culture have been among the fields worst affected by the measures aimed at stalling the coronavirus pandemic. It was also hard not to reflect on the greater culture clash taking place in the wake of the killing of George Floyd last month and the subsequent rioting.
“Human beings have short memories – most last less than a century. A century feels like a long time, but in fact, it’s not enough perspective. Culture is long-term collective memory,” reads a quote at the entrance to the exhibition. These are the words of Tunisian-born, French Jewish writer Albert Memmi, who died last month.
“Culture reflects the power of the spirit of the human being,” declares the museum’s director, Eilat Lieber. “People need culture – poetry, literature, music – to deal with the challenges. This exhibition is about immigration and dealing with everyday life but also about the power of culture and the spirit.”
The title “This is Our Song” is not random. “Zot hamangina shelanu” – “this is our tune” – is a line in a much-loved song by Ehud Banai.
“The exhibition tells the story of a family but it is also our story as a society,” says curator Tal Kobo, who has done an excellent job collecting items ranging from Persian musical instruments, photos and synagogue artifacts relating to the Banais. “It tells of people coming together from different backgrounds to create something new.”
Their family history reflects a special period in time in the history of Jerusalem – from the decline of the Ottoman Empire, through the British Mandate era, and on to the declaration of the State of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital.
“It sounds like a fairy tale,” writes music historian and media personality Yoav Kutner in the catalogue: “Once upon a time, long, long ago, in the far away and distant land of Persia (today Iran), in a town of poets, wine and flowers called Shiraz, there lived a Jewish family named Bana. One day, this family decided to make aliyah – to move to the Holy Land, the Land of Israel. The parents, Rachamim and Rachel, and their three sons, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, began the long and treacherous journey to the land of the Bible. Finally, they reached Jerusalem.”
Although today the Banai Family is legendary, their story is far from being a fairy tale. Rachamim and Rachel arrived in 1881, settling outside the walls of the Old City. The story goes that when they first arrived, they were so poor and such outsiders compared to the existing Jewish communities, for a while the family slept in Roman-period catacombs.
As their name Bana/Banai indicates, the family were builders and their first lucky break was to find work in construction as the new city was rising up beyond the Old City walls. Eventually the family moved to the Mahaneh Yehuda market area of Nahlaot, where Agas (Pear) Street would later appear on the Banai musical map.
There are many Banais – Ya’acov, Yossi, Chaim, Gavri, Yuval, Orna, Meir, Ehud, Eviatar, Uri – who have made countless contributions to music, comedies, satires, and movies and whose names stand out among the five generations covered in this story. I moved from exhibit to exhibit, singing the songs and quoting the skits. Some of their particular language stemmed from the words of a grandmother, their style from a grandfather’s talent for storytelling. It became the basis of a vernacular known as Gashashit, the unique lingo of the beloved Hagashash Hahiver comedy team in which Gavri was an essential member.
Full cultural Israeliness cannot be achieved without being able to quote or recognize Gashash lines and terms, such as Yisrablof (Israbluff, the peculiarly Israeli style of pretense.)
It is history. And it should be seen as such. I sat in the reconstructed model of Jerusalem’s once famous Rex Cinema, watching snatches of skits and movie scenes, and decided that if you censor anything that might now seem offensive – the descendants of a Persian immigrant family mimicking Moroccan immigrants; the stereotypes of women; the chain-smoking – few of the sketches and movies would be permitted in today’s world. Yossi Banai’s album of translated French chansons could be considered cultural appropriation: I prefer to think of it as a compliment and cultural enrichment.
Among the most poignant items in the exhibition is the amber necklace of Khanoum (Hanna Sara) Bana. Five-year-old Khanoum received the beads from her mother as a parting gift and engagement present before she left Shiraz in 1880 with the family of her betrothed, seven-year-old Eliyahu Bana. During the journey, the two were officially wed to ease the process of crossing borders (and perhaps to help prevent the risks of kidnapping of the young, unmarried girl.) Recalling the courage – and faith – of the child bride is a tribute to her, and should not be ignored just because such betrothals (thankfully) are no longer accepted.
The exhibition is both humbling and uplifting. The Banais’ story is a success story but there is no hiding where they came from. The exhibits include memories of the home of Meir Banai (the Elder), a vegetable vendor, whose wife, Malka Bechora, raised their seven children in a religious home above their market stall.
That the family today includes proudly religious musicians like Eviatar and the late Meir as well as their openly lesbian comedienne sister, Orna – all recognizable members of the Banai brand name – makes a stronger message about getting along than the bringing down of statues and the hurtful epithets of Twittersphere.
“The title ‘This is Our Song’ is a metaphor of how the historical story of the Banai family and the Banai opus became the soundtrack of Israeli culture,” says Kobo.
As I wander around, wearing a mask, disposable headphones on the audio guide, and with reminders to keep a distance from other visitors, I reflect that the museum experience is not yet what it was, but at least it survived.
They’re playing our song, I think to myself, and understand why Kobo recalls Yossi Banai’s lyrics in “Letters in the Wind”:
“I’m crying tears of joy and happiness
Shouting mutely in pain
I’m making a bridge out of memories
To return to all that’s lost.”
The museum is planning online webinars in English with the curator on July 5 and July 19; details to be announced on the website: or *2884.