Shimon Yisraeli - Itzik Ben-Malki
Shimon Yisraeli. Photo by Itzik Ben-Malki
Text size

Once he made auditoriums shake. Now, he speaks quietly, softly. Occasionally you have to lean toward him to hear what he is saying. This is Shimon Yisraeli, the actor and singer with the deep, bold, bass voice. When he sang lines like "I pray for hammer blows, I pray for the crowded streets, for the peddler and the basket, on the avenue on a bench," way back in the early 1960s, the walls of the hall shuddered and the radio receivers thundered.

During a conversation with Haaretz at a Haifa coffee shop, Yisraeli tells terrific stories about his long career. He is full of life, and remembers every detail, and when he goes on to talk about his worldview and his social awareness, his voice suddenly grows louder.

Earlier this month, an evening paying tribute to Yisraeli was held at Tzavta in Tel Aviv, featuring Israel Gurion, Edna Goren, Izhar Cohen, Eli Gorenstein, Ilan Weil, Boaz Peiper (who organized and hosted the event ), and others. Yisraeli's pianist-daughter Irit and guitarist-son Ofer participated, but the old-timer himself, 79, was naturally the star of the event.

Yisraeli is known as the first performer to put on a one-man show in this country: the 1960 production "Stam Yom Shel Hol" (Just An Ordinary Day ). Asked today whether he indeed played a pioneering role, he says: "It's true, but more important, I was the first one in Israel to sing his own songs." Asked to elaborate, he joyfully responds: "Did you know that I was also the first in the country to perform with a neck microphone? That was in 1963. I read they were working on something like that in Japan, so I approached Uri Yafeh, [singer] Yona Atari's husband, who was an El Al pilot, and asked him to buy the device for me.

"It was a big square thing, fairly heavy, that you'd stick into your shirt. It was still experimental then. When purchasing the device, you undertook to give the company feedback on how it worked. So, I remember myself standing here," he says pointing toward the place where Haifa's Rappaport Auditorium stands today, "there was a huge auditorium here, with almost 3,000 seats. I performed here regularly. So I was standing on this stage with the neck mic, and the audience just couldn't understand what was happening. I'm speaking, they can hear me through the speakers, but see no microphone. I turn my back to the audience, they hear the same sound. Utter astonishment prevailed ...

"I said: 'Folks, I see that I owe you an explanation.' And then I unbuttoned my shirt, told them that I had received something experimental, a wireless mic, and displayed the antenna and the transmitter. Only then did the whispering die down and I could start the show."

It is impossible to separate Yisraeli's actor's hat from his singer's hat. When he sang, he always acted, and when he acted, he generally also sang.

"I started singing in the army, in 1951," he explains. "I went to the auditions for the entertainment troupes as an actor, but they told me: 'We're not looking for an actor; we're looking for a singer. What are you going to sing for us?' So I imitated [singer] Shimshon Bar-Noy: 'Yesh li Kinneret, meitarim alpayyyyyim'- the moment they heard that 'alpayyyyyim' they said: 'You're in.'"

When the commander of the Israel Defense Forces base devoted to culture told Yisraeli that his singing reminded her of Paul Robeson's, he didn't even know who the great black American singer was.

"So she took me home, played me his songs, told me about his life: The tremendous singer, labor leader, fighter, wrestler, theater actor, singer with the mesmerizing voice. And I immediately became his groupie. I worshiped him. He was my idol," he says. "I imitated him so obsessively that it took me years to shake free of his hypnotic hold on me. Only then did I realize that I had to find my own identity - to aspire to sing not like somebody, but rather the way I think I should sing. But even then Robeson's influence over me remained immense."

Yisraeli sang "Ol' Man River," Robeson's most famous song, at his first performance in front of a civilian audience. It was at a workers' gathering held on May 1, 1953, at Beit Ha'am in Tel Aviv.

"An experience of indescribable delirium," he recalls. "The excitement, the compliments, the enthusiasm of the crowd, for whom Robeson was not only a singer, but also a fighter for black rights."

For the next three years, Yisraeli worked mainly in theater, showcasing his singing talents in plays like "Cry, the Beloved Country," in which he functioned as a type of apprentice to actor Aharon Meskin.

"Meskin had to sing six songs, and he couldn't handle this from a vocal standpoint," Yisraeli explains. "The director's solution was to create a character that was a sort of physical incarnation of his spirit ... a figure that follows him around, a kind of moral shadow, his conscience. That was me. Meskin would sit on stage, sunk in contemplation, bathed in warm light, and I'd be behind him, illuminated in blue light; I sang the songs that he was supposed to sing. I'd belt them out, sing with all my heart, all my strength. Afterward people said: 'Listen, that scene where Meskin sits and thinks, it's heart-wrenching.' So I said: 'And what about me?' And they'd say: 'What, you were singing there too?' So that put things in proportion for me. I realized where I stood on the scale of true stage expression."

French connection

In 1956 Yisraeli played in "Hu Halakh B'Sadot" ("He Walked Through the Fields" ) at the Cameri Theater. Alongside him were two young singers, Arik Lavie and Zvi Borodo, and when the trio sang while on the road, the combination of their voices - Yisraeli's deep bass, Borodo's bass-baritone, and Lavie's baritone - produced a unique sound.

Thus came into being Shloshet Hameitarim (The Three Strings ), one of the best vocal groups in the history of Hebrew song. Composer Yehezkel Braun crafted masterly arrangements for them through which a biblical spirit wafted, with melodies written by Yedidia Admon, David Zahavi and Sasha Argov, among others. A young impresario fresh out of the army, named Giora Godik, made sure the trio was seen and heard.

"A veteran theater actor said to me: 'You should work with him, he's young and hasn't yet learned the tricks of cheating,' Yisraeli recounts. "He had us performing all over the country - us and [actor] Shaike Ophir."

Godik would go on to be known as "the king of musicals."

A short while after the group got started, Shloshet Hameitarim went to Paris at the invitation of a local producer, and signed a recording contract with the label His Master's Voice.

Because the French word for "string" is identical to the word for "noose," the group had to change its name to Le Trio Aravah (The Arava Trio ) - like the title of one of their songs. They performed at the Olympia in Paris before Charles Aznavour. Yisraeli recounts that the French audience was very enthusiastic about their theatrical performance.

"We treated each song like a monologue," he says. "Any vocal gesture to enhance the atmosphere was legitimate. Ohhhh, Ahhhh, Hmmm. It really got the French going, as did the biblical atmosphere. The composer Darius [Milhaud] said: 'The spirit of the Bible blows through the trio's album.'"

There was something else the French were enthusiastic about: a made-up gimmick, dreamed up by the group's French producer. "She had a picture of us from Sinai, the three of us and the guitar," Yisraeli says, "and she told one of the French reporters: 'By the way, that guitar saved Zvi Borodo's life in the Sinai War. An errant bullet lodged in it.' This created a big fuss. We were awakened in the morning by journalists who wanted to photograph the guitar with the bullet hole. We couldn't understand what they wanted. We telephoned the producer and she told us the story. We said, 'But there is no hole in the guitar,' and she said, 'So make a hole.' Borodo was not willing to by any means. He said that he'd make a hole in the producer's soul. Then she said: 'Buy a guitar and make a hole in it' - and that's what happened."

The trio remained in France for about a year, and when there started to be talk of shows at the Casino Royale in Monte Carlo and a U.S. concert tour, including an appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" - Yisraeli decided to stop and return to Israel. He missed his wife.

'Ordinary days'

During his year in Paris, he says, the seeds were sown for the songs that grew in the ensuing years: "In that year I absorbed a ton from the atmosphere around us. It was so different from the atmosphere we had known in Israel. We came from an 'enlisted' culture: Everything was aimed in a single direction, for the sake of the homeland. Songs of labor, heroism, volunteerism, sacrifice, victory. And suddenly I discovered that a world exists where you can sing about other things: love, betrayal, friendship, marriage. About when nothing happens, just ordinary days."

In Paris he wrote his first song - without lyrics. "The first was based on a story that I heard in a cafe. A drunken black man was sitting there, outside it was raining, he's at one table and I'm at an adjacent one. Suddenly, he says: 'My father used to say that God was black, and the whole world was black, and the first man was black. One day the two black brothers, Cain and Abel, were walking in a field, and something happened.' That is what he said, 'Something happened. Cain killed Abel, and he heard God say, 'What have you done, Cain, what have you done?' And Cain, being ashamed of the murder, turned white as a wall, pale. And that was the first white man."

"'Why am I telling this?'" Yisraeli continues, pretending he is the old black man and adding in a broken voice: '"I don't know, maybe it's because of the rain outside.'"

"I was so amazed by the story," Yisraeli says, breaking character, "that I left the cafe, walked around in the rain, roamed the banks of the Seine and hummed a melody to myself - the first one I ever composed - with this story constantly in the background. And that is how it appears on my record, without words. It's called 'Hirhur Be'hum' [Contemplation in Brown]."

Another melody Yisraeli wrote in France is that of his most famous song, "Just an Ordinary Day," which later became the name of his first one-man show. He gathered up a few more songs, played them for his friends in Batzal Yarok (a band of Nahal Brigade veterans, active from 1957-1961 , and which he belonged to), and in view of their enthusiastic response, began considering the idea of putting on a show of his own, a solo act. Director Yosef Milo, who had just opened a theater club in Haifa, invited Yisraeli to try out his new material there. The show ran for six months, and in the first part of the evening, a mime artist and an all-female lineup of entertainers who included Rivka Michaeli and Geula Nuni appeared; in the second part Yisraeli would sing his new songs, and perform skits and theatrical pieces.

After nighttime performances of "Just An Ordinary Day," he'd return to Tel Aviv in a shared taxi. Sometimes he would have to wait until 2 A.M. for the cab to fill up, but those nighttime drives provided him with plenty of stories that he heard from the other passengers and the driver. Some of these he wrote up and published in the weekly magazine Ha'Olam Hazeh; others found their way into his performances.

"When I came out with my first show, the critics didn't know what to make of it," Yisraeli says. "The reviews said more or less this: 'What? Alone? Actors who've worked in theater for 40 years don't dare do such a thing. How does this look? What has he got to say? It's not enough to put some sort of set on the stage, add songs and a band and lighting, and call it a play. And the songs - he's destroying Israeli singing, introducing the French style. What is with that chansons style?"

Despite the criticism, the show was a hot ticket: Yisraeli became very popular, and the songs (with magnificent arrangements by Alex Weiss ) took over the radio waves.

"There were people waiting for me on every corner to stick it to me," he muses today, "and I kept thinking what I should do afterward. I had to avoid comparisons with the first show, to create a completely different story."

Yisraeli turned to Aharon Megged with the idea of writing a story about twins, which is how his second solo show, "The Twins," came into being. The third show, which dealt with a circus clown whose lover ran away with the trapeze artist, was written by Nissim Aloni, and the fourth show, "The Theory of Relativity," was written by Yisraeli and Dan Almagor. All four shows were put on around the country in the space of two years.

"I was on a roll," Yisraeli remembers, "and I was, if you'll excuse the word, inspired."

The artist's baggage

The common thread running through all the shows was Yisraeli's preoccupation with ordinary people. "The little guy, as they say, but I hate that expression," he says. "It's a matter of my social awareness - it is the source of all of the material I brought to the stage. I come from the Labor Movement. I was never a party member, but I was identified with the left. I don't think that a song or skit can solve the world's problems, but when you gather a crowd every night you have to say something to them, even if it's not in the framework of a play with a so-called message.

"Because, what are an artist's tools? Awareness - political, social, economic, psychological, educational. You need to have an opinion, to have concrete knowledge of matters," he explains, his voice suddenly booming. "Otherwise you are only exposing your vacuity and lack. It's like if someone does a parody of a pianist playing a concerto. He'd have to be an extraordinary pianist and play it wonderfully so he can show how it gets ruined. If all he does is ruin it, then the joke's on him. That's why I say that an artist has to go on stage with all of his baggage."

In 1963 Yisraeli brought his heavy biographical baggage as a Holocaust survivor to the screen. The film "Hamartef" ("The Cellar" ), in which Yisraeli was the sole actor, "had an autobiographical dimension. It did not deal with the Holocaust directly, but rather focused on the subject of revenge and examined that from every angle," Yisraeli says. "The uselessness of revenge, its sterility. That is a package I've been carrying with me from my childhood in the Holocaust."

But audiences didn't come to see the film. "Its timing was terrible," he notes. "It came out right on the tail of the Eichmann trial, and people couldn't take any more. They wanted to escape from the subject."

Yisraeli had sunk all his profits from the one-man shows into "Hamartef," and the film left him in debt. That situation spurred him to accept the suggestion of Haifa's mayor, Abba Hushi, to move and set up the Haifa youth theater in the mid 1960s, to act for the next few decades at the Haifa Theater, and to put away his singer's hat for the most part.

Does he regret that? "No. I never saw myself making a career as a singer. Singing was for me a part of my expression in plays, mainly when there were subjects that weren't meaty enough to fill a skit, but they could fill a song of a few verses. The songs were also the best ways to promote the plays. I always made sure that the title of the play would be the same as the title of the most successful song from it. It's enough that people hear one line on the radio ... and already they're coming to the play. And the songs also provided a break from the heavier things in the plays. When you perform alone, you use every possible means of expression - song, telephone conversation, monologue, parody, rhymed skit - anything to make it easier for the audience to take in a whole evening of one man."