A Beggar, a Chooser

Radio presenter, songwriter and friend to the famous, Dudu Vizer was once a vibrant, original part of the local cultural scene. Now, he plays the flute beside the Dizengoff Center and lives on the street

Dudu Vizer stands in his usual spot at the corner of Dizengoff and Tchernikovsky streets, playing his flute. Every so often, he exchanges it for another, which he pulls out of the quiver of flutes he carries on his shoulder. He has 11 different flutes and chooses which one to use based on his mood and on a mysterious code known only to him.

A tattered knapsack lies on the pavement at his feet. Pedestrians pass him by, hurrying about their business, going in and out of the air-conditioned space of nearby Dizengoff Center holding shopping bags emblazoned with fashion logos. Most don't give the derelict musician a second look. The streets of Tel Aviv are full of his kind and the more their number grows, the harder it is to notice them; they blend into the background and become part of the urban landscape.

Only a handful of people stop and put some small change into his open bag. When night falls, he has enough money to buy himself a hamburger.

Dudu Vizer's clothes are shabby and give off a bad smell. He is missing several teeth. It's been years since he had a home. About a month ago, he was hospitalized after he almost died from an intestinal blockage. From the paper bag he carries with him everywhere, he pulls out a poem he wrote entitled "Tipus Shlili" ("Negative Type"). He quotes: "Don't want to know, can't commit/ Don't like my self/ Don't want to give, can't receive/ To them, I'm a traitor, a lunatic and a crook/ No one loves me/ I'm alone, damn it, alone/ Angry here/ Furious there/ Bursting with jealousy/ Jealous of everyone."

To look at this down-at-the-heels flutist, it's nearly impossible to see the man he once was, before he began the slide that landed him at this nadir. It's not easy to tell that this is Dudu Vizer, who was once a rising star in Israeli radio; the handsome and multi-talented paratrooper who married the beautiful daughter of a commander from the War of Independence; whose wedding guests included Chaim Bar-Lev and Ezer Weizman; the man who was the prodigy of Gideon Lev-Ari, in the days when Lev-Ari was the major force at Israel Radio; the man who wrote songs for Corinne Allal, Ariel Zilber and Dori Ben-Ze'ev; who was involved in producing the debut album of the singer Oved and got Israeli kids dancing to the hit song "Barvazim, Barvazim" ("Ducks, Ducks"). It's not easy to tell that this is the Dudu Vizer who married twice and had four children and lots of friends and who dreamed of writing plays and songs and winning recognition as an important artist.

When he sees his interlocutor is having a hard time hiding his shock at his present state, he says reassuringly: "The name of the game is loss. I have nothing in the world. You should know that now, when I'm on the streets, this is closer to my inner self than I was then on the radio. If you want to describe my rise and fall, I have no problem with that. Granted, I didn't climb too high, but the place where I crashed is not any lower. I'll tell you the whole story of my life. I won't conceal anything."

Tale of a stray soul

Dudu Vizer was a 24-year-old former paratrooper when he blazed like a comet across the Israel Radio news department in Tel Aviv in 1969. These were the twilight days of radio, just before television invaded Israeli households, and Vizer brought with him to the heart of the establishment anarchistic ideas that he'd imbibed while hanging around the margins of the far-left Matzpen group. He spoke disparagingly of Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir at a time when the country was swept up in a wave of patriotic euphoria. He preached solidarity with the workers when the heroes of the hour were the contractors who made millions building the Bar-Lev Line along the Suez Canal.

"The things that he said, the stinging analyses, were like a revelation to us. I can name you 30 people who looked to him as a guru," recalls Amnon Barzilai of Ha'aretz, who was then a young radio reporter and became friends with Vizer.

Elimelech Ram, director of the "Inyanei Hayom" ("Matters of the Day") division at Israel Radio advised Vizer to "Go out and sniff around." He did so and found himself a patron in the form of Ram's deputy-director, Gideon Lev-Ari, who helped Vizer fit in and find his place alongside the prominent radio reporters of the period.

"We all fell in love with Dudu Vizer's charm," says Barzilai. "Gideon (Lev-Ari), who was Dudu's diametric opposite, took him under his wing right from the start. What connected them was their subversive outlook. The teacher aspired to conquer radio and the student was very well suited to the revolution that he sought to foment."

When Lev-Ari resigned from the news division, slamming the door behind him, Vizer followed him and became a senior partner in the establishment of an independent editorial desk, most well known for the popular program, "Hatur Hashevu'i" ("The Weekly Column"). But by leaving the news department, he missed out on the birth of the daily news magazine "Bahatzi Hayom" ("At Midday"), a key event in the history of Israel Radio. Instead, he was the central player in a group that came to be known as "Gideon's boys," which also included David Margalit, Alex Talmor, Yoram Alpher and Yuval Meskin.

Roni Daniel, now Channel Two's military correspondent, was then a rookie reporter at Israel Radio: "When I came to radio, Gideon Lev-Ari pointed to Dudu Vizer and said to me, `This is the man.' Dudu was my first real mentor. He was the one who taught me how to do stories. His approach was very careful and exacting and infused with ideological values of endless integrity, of doing the best job possible. When I was starting out in radio, I just wanted to emulate him."

Vizer planned a campaign to prevent auto accidents that would feature a procession of wrecked cars along Israel's highways. He dreamed of producing a huge rock concert, in which each performer would sing a song in Hebrew and a song in his mother tongue - and this was long before "multiculturalism" became the slogan of the moment. He gathered together the residents of Kfar Shalem with the aim of putting together a band. These efforts did not bear fruit, but he was at least bold enough to try.

Vizer worked in radio for 13 years, most of them in the imposing shadow of Lev-Ari. "Gideon was a father figure for me. Now I can also say that he was a dictator and this is what eventually destroyed his career. His perfectionism sometimes bordered on lunacy but I admired him. He's a very significant figure in my life. In those days, a good word from him meant everything to me," says Vizer, giving a dead-on imitation of the thundering voice that was Lev-Ari's signature.

In July 1978, a year before Gideon Lev-Ari was appointed director of Israel Radio, Vizer made a mistake that cost him his journalistic career. On his program "She'at Shidur" ("Broadcast Hour"), he interviewed conscientious objector Uri Davis. It was Saturday during prime time. The opinions that Davis expressed were considered extreme even by many leftists and would still be very far from the Israeli consensus today. Davis argued in favor of a secular-democratic state based on the PLO model, as the optimal solution to the conflict in the Middle East. He drew a parallel between Zionism and Nazism and declared: "Only a military defeat will bring about a correction of the historic injustice done to the Arabs."

The Israel Radio switchboard was swamped with calls from listeners who were beside themselves with fury. Broadcasting Authority Director-General Yitzhak Livni and Radio Director Hagai Pinsker decided to immediately take away Vizer's microphone. He was termed "dangerous" and never returned to broadcasting.

Lev-Ari, who subsequently replaced Pinsker, remembered Vizer's loyalty in the early days and gave him the job of producing jingles to promote accident prevention along with other negligible projects. Vizer was never again given the kind of assignments he had before. After three years, he accepted a retirement agreement that provided him with a hefty amount of severance pay. "I had a rebellious streak in me. I liked the tumult and excitement," he acknowledges today. "The truth is that when I was still on kibbutz and read in Ha'olam Hazeh about Uri Davis, who demonstrated against the expropriations of Palestinian land, I saw him as no less of a hero than the fighters of the 101st, who inspired me to enlist in the paratroops."

Gideon Lev-Ari ran Israel Radio from 1979-1988. He passed away about a year ago. Vizer, who is completely cut off from the media, did not know of his patron's death until he ran into a former radio colleague, Eldad Lidor, at one of the New Age festivals that he frequents. Lidor was the one who gave him the bad news.

Father's big shadow

To understand what led an intelligent and talented man like Vizer to a Tel Aviv street corner, one has to go back in time, to his childhood in Haifa in the late 1940s. Vizer, 57, was born in Haifa to Lena and Noah Vizer, who immigrated to Palestine from Poland before the outbreak of World War II. All of Vizer's childhood memories are dark and wretched, characterized by a profound inferiority complex and life in the shadow of a gruff, tyrannical father.

"It all goes back to my anal, sadistic father, who was a butcher, and just by luck didn't turn me into cold cuts as well. We lived at the lower end of the Hadar neighborhood in Haifa. In my childhood memories of him, I always see him lugging these huge slabs of beef on his back or holding these long machetes that he used to cut up the meat. He was hot-tempered and crude. He was a killjoy. He was also a gambler. He was a disgusting type like me - that is, I am like him. My father was a second-generation butcher and my mother, who was a wonderful woman, was quite scornful of him. She always hoped that I'd be different and more refined, that I wouldn't have to work at physical labor. She pinned all her intellectual hopes on me."

He recalls his time at the Reali School in Haifa as "a monstrous experience. The rigidity, having to salute the teachers and sing `Adon Olam' at morning assemblies - it wasn't for me. I was an overly emotional weakling, I was afraid of my own shadow, I got beaten and didn't know how to fight back, I was a loser. The combination of me and an institution designed to produce generals and chiefs of staff was doomed from the start.

"Authority and following the consensus are not for me. My only consolation was getting to look at the pretty girls whose breasts were just beginning to develop."

Shortly after his bar-mitzvah, the family moved to Kibbutz Mizra; Vizer's father had gotten a job at the new Ma'adanei Mizra meat plant. "Even though my father was excellent at his trade, he couldn't make it in Haifa because he fought with all the butcher shop owners," Vizer says. On Mizra, the fragile and frightened teenager underwent a metamorphosis. He shed his fearful urban skin and became a liberated kibbutznik. He went barefoot, broke free of his mother's apron strings and discovered the fields, animals, wide-open spaces and freedom. From his teacher, Mordechai Ben-Asher, he learned humanism. "I blossomed. It turned out that I wasn't the stupid dope they thought I was at Reali."

Despite not having grown up among the group of children on the kibbutz, Vizer became a leader. He captivated others and became an object of emulation. He even won the love of the prettiest girl in the class, Chen Sadan, now a festival producer living in Tel Aviv. "Dudu was an extraordinary and gifted youth," she recalls. "His opinion was the most respected. Everyone always looked to him. We predicted a shining future for him. The transformations he has gone through ... We can't believe that this is what happened in the end. It's shocking."

In eleventh grade, Vizer abruptly left school and went to live on his own in Haifa. When he enlisted, he was deeply offended that he was chosen for the paratroops and not for the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit. In May 1963, he joined Battalion 890. Doron Rubin, now a general, was a fellow recruit. Many names that surrounded him then went on to become legendary in the IDF. Vizer was a division commander in Battalion 202. The reprisal operation in Jenin in May 1965 led to his dismissal. Vizer's division, which was ready to embark on the operation, was ordered to remain at Mahaneh Amos at the last minute. Vizer decided on his own initiative to surreptitiously join up with Matan Vilnai's company. On the way to the mission, he was spotted by Battalion Commander Efraim Hiram, who kicked him in front of everyone and, once the operation was over, dismissed him for violating an order.

Vizer appealed to Commander Meir Pa'il of Training Base 1, who agreed to take him on as a physical fitness instructor. At Pa'il's request, he also signed on for regular service to teach an infantry course. During the Six-Day War, he took part with Division 5 in conquering the western part of Samaria. After the war, he voluntarily relinquished his officer status and returned to being an ordinary soldier.

At Dr. Rudy's clinic

Dudu Vizer's good years began in 1969, the same time he started out in radio. Towards the end of that year, he married Tami Ben-Gal, daughter of General Michael Ben-Gal, who was the commander of the Kiryati Brigade during the War of Independence, the IDF attache in Great Britain and Burma and the president of the military court of appeals. Guests at the wedding ceremony, which was held at Beit Hahayal, included Chief of Staff Chaim Bar-Lev and a neighbor of the bride's family - Ezer Weizman. Vizer, the anarchist and rebel, confesses that he enjoyed this connection with the new elite.

He and Tami made a handsome young couple. He had a promising job in radio. Their first children, Keren and Omer, were born. The family's apartment, on Hagibor Ha'almoni Street in Yad Eliahu, was a magnet for many friends, including Eli Yisraeli, Yehuda Atlas, Amnon Barzilai and Aharele Bekher. Fresh meat arrived from Mizra on a regular basis. Nor was good quality hashish in short supply. Donovan, Shalom Hanoch, Arik Einstein, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen were playing on the phonograph.

The early seventies were happy and wild, but even at the height of the party, Vizer felt that he was losing a sense of direction, that the fusion of the "plebian and bourgeoisie," as he put it, was wobbly at the core.

"I was in conflict with myself," he says now, as he recollects a chilling image that ostensibly explains it all. "We had returned from Jerusalem, from a visit to my wife's parents. Keren and Omer were in the car with us. Anyone observing us from the outside would have thought us an idyllic picture. Suddenly, on the side of the road, I saw a seedy-looking vagrant moseying along. I don't know what got into me, but when I saw him, I told myself that the more appropriate fate for me was to be him and not [to be] in the car."

Vizer tried to cope with the demons in his mind that threatened to bring down the defensive walls he had so painstakingly constructed. "I went to Dr. David Rudy for therapy (Dr. Rudy was a well-known celebrity psychologist with a cult-like following - ed.) He became a father figure to me, just like Gideon, because I felt miserable and worthless, even though, from the outside, everything seemed more than fine. I had a job I could be proud of, I was respected, I had a beautiful family - I should have been happy and I wasn't. My deterioration is a consequence of destructive processes. I developed hallucinations, hence the excessive drug use, too. I made some rash and hasty moves, worried that I wouldn't manage to become all that I had planned to be. It may sound arrogant, but I was sick of pushing microphones at people. That's how I described it to myself. I wanted people to be shoving microphones at me. The massive amounts of writing, it all comes from the fear of being remembered as the butcher's son. I wanted to be known as an artist."

Those who knew Vizer have various opinions about what sparked his slide. Some blame drugs, especially LSD, but Vizer adamantly insists that he only tripped on LSD once in his life and that what happened afterward cannot be attributed to that one incident.

Others are convinced that the trigger for his decline must have something to do with his experiences during the Yom Kippur War. Vizer fought in the war as a soldier in a unit that took part in the crossing of the Suez Canal, endured a heavy artillery shelling and reached the town of Suez with the 55th Brigade once the battles had subsided.

"Dudu Vizer was mentally wiped out in the Yom Kippur War, but everyone kept it secret," says Yoram Alpher, who knew Vizer in his radio days. "Vizer is a victim of the war. He's sick. The Defense Ministry's rehabilitation department should be helping him."

Even before the controversial interview with Uri Davis, there were signs that something was amiss. When Israel Radio decided to air a series of programs about the state's history on the occasion of the 30th Independence Day, Vizer was given the prestigious assignment of covering the year 1967. Unlike other editors, he did not go searching through the archives, but instead invited Dr. Rudy, his therapist, for an interview, to talk about the psychological effects of the war. The conversation was engaging, but it had little to do with a documentary of the Six-Day War and its impact.

The ducks didn't take off

At about the same time he was suspended from broadcasting, his first marriage also fell apart. After the divorce, he lived in his old car, and spent nights outside of the homes of acquaintances or in public parks. He kept churning out songs and plays, but could not find a buyer for them. He decided to use his own money to produce an album of his songs, called "Etzba'ot Semehot" ("Happy Fingers"), and got three singers to participate - Corinne Allal, Motti Dikhne and Aharon Bihruz, a singer of Persian background whom Vizer found at Kfar Shalem. He sold his car to finance the project, but it was not a success.

For a long time, Vizer lived with his handful of possessions in Studio 7 at the Kirya in Tel Aviv. When Gideon Lev-Ari sent a social worker to him to assess his condition, he refused to speak to her. When an injunction was issued barring him from entering the facilities, some of his friends from Israel Radio rented him a room, but he was forced to leave after neighbors complained that he was getting up at three in the morning and playing the flute.

The next stop was with the singer Oved, who got his 15 minutes of fame with the hit song, "Barvazim, Barvazim." Dori Ben-Ze'ev, who knew Vizer from his promising early days in radio, introduced the two. The album "Gagot Adumim" ("Red Roofs") did not meet the high expectations of its producers. Even though the title song briefly topped the charts, people did not go out to buy the record. "We put a lot of passion into it," Vizer says, "but in the end, we fell between the cracks ... We weren't Sephardi enough for the Sephardim and we weren't Western enough for the Westerners. Today I can look back on it with less bitterness and disappointment than I felt then."

Vizer recalls the "Gagot Adumim" saga on his way to visit Oved at his restaurant in Kerem Hateimanim. On the way, he stops by the meat stalls in the Carmel Market. "Because of my father, every time I see a butcher, it affects me." It's not only the love of music that is spurring Vizer to go see Oved. It's also the hope of a hot meal. "Has he shown you his latest song?" Oved asks. "`The heavy stone, every day, to the top of the mountain/ Whether it is easy or hard, you stay sane/ A reality composed of two equal forces/ The force of destruction and the force of life/ Roses and thorns/ Don't get tired of life.' This is great stuff. It has to get exposure." Vizer listens and mutters, "It will come, it will come."

Vizer wrote "Rehov Ha'ahava" ("Love Street") for Ariel Zilber. He wrote "Al Madregot Ha'teatron" ("On the Steps of the Theater") for Ilan Virtzberg. For Dori Ben-Ze'ev, he wrote "Ma Ata Rotzeh Lihiyot Keshetihiye Gadol" ("What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?"). Of the hundreds of texts he has composed, these are the only songs that have had any real success. He inundated singer Corinne Allal with lyrics, of which only "Bilbulim" ("Confusion"), written for children, earned any notice. He also fell in love with her. "How could I not? Corinne is an exciting woman." He lived at her place for a year. "She was right not to connect with the alienation in my songs," he says. Every so often, he leaves her a package with his latest songs, hoping that she might like one of them. He also leaves piles of songs for Ehud Banai, who also gave him shelter for a time.

"He's a precious person to me," says Allal. "I haven't seen him in awhile. What makes it hard for him is his manner and his scathing texts, in which he colors the whole world in his bitter truth. It's interesting, but it's just not right for me." When told for the first time about Vizer's present state, she is stunned and upset. "I'll speak to ACUM (The Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music in Israel). Something has to be done."

Dori Ben-Ze'ev, in contrast, is not at all surprised. "The exacerbation of his condition didn't just happen now. He's not interested in help. He built a wall around himself behind which to go crazy. We had a lot of encounters over the years. I came to him a number of times to take him for help, to introduce him to people. The possibility was there, but he didn't respond. I didn't want to fight him and I finally gave up out of frustration. It's such a sad story. We were very good friends."

It all falls apart

It seems that Dudu Vizer knocked on every door he could think of in the hope of finally gaining long-sought recognition. But every time he managed to open it a crack, it wasn't long before he shut it on his own fingers. He tried to give songs to Ofra Haza, Arik Sinai and Gali Atari. All of these efforts ended in failure, for one things, because he refused to change a single word. "I was a total loser. The lyricist is the last in the food chain," Vizer says of himself. His plays met a similar fate.

In 1982, Vizer married Ruti Carmel from Mizra. His second marriage did not last as long as his first. The couple had two children. "My whole life is one long journey to escape from the shadow of my father, whom I despised. The result is that I've just continued the chain," he says.

The series of failures led Vizer to withdraw even further. For the next seven years, which were even worse, he supported himself by working as a guard at construction sites throughout Gush Dan. Stuck like a dog in a cage in the guard's station, he consoled himself by thinking that all this was meant to give him time for reading and writing, for his art. Vizer still believes that all the hardship and misery that have been his lot are merely preparation for the moment when the world discovers his genius.

Singer Gabi Shushan was one of the few who kept in touch with Vizer during the years when he was to be found on the construction sites. "I'd just come back from the United States after being away for 12 years. Dori Ben-Ze'ev brought us together to see if we could do something together. What happened is that I saw a broken man before me and I soon realized that we'd both been hurt by the same thing in some way. Drugs were just a side effect of the main problem, which was that collision of artistic truth with the decisions of the moneymen. It also had to do with opinions about a way of life in general.

"When I see him playing on the street now, this Dudu is definitely in a much better state than he was then, when he was caged in the little guard's hut. Now he is free, he meets people. At the construction site, he was practically invisible. He locked himself in and kept the world out. Today Dudu is smiling, he's more open, he's clearly a happy person, the depression is gone. When I pass by Dizengoff Center or Sheinkin and look at him, I ask myself - What's going on here? He seems happier than I am, and I'm not homeless. Sometimes I even envy him for not having any obligations, while I'm enslaved to them."

Suddenly, a new love story

Noah, Vizer's father, died in 1991. His mother Lena died two years ago. "When she died, I lost the last place that could be a base and a shelter for me." His two young children from his second marriage live on Mizra.

In recent years, he has found various ways of earning a living. He ground wheat for Passover matzah. He tried working as a wedding photographer, but that failed. He was fired from the library for the blind in Yad Eliahu after they discovered that he was making changes and "improving" some of the best of world literature as he recorded it. His life progressed from one failure to another.

On days when the hunger became too much and he didn't have a shekel in his pocket, he did the one thing that he swore he would never do - he looked for food in garbage cans. He slept on benches and in Hayarkon Park. He broke into the abandoned clubhouse belonging to the Beitar Tel Aviv basketball fan club. "You keep walking and walking until you find the amenable spot," he says, explaining the technique. In the winter, he spent nights in the prop storeroom at the Tzavta club, on the second floor of the London Ministore shopping mall and on the carpet at the entrance to the Keret mortgage company offices. Until a fire broke out there, he even had a little niche where he kept his only blanket. He also used Dizengoff Center as a hotel and sometimes sneaked into a little hut on Pines Street.

One day, he was astonished to learn that the song he wrote with Dori Ben-Ze'ev, "What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?" had been chosen as the jingle for the "Gamadim" yogurt brand. He suddenly had $5,000. But this money didn't get him off the street. "I set out to investigate the power of life and death, to delve into questions of human existence and at the height of the journey, I became a slave to the human being's most basic needs. I became a survivor. When I still lived in apartments, I disappeared without paying. I left unpaid debts at a number of grocery stores. I even stole, here and there. People forgave me, maybe because I come across as a nice guy."

A ray of light, maybe the last one, that offered a slim chance of breaking down the wall he's built around himself, appeared about eight years ago, when he had an impossible affair with a respected radio presenter.

"I didn't want to meet with him, because I'd heard that he wasn't all right in the head, but his animalism, his genius and madness all overwhelmed me and against all rationality, I took him into my home," she says. "He slowly returned to normal - the first encouraging sign were the hygienic habits he started to keep. He washed his hair, he used deodorant. When he was near me, he was fresh and clean. He had grandiose plans. I owe a lot of my career success to him. He wanted us to move to the Galilee. He felt reborn, but then, just when everything became pleasant and comfortable, he became embittered. I was compelled to get him out of my life because there was absolutely no way he would agree to psychotherapy, which he urgently needed. He is sick, but he vehemently rejects all help."

Not tied down

Dudu Vizer has no address or telephone. The few phone numbers he needs are written in a copy of Paul Auster's "Moon Palace," which he carries with him everywhere. Today he is in Tel Aviv, tomorrow he'll be in Rosh Pina, and then in Kiryat Haim the next day. Anyone who wishes to find him can leave a message with Erez Amram at Chif, a leatherworks stall on Sheinkin, which serves as Vizer's home port.

Amram, who went to elementary school with Vizer's eldest daughter, gives him a place to sleep when he needs it. He is Vizer's current guardian angel. They study together at his workshop and when the pressure is on, Vizer pitches in and, despite his lack of skill, helps braid the leather. In the evenings, they play music together with another fellow named Oren Halevy. Vizer apparently only feels comfortable when he is in the company of people half his age, who didn't know him in the old days. They are more tolerant and less judgmental. When he was hospitalized recently at Ichilov, they tended to him.

Vizer is bright, friendly and clever. The conversations with him are convivial and intriguing. He has a wide breadth of knowledge. Apart from dates, he has an amazing memory. "It will seem odd to you that a person who lies with his face in the gutter should dream about a rosy future, but things will change," he assures me. "Whatever happens, my devotion to life hasn't faded, the inner passion is still there, even if I shiver as I wander at night without knowing where I'm going or where I'll put my head down and whether I'll be chased away or not. As long as this impulse is beating within me, I won't let myself be tossed into the trash."n