February 28, 2020

Israeli Yehuda Poliker brings Greek-infused music to UCLA

Yehuda Poliker was born in a Haifa, Israel, suburb two years after the founding of the State of Israel, to Greek Jews who survived the deportation from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz. Today, he is considered an Israeli musical icon, having reached career peaks coveted by any Israeli artist: hit singles, platinum albums, sold-out stadiums and the Lifetime Achievement Award of ACUM, Israel’s artist rights agency.

Poliker, however, says he has never been motivated by accolades. “I don’t think in terms of ‘icon,’ ” he told the Jewish Journal via email, in Hebrew. “The one thing that has guided me throughout the years is a love for guitar and music. That’s what drives me. The connection music has with people moves me every time anew.”

Poliker’s music has grown with the Jewish state, and Israelis have grown up on his music. He first gained rock star status in the 1980s as lead singer of the band Benzin (Gasoline). Israelis can still name those Benzin songs and Poliker’s later solo hits, which have served as soundtracks to milestones in their lives and to historical turning points for the nation.

On Nov. 6, when he is scheduled to perform at UCLA’s Royce Hall, completing a five-city U.S. tour, Poliker is bound to ignite in Israeli ex-pats a nostalgia for days past in their motherland.

American audiences have not been exposed much to Poliker’s music, not only because he is media-shy but also because he is afraid of flying. The last time he performed in Los Angeles was a decade ago at the Scottish Rite Auditorium.  

“The time has come to get over this fear,” he said. “I feel ripe and ready to tour and to get to know places where I’ve never been. I hope I’ll get through the flight somehow.”

Poliker’s signature style infuses rock ‘n’ roll with bouzouki-laden melodies, bridging the world of his Greek parents — and the Diaspora experience — with the experience of the new “Hebrews” seeking to live fulfilling lives in a modern Israel filled with wonder and tragedy. Poliker has taken inspiration from Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan to create his own distinct musical language.

His first solo album, “Enaim Sheli” (“My Eyes”), adapted popular Greek songs into Hebrew. The warm, Mediterranean Greek sound had already proven popular in Israel, reflected in the rise of Greek singer Aris Sans, who built a successful career and loyal following in Israel in the 1960s and ’70s. In homage to his Israeli-Greek musical fusion, Poliker received in 2014 the Gold Cross of the Order of the Phoenix, one of Greece’s highest awards for achievement in the arts.

“Israeli audiences really love music with a Greek orientation,” Poliker said. “For many of them, as for me, it’s a return to roots.”

One of his most influential albums, originally rejected for broad radio play, was “Avak v’Efer” (“Ashes and Dust”), produced with his musical partner and lyricist, Yaakov Gilad, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors. The album dealt with the complex feelings of children born to Holocaust survivors and paved the way for a national conversation about the personal and national trauma inflicted by the Holocaust. The album is considered a masterpiece in the canon of Israeli music.

“It’s not a simple album,” Poliker said. “We tried to take this concentration camp that we grew up on out of us so that we could cope with the trauma.”

Onstage, Poliker’s emotional depth is fully unleashed though his passionate guitar playing and bold, at times brooding, presence. But offstage, he is largely a private man. He deviated from his tendency toward privacy in 2010, when, in a documentary film, he indirectly let it be known that he was gay.

“I didn’t come out in the press [about being gay] because I didn’t want to put a label on my music,” Poliker said. “I wanted to leave an opening for everyone to take the texts to their own place, to keep the interpretations of the music open.” 

His audiences, he said, have remained loyal to him and his music.

Today, if he had to write a concept album about contemporary Israel, he said, his overriding message would be: Let’s end war — “To solve problems through peace and dialogue. On the social level, I would want people to look Holocaust survivors, the needy and the helpless in the eye.”

Poliker is landing in an America that to him seems fractured by the presidential election, which will take place two days after his concert at UCLA. As an artist whose music has been credited with uniting Israelis of all ages and backgrounds, he had this to say:

“As someone who could speak from the experience of a divided Israeli society, I would like to suggest not going to those places. Aside from that, I think Americans know what is best and right for them, and will act in kind.

Yehuda Poliker will perform at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Nov. 6. For more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.