The way we were: Streisand and Saban shore up for Israel

This time of year gets people thinking about what they miss.

For the 1,200-person crowd at the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Gala Dinner on Dec. 8, it was Israel lighting the corners of their mind.

Century City’s Hyatt Regency ballroom was teeming with Los Angeles’ most hawkish, hard-line lovers of Israel, among them the annual event’s hosts, Haim and Cheryl Saban. Channeling a less idealized love were the evening’s headliners — Barbra Streisand, who sang, and Jason Alexander, who emceed — both of whom belong decidedly to the pro-peace, two-state solution left.

There were other, stranger contrasts and ironies: Maimed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers and U.S. Army veterans shared tables with a cosmetically reconstructed Real Housewife (Jill Zarin) and a fame-chasing Millionaire Matchmaker (Patti Stanger). Lachrymose videos about 18-year-old men and women who sacrifice all for God and country were projected on giant HD screens for the viewing pleasure of Los Angeles’ most affluent.

It was a striking mix of Jewish guilt and privilege, and nowhere was the conflict between those forces more evident than in Haim Saban himself. When he took the podium, he momentarily digressed from the speech on the teleprompter to admit, “It’s truly humbling to follow these guys” — referring to a one-eyed veteran of the war in Iraq, a paralyzed IDF soldier and a female F-16 fighter pilot, all of whom risked life and limb in the name of national fealty. “And here we are in Beverly Hills,” Saban said, “having a good time.”

He should know. He used to drive tanks; now he has a driver. He used to live in Israel; now he lives in Beverly Park. He moved on from his first love and thrived with his next love. So how does a man repay the country that saved him from persecution in Egypt and remained faithfully true, even after he abandoned her for the good life in America?

Israel is Saban’s poor ex-wife to whom he’s paying lifelong alimony.

Which explains why, year after year, Saban goes all-out for Israel. In addition to the millions he provides to support pro-Israel U.S. political candidates and the Democratic Party, as well as to the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and his seemingly endless and unchecked support for local organizations like the Israeli Leadership Council, the FIDF dinner is his biggest public show. This one night of the year, Saban can prove to Israel that even though he can’t be with her, he really does still love her.

And what better way to demonstrate that romantic longing than with Streisand, the iconic Jewish star, who by simply parting her lips can bring a room to tears? 

In an age of hyper-sexualized, high-couture, high-tech performances, Streisand is a throwback to The Way Things Were — before Madonna’s provocative sexuality, Lady Gaga’s self-aggrandizing avant-gardism and Taylor Swift’s bubble-gum best-sellers. She is an original who now seems to represent a more authentic time, when raw talent mattered more than putting on a show.

What other modern “icon” can compare? A once-in-a-lifetime vocal talent, award-winning film actress and Broadway star, Streisand built her career on the strength of her natural gifts and not synthetic paradigms. She doesn’t measure her success by numbers of Twitter followers.

And even though age has marred her voice to a coarser, quieter sound, she can still deliver as if she were performing the last song on earth.

During four numbers — “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “People,” “The Way We Were” and “Avinu Malkeinu” — Streisand reminded a Hollywood-ized crowd of how enchanting simplicity can be. Elegant and understated, Streisand wore all black and sang bright.

“I also sang at the 30th anniversary of the State of Israel,” she told the crowd. “And I had the privilege of speaking, via satellite, of course, with Prime Minister Golda Meir — and she knew then that our tradition teaches us that none of us can stand alone in this world. Judaism at its core is a religion of community, and, therefore, it propels us to live a life connected to …

“People …”

One benefit of Streisand’s maturity is that her life experience layers every lyric. Sixty-nine years of complex emotions register on her face each time she sings what she has sung countless times before. Songs of memory and longing, love and reverence sound even truer in later life than they did in her youth.

And when she sings, you believe her. Her voice, syrupy rich, and her face, bursting with emotion, still have the power to transport her audience wherever they wish to be — young, healthy, in love, at home. But even in a performance full of promise, there was nostalgia. How does one watch Streisand without being reminded of the ubiquitous presence she used to be?

Everything changes. Life is precious and limited. Only love remains.

Most in the audience that night came to the dinner because they love Israel. Although it’s not always clear how to express that love (of all the organizations in Israel that need supporting, the IDF is perhaps the most important, but the least needy), the main thing is that her lovers are trying.

Like Streisand, Israel is a star that changes but never fades.

CORRECTION APPENDED: An earlier version of this article referred to a nameless IDF soldier who is legless when in fact he is paralyzed from the waist down.