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The Ofra Haza enigma: How Israel's greatest pop star is remembered

What does it say about Israeli society when 13 years after her death, Ofra Haza is best remembered for succumbing to AIDS and for a Mizrahi accent that Israelis just can’t help but mock?

By Adi Keissar

Ofra Haza at a ceremony in Jerusalem, April 30, 1998 (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Some time in the 1980s, the world became divided into two camps. Either you loved Yardena Arazi or you loved Ofra Haza. In 1983, Haza defeated Arazi in a competition to represent Israel in the Eurovision competition by just one point – an outcome that further inflamed both camps. As a member of the Yemenite community, I am embarrassed to say that I belonged to the Arazi camp, instead of supporting the representative of my own ethnic group. But perhaps I am worthy of forgiveness. In my youth, like every young girl who has yet to totally connect to her own identity, I was controlled by a girl who was both slightly older than me and whom I viewed as the ultimate authority – this girl was my cousin. She was older by only a few years, but she was the one who decided which hairdo was cool enough to walk around with, which guy from the Tel Aviv Youth band was worthy of my crush, or which camp we would belong to when it came to Yardena or Ofra.

Last month, on February 13, it was the 13th anniversary of Ofra Haza’s death. It must be mentioned that long before she died, I understood the mistake I made, quickly defecting to the Ofra Haza camp retroactively. Perhaps I made the move after eventually realizing my own identity. Perhaps I did it after realizing that I loved Haza’s songs more than Arazi’s. Perhaps I did it since my Yemenite side finally took over and I wanted to show solidarity with my people. I think that what happened was that I felt bad. I felt bad because the exceptional story of a girl who came from a large family in Tel Aviv’s working-class Hatikva neighborhood and turned into an international success story can be summarized with a poor joke that is told whenever her name comes up – “She’s finished.”

Looking back at Haza’s career, as well as at her remarkable life story, makes me wonder why Israeli society cannot deal with a success  story that ends in tragedy. Maybe Israel is really a small country that cannot deal with the tales of larger-than-life figures that end in tragedy. And maybe it is hard for us to deal with the fact that Haza died of AIDS. It doesn’t matter how liberal our society pretends it is, even today, the word “AIDS” is associated with dubious sexual practices. Our puritanical society does not really know how to talk about or remember someone whose image was so clean, but eventually died of AIDS. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that Ofra Haza was a Mizrahi Jew? In a famous film that came out in the wake of her death, we see the women of her family sitting and talking openly, somberly about her final days. And one of them, who speaks with a glottal “khet” and an “ayin” in her Hebrew, with tears in her eyes, says “you are crazy for waiting so long – now she is already finished.”

And suddenly, it becomes clear that the memory of Ofra Haza becomes encapsulated in one sentence that has become a fun and acceptable way to mock a Mizrahi accent. We have forgotten Haza’s international career, but we have turned the women who appear in the film into objects of mockery. I ask myself “would a non-Mizrahi man be similarly mocked had he uttered the exact same sentence? “We’ve decided to stick to that one sentence, laughing even as we say it today. And if this is our way of dealing with our memory of Haza, it says much more about us than it does about her or the women in the film. Here are some of the most significant events in the life of Ofra Haza, who we would do well to remember 13 years after her death.

Ofra Haza was born in 1957 to a traditional Yemenite family of nine children that lived in Hatikva. In her childhood, she joined the school choir and began to perform and act in the local neighborhood theater. In 1974, she took third place in a nationwide Mizrahi music festival, but her big breakthrough came in 1979 when she was cast in Asi Dayan’s film “Shlager,” alongside the “HaGashash HaHiver” comedy trio, in which she sang the song that turned the film into a hit:

After the release of her first solo album “Al Ahavot Shelanu” (“Our Love”) in 1980, Haza’s popularity began to skyrocket. She continued to release successful albums and singles that won her fame and several prizes. In 1983, after defeating Arazi, Haza flew to Munich to represent Israel in the Eurovision competition, performing a song written for Ehud Manor:

In that same year, Haza released “Shirei Moledet” (“Songs of the Homeland”), which included new interpretations of classic Hebrew songs. Although most of her professional career did not emphasize her Yemenite roots, her 1984 album “Songs of Yemen” included Yemenite songs from different eras. This was the first time that a new Ofra Haza album was not played on popular radio stations, as most of the stations found Yemenite music too difficult, and was only played on radio shows that featured Mizrahi music. On the other hand, the song “Galbi” (“My Heart”), written by Aharon Amram, became very popular in England.

The success of Galbi heralded Haza’s international breakthrough into the European market. Her song “Im Nin’alu,” (“If The Doors Are Locked”) which was written by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi and was released as a remix including singing in both Arabic and English won her fame across the globe.

At the height of Haza’s career, she was performing in European and American festivals, winning countless awards, appearing on the cover of magazines and even appeared on the Tonight Show featuring Johnny Carson. Her 13th studio album, “Shaday,” sold over a million copies across the world.

In 1993, Haza became the first Israeli singer to be nominated for a Grammy in the category of “World Music” for her album “Kirya,” which topped Billboard’s World Music chart. In 1994, Haza performed in Oslo during the ceremony to award Nobel Peace Prizes to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, and in 1998 she took part in the Prince of Egypt soundtrack. In 2000, Haza passed away at age 41 from complications caused by AIDS. Not many Israeli artists (if any) have made it to CNN’s headlines upon passing away:

One can say many things about Ofra Haza. One can say that she is an inspirational success story, especially today when many artists are attempting to break through to an English-speaking audience, while she managed to do so using her Yemenite origins. On the other hand, one can say that she fit into the cultural framework of the West, making the Yemenite sounds more accessible and thus became famous. One can say many things. But let’s be real: 13 years after her death, after the Hatikva neighborhood theater, the worldwide tours and the stint at Dreamworks Studios in Los Angeles, we can finally stop with our mocking. Ofra Haza was able to get out of Hatikva and become a superstar. But sometimes, it seems, that underneath the seemingly innocent mockery, it might be more comfortable for Israeli society to leave her there, in Hatikva, where we make fun of the way in which people speak.

Adi Keissar is a journalist, screenwriter and poet based in Tel Aviv. This piece was first published in Hebrew in Café Gibraltar.

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    1. I thank you for this article as it shows me some attitudes I did not know. Although I live thousands of miles aways in a remote French colony of the South Seas, Ofra has been with us on our radio and TV’s since the 80’s. Her passing was even mentioned on the three out of four radio stations we have.

      It is difficult for us, foreigners from abroad, to realize many within Israel refers to Ofra as you mentioned here for elsewhere, she is remembered as the rising Star if not the ONLY Jewish artists who made it into the entire world.

      That alone inspires a great respect and love and her passing is remembered as a difficult, painful moment.

      Everyone abroad knows how Ofra lived, how attached to her religion, to her roots she was, yet how open minded and kind she was. It falls to common sense than the awful ending was not her choice, hence, she was happily blooming on a new project we heard back then.

      Maybe the fact that many, many, many of her fans, worldwide who are not Jewish nor have ever lived in Israel, have an easier time understanding Ofra for whom she was and not how she left us.

      There is a radio station here, in our little island of 250.000 inhabitants, who still play Ofra’songs.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron Gross

      Not one, but two lead paragraphs on the fascinating story of the journalist’s life.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Elisabeth

      I knew her only from her appearance at the Eurovision Song Festival where she sang “The people of Israel live” in GERMANY!! Probably the only time in my life when a Eurovision song impressed me.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Angelina. M

      She is not from Isreal. She is from Yemen.

      Reply to Comment
      • chumachil

        She’s from Israel, her family are Yemenite Jews, and she’s proud pf her heritage.

        Reply to Comment
    5. F g

      Offa haza was by far the best statement of a sentiment .. I’m reading comments with interest .. Some overbearing .. Why don’t you just listen to the music and appreciate the feeling and talent … Why are people so negative .. Girl was lovely singer and brought her language and tradition to the worlds table … Why so negative

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ivoor

      Most beautiful singer ever to bless us in this lifetime. Will pray to hear ofras voice once more, in my next life.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ofra Haza Is the Sister Moses of Yemenite Jews Music . Let Us Make Sure We Remember Her That Way

      Reply to Comment
    8. Steve

      Ofra Haza had the most amazing voice. It first penetrated my mind and touched my soul in Sisters Of Mercy’s Temple Of Love. I felt it to my core and so listened to more of her. She was famous for her beautiful, smooth, rich voice and her ability to artfully weave it into pure magic. And she was beautiful.

      Until I read this article, I didn’t know that she had died from AIDS. Nor did I know that she was a jew. It is a dreadful loss to the world that she died so young and it is totally irrelevant what religion she was taken in by.

      She was not the only jew to become famous to the whole world. They are the only religion who are given the opportunity to become famous in Hollywood. How many non-jewish American actors/artists can you name?

      Reply to Comment
    9. rachel

      She sang in hebrew and english….not Arabic lol…

      Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        Wrong she sand in Hebrew Aramaic Arabic and English as stated on one of her own record covers. I have everything she ever did

        Reply to Comment
    10. Mark

      I first heard this beautiful voice when i was dancing in clubs, I had to have everything put out by Ofra Haza, she was INCREDIBLE!!!!! I miss hearing anything new from her, so i listen to old stuff, the memories take me back. Now there is someone else worthy of mentioning from Israel, a transgender DJ, Offer Nissim, one of the biggest DJ’s in the world. I must say I’m very proud of Israel and their openness towards the LGBT community, bravo, maybe the rest of the world will catch up.

      Reply to Comment
    11. A really interesting article and thanks for writing this.

      Reply to Comment