September 25, 2018

Right Place, Wrong Time

After what should have been the highlight of her career turned into a national tragedy, Israeli singer Miri Aloni, who will perform at American Jewish University on Sunday, Dec. 13, went from beloved songbird to mnemonic figure almost overnight. Her most popular hit from the late 1960s, “Shir La’Shalom,” suddenly became a reminder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and the deep social rift that continues to plague Israeli society. Even now, over 14 years later, the memory of that night brings tears to her bright blue eyes.

“I was invited to sing ‘Shir La’Shalom’ at the ‘Yes to peace, no to violence’ peace rally, which was itself very successful. None of the 150,000 people who came to support Rabin’s way of making peace knew what was going to happen afterward,” she explained. “It was not the first time I shared a stage with Rabin, but it was the first time I succeeded in getting him to join me, because he was shy, and singing was not his forte.” The applause of the crowd as they heard Rabin’s voice was deafening. In the euphoria, the normally stoic Rabin even gave Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres a warm embrace.

Aloni remembers shaking hands with Lea Rabin after the performance and asking her to take good care of Yitzhak for the Israeli people. “‘I’m doing the best I can,’ she answered.” Shortly after the rally ended, Aloni and her family heard the shots. Her husband, a former commander in the first IDF parachute unit, knew they were real and ordered Aloni and their two sons to hide behind a car. “I get choked up when I talk about it, but I was so naïve to think that it was not real shots. I thought someone made a joke and shot from a toy gun,” she said. A copy of the song’s lyrics was later found in Rabin’s jacket pocket, soaked with blood. 

“Since then, not one day in my life passes without someone saying something to me about this night. When people see me, they remember. They live this night again, and this tragedy and this crash, just like you did at this moment,” she said. Yet, although Aloni became a constant figure in the news, the association was terrible for her career. In a country where everyone strives to forget the constant terrorist attacks, wars and struggles for survival, she suddenly became a political figure, which was something she says she never wanted to be.

Nevertheless, it was not the first time she had been involved in political controversy. In the late 1960s, “Shir La’Shalom” brought up a national debate in the Knessest after military leaders condemned it for lyrics that call for soldiers not to use their rifles. Among others, Ariel Sharon labeled it defeatist and submissive.

At that time, Aloni was already making a name for herself as a talented and beautiful young singer. The soloist in the army entertainment group, the Nahal Brigade Entertainment Troupe, she and her band performed all over the country. Despite its official ban, the IDF soldiers always insisted that the group sing “Shir La’Shalom” at concerts. According to Aloni, the only time they didn’t sing it was when Major General Rehavam Ze’evi was actually present in the audience.

Unlike many of the singers for peace that she admired in the United States who were protesting the Vietnam War from the comfort of their living rooms, “Shir La’Shalom” was written and composed by soldiers, one of whom lost a leg in the Six-Day War. It successfully touched upon the complicated emotions involved with the obligations of war that most Israelis know far too well, and it soon became a second national anthem.

Perhaps best classified as a folk singer, Aloni says her influences also include the French legend Edith Piaf and Chasidic music. “I call this Jewish soul music,” she says of her music. “Every nation has its own soul music and this is ours.”

Born in Giv’atayim right outside of Tel Aviv, Aloni’s parents were both amateur singers and musicians. “We were quite poor, but my father bought us a gramophone. That was in the 1950s when very few people had one.” In kindergarten, she got her first part as the lead in a musical version of Aesop’s fable, “The Grasshopper and the Ant.” “I played the part of the grasshopper, who everyone said was lazy. But that’s not my point of view. He wasn’t lazy. He was a musician. He spent his summer making music,” she said, laughing at the memory. “I have known that the stage is my place since that first production over 40 years ago, but I didn’t plan it.”

With the dawn of television in Israel in the 1970s, Aloni became even more famous. After completing military service as a soloist, she recorded a song for the first Israeli television series, “The Ballads of Hedva and Shlomik.” Her other well-known songs include “Lehiyot Levad,” “Ha Ben Yakir Li Efraim” and “Shir Le’Erev Chag,” which was written by Tirtza Atar, poet Nathan Alterman’s daughter.

Yet, despite being part of the national Israeli music history, the years ensuing Rabin’s assassination were dark and dreary for Aloni. The invitations to sing stopped and she struggled to make a living. In 1999, a German producer asked her to perform at a concert there. The resounding success of the first show led to more bookings, and Aloni decided to stay, leaving her 14- and 15-year-old sons and husband behind in Israel.

“It was a very difficult time,” she said, pausing for a moment to remember the separation from her family that stretched on for three and a half years. “It was hard for me as a mother, but for me as a singer, for my career and for me personally it was good.”

When she returned to Israel in 2002, her self-confidence as a performer had returned and she was able to sing again at concerts and closed performances. The following year, as part of a protest that involved disgruntled actors, artists and singers across the country who were unhappy about the cuts in government subsidies for theaters, she made another drastic career move. As part of a personal protest, she decided to sing in the street at the entrance to Tel Aviv’s Nachalat Binyamin market.

“It’s a very special market, because the artists there are selling their own art, and no one else is taking a cut of the profits. I identify very much with this idea,” she explained. But what began as a public protest led to private realizations. “I fell in love with the feeling that comes from breaking down the traditional distance between the singer on stage and the people. On the street, that boundary is removed and it takes real courage to do it but I love people and I don’t need filters to connect with people.”

For many Israelis, her performances on the street lead to the perception that she has fallen from grace. Many wonder how such a famous celebrity could possibly be pleased to sing on the street for shekel coins. But Aloni makes it clear that this choice pleases her, and she is happy. “I know that not every famous singer could do this, but I can and I enjoy it.” She also keeps a memory book for people to sign that she plans to one day show her grandchildren.

“The street show is a phenomenon, because people are surprised that someone who is very famous and part of the Israeli music history is willing to perform on the street, but I feel that I am doing something good for the people.”

In 2006, after the death of her mother, Aloni wrote “Lashir ad Klot” (Sing to the End). Nurit Hirsch composed the music for the lyrics and Tuvia Tischler, an Israeli choreographer for Israeli folk dance, created a couples dance for the tune. Next year, Aloni plans to release a “Best of Miri Aloni” three-CD compilation that will include unique recordings never before released.

“I’ll sing to the end,” she said with great conviction. “Everybody should sing to the end in spite of the difficulties. Even if we get up in the morning and we don’t know where we’ll find the power to get through the day, we should keep on singing.”   

In celebration of Chanukah, Miri Aloni will be presenting an evening of Israeli music, including her well-known hits, on Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. in the Gindi Auditorium at American Jewish University.