Portrait of the artist as a time traveler
For 25 years Ehud Banai has proved a singular voice in the Israeli music scene. Can his new literary endeavor hit the right notes?
When Ehud Banai rose to prominence with his phenomenal debut album, "Ehud Banai and the Refugees," in 1987, he gave his listeners - and his colleagues as well - a lesson in observation. A double lesson, to be more exact. The first observation that Banai proposed was to look at the "other." In its own modest way, this was a radical proposal. Israeli music was not accustomed to this view. The old-style Hebrew songs knew how to look at the group, and rock and pop had learned to reflect on the individual, but almost no one thought to divert their gaze to the other: the marginal, the distant, the downtrodden. Banai was drawn to these invisible people. He told their story and, through them, told the story of Israeli society.
Along with this observation, Banai also proposed another look: the look backward. Not that Israeli music lacks songs about biblical themes, but for the most part there is a clear division between these songs and our world. For Banai, there is no such division - there is a single historical continuum, in which there is a blurring of the boundaries between ancient and contemporary, and between mythic and concrete.
Not long ago, Banai was a guest on Ofer Shelah's Channel 8 TV series about America, on which he said that if the formative element of American culture is the geographical expanse, the formative element of Israeli culture is the historical expanse. They have thousands of kilometers; we have thousands of years. This insight is without doubt one of the building blocks of Banai's creative oeuvre, in which many of his songs take place in two or three circles of time: present, near past, distant past.
There was a specific point at the beginning of Banai's debut album in which the look at the other and the look backward merged into one voluble and stirring line: "Who can say if Abraham wasn't black?" Twenty-five years on, this phrase has no doubt lost its electrifying effect, but in real time - on that initial listen to the song "Avodah Sh'chorah" ("Black Work") - it struck like a lightning bolt. Banai saw something no one else had seen.
Over the years, we have grown accustomed to Ehud Banai's particular brand of observation. The look at the other and the look backward no longer strike us as new, mind-blowing concepts. This is Banai's language, a wonderful language on which he has copyright, but we can already more or less guess how it will be turned into a song. This doesn't rule out the possibility that the song will be outstanding: for instance, see "Ma'aseh B'arba'a" ("Tale of the Four") from Banai's most recent album, "Drops of the Night" (2011), a song that juxtaposes the Talmudic pardes (orchard) with 1960s Givatayim. But how many songs like that have been in Banai's harvest of the past few years? Not too many, I feel.
Banai recently published a book, "Zeh Hamakom" ("This Is the Place"). It contains six stories based on his own biography, although they are not committed to adhering to reality ("The collection of stories presented in this book integrates the documentary with the imaginary," he writes in a brief preface). It is a wonderful book that enables one to contemplate the unique creative language of Banai, that which is based upon the look at the "other" and the look backward, as it emerges from the familiar framework of his songs and is implanted in a different context. It was entirely conceivable that Banai's language would not maintain its authenticity in the literary context, so it is a pleasure to read "This Is the Place" and to see that it does in fact work.
Drawn to the downtrodden
The start of the book does raise some doubts. "This Is the Place" opens with an amusing description of Banai's dismal situation as a young man. He is twentysomething, looking for himself, earning a living as a mailman in Givatayim. He meets someone who was in his grade at school and when the girl's mother asks him what he does, he responds, "I work and I study." When the woman hears that he works as a mailman, she says, "Well, at least you are studying. What is it you're studying?" "Driving," the embarrassed Banai answers, and quickly flees the scene. A cute story, but as the opening shot of a book, it is not entirely promising. What's more, it seems as if we have already heard it at Banai's performances.
But then, after the hesitant opening, something good happens. Banai activates his double look, and the text begins to zip, to open up, to be thrown in all sorts of directions, to move between different people and different times. And the reader, even though he knows Banai well and knows that this is how his mind works, nevertheless finds himself surprised at the beauty of this free-form literary wandering between characters, places and times. It's a wandering that has something measured and reserved about it, in keeping with Banai's signature style, but also the devil-may-care dimension of an impromptu road trip.
"Gan Ha'aliya Hashniya," the first (and what I consider the finest) story in the anthology, begins as the tale of Banai as a mailman in his 20s, in the mid-1970s. But after the first few pages the stage has expanded, and we are peering into another circle of time, in which the Second Aliyah pioneer Noah Naftulsky, a friend of the writer Yosef Haim Brenner and Rachel (Bluwstein) the poet, tries to find his place in the Land of Israel. Tries and fails. Like the young woman from Kibbutz Kinneret who took her own life because she could not comply with the group's demands, like the Yemenite families who settled at Kinneret but were expelled by the pioneers who came from Eastern Europe. As is his wont, Banai is drawn to the downtrodden, the vanquished and the underdog.
Afterward, the story reverts back to the 1970s and Banai, who travels to the Galilee to be a shepherd. A few pages later, at a Yemenite farmer's sheep pen near the Arbel valley, the story shifts with complete naturalness to two sages walking in the same valley 2,000 years earlier. The plot then returns to the 1970s, to the temporary home that Banai founded with two dreamers who were unsuccessful at setting up an organic farm. And then we're back in time to the story of Noah Naftulsky in the early 20th century, and then over to Banai's Galilee hut, and how he leaves it for the sake of another way station on the journey. The ancient sages, the Second Aliyah figure, Banai and the characters he meets are all part of the same story, which is in perpetual movement, in an unending search, amid a clear sensation of unease.
The makom (place) that appears in the book's title changes its meaning in the course of reading. In the first story - and generally speaking in the chapters that feature the young Banai - the makom is the journey itself: Banai's search for a reality in which he will feel that he belongs, a reality that would eliminate the doubts and unease. Later on in the book, he finds this reality. And in the chapters that relate to the Banai of the past 15 years, this is the makom. The doubts have vanished, the unease has dissipated. The first word that comes to mind when you read these chapters is serenity. The search is over, for better or for worse.
The most conspicuous aspect, and not necessarily for the better, in the stories that take place in the synagogue, and especially "Sgan Gabai" (Deputy Sexton ), is the inflation of the light featured in them. "Light" is an important and prominent word in Banai's lexicon, from the start of his journey (the sentence that precedes "Who can say if Abraham wasn't black?" in "Avodah Sh'chorah" is "And in their eyes, such light I saw" ), but it feels as if there is an overdose of it in the new book.
"My teacher Yosef Davidi, the Yemenite rabbi, is the lighthouse of the neighborhood"; "His eyes emit light through his glasses"; "I could feel the hidden light beneath all the neglect"; "We entered a lit-up synagogue"; "If only I could come every day to this small and brightly lit house of study"; "Outside there was a big storm, but here the warmth and light flowed with abundance." It reaches a point toward the end of the book where you feel like pulling Banai away from the light switch.
When Banai writes "light," he sees before him numerous meanings of the word: "The rabbi began to speak in a low, soft voice, at times a bit shaky, about encompassing light and reflected light ... and the things that were always unexplained and sealed off to me slowly began to open up." But for some of the book's readers, who have never heard of encompassing light or reflected light, light is just light, and a description that repeats itself over and over is a recipe for a one-dimensional story. And instead of the spiritual and mental process which Banai went through being gradually revealed to us, it remains indistinct and vague. In the chapters about the young Banai, I never for a moment felt I was lacking the music. In the chapters about the synagogue, its absence was glaring.