Singer who gave voice to a state

November 24, 2016 22:37

Mention her name to any Israeli man or woman over the age of 50 and watch the eyes mist over and a weird growling noise arise from the diaphragm. Yaffa Yarkoni, who died in Tel Aviv on New Year's Day at the age of 86, after a long decline from Alzheimer's, disease, was the nation's nearest equivalent to Vera Lynn.

At the first whiff of war, Yaffa would be whipped on to radio and television to put the public's ears and fears to rest with a repertory of 1948, back-to-wall nostalgia. "Just believe, a day will come," she sang. And they did. "Hen efshar - it's possible," was another of her upbeat exhortations.

She was not the only singing icon of the independence war. Shoshana Damari, a gritty Yemenite belter, had blazed the way with the song Kalaniot and other soldiers' favourites. But, over the years of on-off fighting between Israel and its Arab neighbours, Yarkoni won more hearts and minds with her corner-café style delivery, in a voice low enough to be baritonal yet somehow still maternal and consolatory. When she sang Bab-el-Wad with violin accompaniment, it was a communal kaddish for the poorly armed young men who died to keep the road open between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as the fledgling state struggled to survive.

She was herself a war widow, of previous vintage. Born near Tel Aviv in 1925 to parents of Russian Caucasian extraction, she got married at 18 to a lad in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, only to lose him the following year in one of the last battles in Italy.

From singing in her mother's cafe, she became a soloist in the infant Israeli Army's first singing ensemble (after a stint as a wireless operator), and then a star on record.

At the whiff of war, Yaffa would be whipped out

What she sang did not just raise morale at the front and distract the worriers at the rear, it actively defined the values that became part of Israel's national lore. The sounds of Yaffa Yarkoni conjured ideals of self-sacrifice, austerity and a "purity of arms" that was the founding principle of the Israel Defence Forces.

In 1956 and 1967, when trouble loomed, she was brought out before the cameras, hair still jet black, to sing another of her torch songs, Hayu zmanim - "those were the days".

They brought her back once more in 1973 but the world had moved on and the magic failed to work. For what Yaffa Yarkoni provided was more illusion than therapy, and the illusion wore thin when exposed to a conflict that was no longer critically existential.

Nor was the message in any sense innate. Her most popular song, Be'Arvot Hanegev, was a piece of political agitprop that could have been written by a Kremlin propagandist. In fact, it was. The tune is a Russian ballad by Leonid Shokhin, the words by Petr Mamaichuk. Composer and poet met in a Russian hospital ward in 1943.

Their original lyric, "At the edge of a forest, an old oak tree stands / Under that oak tree, a partisan lies", became in Rafael Klatchkin's Hebrew translation: "On the plains of Negev, dew falls where it lies / On the plains of Negev, there a brave man dies."

In the clinching verse, a grieving mother stands by the grave when another soldier steps up and cries "imma", offering to be her son. It is a classic Russian moment - a denial of human individuality in the service of the motherland - and it formed part of the new state's core cultural heritage.

Yaffa remarried after 1948, had three daughters and stayed out of politics most of her life until an outburst during the 2002 Palestinian intifada - "We are a nation who went through the Holocaust, how can we do such things to another nation?" - earned her the opprobrium of right-wing nationalists.

It hardly dented her iconic status, however, and her death was mourned this week with uniform solemnity. "She was the nation's nightingale," read a trite tribute from President Shimon Peres. She was, more significantly, the right voice at the right time - the hour of need. That voice is imprinted forever on Israel's history.

November 24, 2016 22:37

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