The Double Life of Ofra Haza

Mikhtavim l'ofra (Letters to Ofra), by Bezalel Aloni, Dan-Al, 288 pages, NIS 88

In eclectic language ("Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots, Ofra?"), which alternates with poor Hebrew, ("Ofra yoshenet? ["Ofra is sleeping?], when the correct form of the verb would be yeshena), Bezalel Aloni, manager of the late singer Ofra Haza, recounts a fascinating and riveting, if frightening, story. "Letters to Ofra," a collection of letters Aloni writes to the entertainer, proceeds in a relatively linear fashion; sometimes, he returns to the past or switches to the future, disrupting an otherwise orderly sequence.

In terms of content, the book merges Aloni's partial autobiography with the (also partial) biography of Haza. In this respect, it is strongly reminiscent of Uri Dan's "Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait." Like Dan in his book, Aloni presents a different version -his own - of Haza's rise and fall. The story has all the stuff Hollywood screenwriters would give their right arm for. It is a tale without mercy, without nuance.

The narrative Aloni weaves is complex, but here are the essential features: The youngest daughter of a poor family living in Tel Aviv's Hatikva quarter, Haza (1957-2000) became an international star and a wealthy woman. Despite her immense talents, which Aloni cultivated, she was torn between her desire for professional self-fulfillment and her extended family's desire that she fulfill herself principally as a wife and mother.

To illustrate this tension, Aloni introduces a conversation between Haza and one of her brothers, which took place when she was at the height of her career. Her brother tersely expressed his view of her accomplishments: "Who the hell are you anyway? You're just an unmarried woman with no children!" Haza did not react.

Her iron determination to advance her career, alongside a commitment to family, caused her essentially to lead a double life. On one hand, she was a star who spoke several languages and hobnobbed with the rich and famous; on the other, whenever she returned to her old neighborhood, she would become submissive, tacitly agreeing to serve as a target for insults and not daring to stand up to the Yemenite community's traditional codes, which her family tried to impose upon her.

Aloni describes how he tried to help Haza and protect her from those who, in his eyes, did not have her best interests at heart. He would screen would-be suitors and often crossed swords with her sister Shuli, described in the book as a crass individual: "You mean to tell me, Ofra, that you never feel the urge sometimes?" was her scornful reaction to Haza's decision to remain a virgin until her wedding night.

As the years passed, Haza understood that her career could never supply her what she really wanted in life: a family. When she turned 30, she became preoccupied not with furthering her career but rather with finding a husband. Aloni understood her longing for a marital partner, wanted to help, but says he could not fathom what precisely she was looking for in a mate.

Her many suitors were subjected to a stringent screening process (Aloni chiefly feared men who were mainly interested in her money), but Haza would always reject those whom Aloni approved of. She wanted God to guide her in her choice, to help her find true love, and she preferred to await the arrival of a "Prince Charming on a white horse." When she was 39, he arrived, much to the displeasure of Aloni, who failed to understand why the suitor Haza eventually chose, Doron Ashkenazi, insisted on arriving at the wedding, held on the roof of her parents' home, in a horse-drawn carriage and accompanied by hundreds of her fans. Aloni saw this as just one more example of Ashkenazi's vanity.

While Aloni found the horse-and-carriage scene irritating, what appalled him was that Ashkenazi - the first man Haza ever had sex with, according to her manager - infected her with AIDS.

Haza had a thriving, richly variegated career, and Aloni continually stresses this point, as well as his hand in her success. However, in the letters he sends her, he never questions whether she could have developed her career differently, or whether he himself made any professional errors along the way. Furthermore, it is difficult to overlook the possibility that their relationship may have been too close for comfort: Haza was the only singer Aloni represented and, for a long period, she even lived in his home.

However, her former manager is not troubled by such thoughts; he is concerned primarily with his protege's tragic end. After her death in 2000, Aloni, Ashkenazi and Haza's family traded accusations and fought over her estate. The subject has already been dealt with several times by the courts.

Even today, after Ashkenazi's death (he suffered cardiac arrest, a year after Haza's death, apparently as the result of a drug overdose), the parties are still accusing one another of exploiting Haza. The versions are conflicting; however, Aloni is convinced that Ashkenazi planned in advance to seize control of Haza's money to dig himself out of his financial debts and that he craftily identified the business potential of a marriage to this naive woman, who so much wanted to get married.

Aloni's book is essentially a harsh indictment of Doron Ashkenazi. In "Letters to Ofra," the evidence is based on what Aloni remembers. Since the warning signs regarding Ashkenazi's character were so obvious (he used coarse language when talking with Haza, tripped himself up several times with his lies and concealed the sources of his income), the question arises: How, despite all this, did he manage to capture the heart of this star? Aloni suggests a simple explanation: That is how love blossoms when "your biological clock obliterates your sense of reason." However, here Aloni paints himself into a corner. The more he tarnishes Ashkenazi's image, the shabbier the picture he paints of Haza herself: She emerges as a woman who, despite fears and doubts about her future husband, prefers to rely on an "old Yemenite" rabbi, who tells her she must accept Ashkenazi "as is" because "it is written in the Torah that your husband is your master and you must bow down to him."

After her marriage, Haza began to distance herself from her loyal manager. Aloni notes that one of the low points in their relationship was a barbecue dinner Haza prepared. Instead of choice meat, Haza served Aloni, much to his amazement, "two platters piled high with baked garlic." Aloni was horrified: "What is all this garlic for, Ofra? To ward off the evil eye? To ward off all those who plot against you? To ward off all your enemies? You have gone stark raving mad! Why are you serving garlic to both of us?" To ensure that the insult would be fully understood, Aloni points out, her husband, who "was apparently starved, and greedily consumed everything that was on the garlic-less barbecue grill."

It is common knowledge that Haza's life ended bitterly. After her marriage, she failed to become pregnant and her career stagnated. Two and a half years after the wedding, she was dying of AIDS, and her situation was aggravated because, ashamed of her condition, she delayed receiving medical treatment. Aloni, who attributes her death to her bad choice of a marriage partner, did not attend her funeral. This was the only time he was absent from an event connected with Ofra Haza.

Avi Shilon is a journalist.