'The Laughter and the Nightmare'

Since the death of her husband, singer-songwriter Meir Ariel, Tirza Ariel has devoted all her energies to keeping his memory alive and kicking. But now the invitations to tribute performances are dwindling, sales are declining and the debts are mounting. Still, she can't stop

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

irza Ariel is desperate. She doesn't know how much longer she can go on. "Everything's chaos with me," she says as she opens the door to her home in Pardes Hannah. Just inside sits the guitar of her late husband, Meir Ariel. All seems frozen in time. She lives alone. From out of a huge photograph resting on a chair, Meir Ariel (1942-1999) stares at anyone who enters his house. He's wearing a white shirt, his green eyes are shining, and a guitar is slung over his shoulder on a leather strap. A subtle smile plays on his lips. "Welcome to the temple of Meir," declares Tirza Ariel in a festive tone - although she has nothing much to feel festive about.

"My life is all darkness, with only flashes of light," she says, turning off the radio with an air of exasperation. Then Ariel, 62, goes into the kitchen to check on a mushroom dish that's cooking. It's become a tradition for her. Every winter, she goes out to the open areas surrounding Pardes Hannah and picks the mushrooms that grow wild there. "This is my secret, it's how I stay young," she explains. After a quick glance at the simmering pot she goes up to the second floor and comes back down holding a well-stuffed, aromatic joint. This also helps her, she thinks. Maybe she can't manage without it.

The ash scatters behind her until she locates an ashtray. Then she sits down at a heavy wooden table. Through the window an overgrown garden and a single bougainvillea shrub is visible.

"There are treasures that were left here, spectacular texts - there's a cupboard of Meir's writings that I haven't opened yet," she says, her voice hoarse from intense smoking. "It will drive me mad. I'm not up to it. But isn't it a shame to lose all this? His writings are a hidden treasure. And it breaks my heart that I can't get this thing moving," adds Ariel with a shrug of despair. "Because I don't have what it takes. And this is my heart, my life. I lived with a poet, a philosopher. He left behind a trail of memories, prose and thoughts about the kibbutz. And it's all waiting to be discovered."

Meanwhile, she's waiting for a little relief. Six months ago, just hours after the annual concert marking the anniversary of her husband's death - which takes place on Kibbutz Mishmarot, where he was born - she hit a new low.

"The day after the concert the water was turned off in my house," she explains. "I do the biggest things in the world without a shekel in the bank. I take loans so they won't close my account. I pray that the money will come. And it doesn't. People ask: If these shows that you pay for aren't making a profit, then why do you do it? I do it for the honor that the audience gives to Meir. People think it's a family business. No authority is ready to offer sponsorship. Last year, people didn't buy tickets: 2,000 people came to the show without paying and I don't have money to pay the bills. I'm having trouble from every direction. I don't have a cent. Pretty soon I'll end up in prison, in total disgrace. I've got an overdraft of NIS 100,000 on a regular basis."

The Ariels married two months after they first met in 1965, at a convention for aficionados of theater and poetry, sponsored by the Kibbutz Movement and held at Moshav Ein Vered in the Sharon region. She was 20 and the lead actress in the drama program at Kibbutz Kfar Szold. Meir, 24, came from Kibbutz Mishamarot.

"I was a superstar in Kfar Szold," Ariel proclaims. "I danced and sang there at the foot of the mountain. When I arrived at the theater convention, I saw a big bunch of people there on the lawn. Ready and waiting. I was hyperactive. I looked away and suddenly I saw Meir's face."

She stood there in front of the audience and asked: "Who wants to walk around the moshav with me?" Ariel got up and they walked off together. "We talked and talked, but I had a boyfriend and so I said to Meir: 'Watch out, don't take me seriously, because I'm supposed to get married in six months.' But there was a fire between us. After a few hours, as we were on our way out, he said to me: 'I pity the guy who marries you. He's going to be miserable. He won't have a day when he can be relaxed if you're not by his side.'"

After their wedding she joined him on Kibbutz Mishmarot; for 21 years, they were members there. Ariel wrote his first songs in the 1970s for the kibbutz singing group, called the Mishmaron, as well as "Sof onat hatapuzim" ("End of the Orange Season") and "Holekh batel" ("Walking Idly") for the band Tammuz. In 1979, he put out his debut album, entitled "Shirei hag umoed venofel" [a pun on "Shirei hag umoed" - "songs for holidays"; the title means literally, in Hebrew, "Songs for circling, tripping and falling"]. The 1980s were a turning point in his songwriting career. Following the success of singer Shalom Hanoch, who also hailed from Mishmarot, other performing artists came looking for Ariel to provide texts for their albums - most notably Gidi Gov.

"But on the kibbutz, writing was always put off until the evening," recalls Ariel. "It never got the respect it deserved. You couldn't just do what you wanted. There was a work schedule. Writing could only happen after 12 hours of work. And Meir had to choose: the kibbutz or his art. He was still writing and composing for all the events on the kibbutz, but he wanted to get out. I was afraid to leave; I didn't feel like we had the tools to cope with the outside world. There was no proof that he would be able to earn money. At a certain point, he tried. He went to Tel Aviv and found himself an apartment in Nahalat Binyamin. But it didn't work out and he came home."

During those years, Ariel continued to perform at small clubs in Jaffa, in tandem with his main occupation of being kibbutz secretary. Tirza Ariel ran the international marketing department of the Mishmarot eyeglasses factory. "They loved Meir on the kibbutz. They didn't like me as much," she admits. "I lit people's fuses; I was considered a bad seed. But Meir didn't really find his place there either, even though he reached the top of the pyramid. He thought that big industry and big money were the root of the evil that would pull society apart."

At the time, Mishmarot also had a factory that manufactured interlocking wood parts. Set up by Haim Hanoch, Shalom Hanoch's father, the factory brought in millions each year and was the kibbutz's main source of livelihood.

"Anyone who worked at the factory was above the rest," recalls Ariel. "Every manager there had a car - everything that everyone else didn't have. Meir wanted to sell the factory and they threatened to kill him, like in the Mafia. He got threats warning him to back off. But as soon as the competition with the Far East began, the factory crashed. This was during the time Meir was kibbutz secretary. If they would have listened to him, maybe they would have made some money. He was a revolutionary. He saw trouble where no one else was even looking for it at all."

It's four in the afternoon and beginning to get dark outside. Ariel leaves the house and drives out to a nearby field. "I can't stand the idea of the day ending and the mushrooms staying out here in the field," she says while driving and lighting a cigarette. "I have to give them to someone, and that will make him the happiest person." Until two years ago, she worked as a real estate agent for the Azorim company in the Neot Golf development in Caesarea. "I stopped working because I couldn't take care of Meir - the CDs, the books, the anniversaries and the songs that are still waiting to be discovered - and also sell apartments. I couldn't do it. I'm not getting any younger, and if I didn't want to completely lose my mind, then something had to give. I wanted to let go of Meir, but I'm part of Meir," she says.

Out in the field, as the night chill begins to be felt, Ariel explains that it was Meir who decided ultimately to leave the kibbutz and that it was a big surprise.

"Meir decided that he wanted to pull the family together and therefore he wanted us to leave for Tel Aviv. Because on the kibbutz you don't see your children. They pass by, say hello and keep going. Udi was 11 then, Shahar was 17 and Shiraz was 18. We moved to 70 Hayarkon Street, with a 500-square-meter garden and had parties for 300 friends three times a year; the house became a gathering place for the Bohemian crowd. On our birthdays and on the Sukkot holiday we had these huge gatherings. Among the friends who came to sing to the sounds of the accordion and guitars were Shalom Hanoch, Dori Ben-Ze'ev, Yehuda Eder and lots more. Everyone came. Meir was on cloud nine."

Life in Tel Aviv was a whole other story. It sparked an outburst of creativity the likes of which Meir Ariel had never known before. While there, he released the albums "Yerukot" ("Yellow Blue" - 1987), "Zir'ei kayitz" ("Seeds of Summer" - 1993), "Rishumei peham" ("Coal Sketches" - 1996), "Bernard and Louise" (1997) and "Delatot niftahot me'atzman" ("Doors Open Themselves" - 1998).

"In most of his songs, I didn't understand what he was talking about," Tirza Ariel admits. "I didn't understand why he was choosing that kind of content. It was hard-hitting and on the negative edge of reality, the nation and its leaders. He didn't try to curry favor with anyone."

How did you feel about that?

Ariel: "I thought that someone who wants to be in show business has to 'come down to the people' a little bit. I supported him my whole life. In Tel Aviv I worked as a distributor for the Ahava cosmetics company. He never made much and life can be very expensive. His work never sold in a big way. I said to him: 'Come down to the people, I'm one of the people, come down to us.' I asked him why he didn't give us something from the half-full cup. It was always the bitter cup. I called it bitter because it wasn't empty ... It was full of evil. None of those songs ever became a huge hit. Nothing sold more than a little."

The romance with Tel Aviv ended with a lot of unpleasantness. In 1999, Tirza and Meir Ariel left the city and moved to Pardes Hannah. "We fled Tel Aviv as fast as we could," says Ariel.

At the time, Meir, who had also studied Judaism for years and written texts in that spirit, made some derogatory comments about homosexuality in a newspaper interview. "People didn't understand what Meir said when he said in some interview that homosexuality is a perversion," explains Ariel. "We came under attack, we were spat on, fire trucks and ambulances were sent to our house, the telephone rang nonstop. We were abused. We didn't leave: We ran away. We were being persecuted and hunted down in Tel Aviv."

In Pardes Hannah, the couple hoped to find some peace and quiet, and to start a new chapter in their lives after all the fuss. But three months later, on July 18, 1999, Meir Ariel died at Ichilov Hospital from Mediterranean spotted fever - a disease transmitted by a flea.

"I learned that human life is worth nothing - 10 doctors killed him," Ariel says accusingly, referring to the delay in diagnosis of the illness and in the administration of proper treatment. "He could have been saved if it weren't for the arrogance and the stupidity and the deafness. And especially the indifference. The bug that killed him attacks every summer between Netanya and Pardes Hannah. That week, we were supposed to go to the studio and record two new songs."

Tirza Ariel has recently begun performing a new one-person show entitled "Ha'agala nosa'at ain atzor" ("The Wagon is Rolling, There's No Stopping It"), after a line in one of her husband's songs. In the show she talks about what kind of person he was, tells the stories behind the songs, and screens videos.

"I also let him speak a little," she says with a smile as she sips her black coffee. "In the show I talk about Meir the father and the husband, about his origins; I spread his doctrine. I talk about what life was like with him - the laughter and the nightmare. About how he regularly wrecked my car, and then when I'd get mad he would wonder why I wasn't simply pleased that he wasn't hurt. After that he wrote: 'Get in the car and let's go, let's get out of this film. Stop crying. We'll talk on the way. I don't know of a word or a sentence that settles things.'"

But Ariel's "wagon" got stuck even before it really started moving. "Everything is moving very slowly," she confirms. "I called Omanut Laam [the Art for the People nonprofit association], and they were really keen on my idea, but they didn't get me a single show. They want me to make the phone calls. Every time I call I get tossed from one place to another. They want me to call up community centers all over the country and I call and don't reach the right people. I can't do this anymore. And I'm not in bad shape otherwise. I'm healthy and pretty, but the bank is after me. Someone has to get excited about me and help."

In response comes a promise for help: "Omanut Laam is an organization that is coming out of a crisis, we're coming back to life," says Rinat Gal-On, the acting director. "While we're not a marketing organization, we are an 'address' for struggling artists. Our aim is to help. Our role is to produce quality art like that of Tirza Ariel. I will get in touch with her and we'll help her. That's a promise."

Ariel speaks at a rapid clip, with a steely resolve, at times getting all worked up and at times quiet and pensive. She doesn't give in for a moment. Sometimes she drifts into sentences that are full of rhymes, or into old stories. She is still living with Meir, lucid and yet pining with longing for her beloved. She is adamantly against the use of the word hantzacha (commemoration). "There's no such thing," she says firmly, with anger in her voice. "This word just doesn't belong here. 'Commemoration' is for a dead person. Meir is not dead. We haven't parted. And it's not that I'm not leaving Meir. He's not leaving me. I didn't choose to live with the dead. He chose to live with me."

Says the couple's eldest daughter, Shiraz Ariel-Drori: "After Dad's death, Mom went into a deep crisis. It took us a few years to get her out of the depression she was in. As a little girl, I thought of them as strange parents, as unusual in the kibbutz landscape, and as a teenager and later as a married woman, I came to see just how great their love was for one another, how special. It was a genuine friendship, too. And when such a strong partnership disappears, the separation brings on the worst sort of crisis. After Dad died, Mom's financial situation went downhill quickly. The spiral began with the production of the yearly shows in his memory. Since we don't have sources of funding for the evening, Mom takes it all on herself."

Ariel-Drori, 39 today, describes a bleak situation in which government and cultural institutions slam doors in the family's face: "No one is ready to help, and this is a production that costs NIS 250,000. The evening is supposed to pay for itself through ticket sales, but there are always additional expenses to cover suppliers, security and the sound system. It always ends up with some kind of debt that just grows from year to year. Last year, something strange happened: Out of an audience of over 4,000, only 2,300 tickets were sold. Before these evenings, Mom takes loans from friends and from the bank, and afterward, she sinks further and further [into debt]. Not to mention the repossession that's getting ever closer."

Following Ariel's death, numerous projects were carried out in his memory. In 2000, the CD entitled "Modeh ani" (literally "I give thanks") was released. Produced by Shalom Hanoch and Moshe Levy, it was compiled from home demos Ariel left behind. That same year, the Meir Ariel memorial organization (Ha'irgun Lehantzahat Meir Ariel) produced a disc called "Im hagav layam" ("With My Back to the Sea"), and a year later, another disc called "Erev kahol amok" ("Deep Blue Evening"). Various collections of Ariel's music were also put out by Media Direct in 2001, by NMC in 2004 and by the Meir Ariel memorial organization in 2005. Tirza Ariel herself has also produced three DVDs with clips from his performances as well as a disc of his last performance. Also, in 2000, she put out a new edition of a music book called "Neshel hanahash" ("The Snake's Slough") and, in 2005, a first collection of his writings, entitled "Brachot v'hespedim" ("Blessings and Eulogies").

But all of these successes were overshadowed by a new failure - one that really stung. Tirza Ariel's big project of producing a disc for "the Ariel Brothers," her sons Shahar and Ehud, was coldly received.

"From the income from Meir's royalties, I produced the disc for the children," she says. "NMC, which was supposed to do public relations for the disc, didn't come through. Even though the songs are wonderful, they didn't sell a single disc. I have 1,000 discs; I paid for the production. All of it. And because no distributor wanted to sell it, I was left with a debt of NIS 80,000. This album is burying me. All the income from Meir's royalties goes to cover the expenses of the Ariel Brothers' disc. And I don't have enough income to get through the present crisis. I go from loan to loan. I just want to have enough to pay the rent, no more than that. These are the facts of my life."

The Ariel brothers' CD, entitled "Mi ya'ir et hayeledim?" ("Who Will Wake the Children?"), was released two years ago; it was produced by Miki Shaviv. The talk shows soon invited the two to appear, and flattering articles were written, but in the end, the audience was indifferent. "Our disc came out after we felt that our material had gotten stronger," says Shahar Ariel, 38. "It hasn't yet penetrated people's consciousness, but I believe that it will. No one knew Dad's first album either, and little by little, it trickled down."

Perhaps for this reason, when the Ariel brothers perform, most of the repertoire is from their father, which is a statement, of sorts. "It's important to us to sing his songs," says Shahar. "Because apart from the yearly show in his memory, his songs are rarely performed. And that's our job. We want people to be exposed to his songs. After our shows people come up to us to say a kind word. They feel that through us they got to experience Meir Ariel. Because there's a feeling that Meir Ariel is hovering around our shows. Dad's art is vital to many people. I feel that Mom can take heart from that. Dad sold the same amount when the market was down and when the market was up. Not so much, but he sold. The radio play and the income is modest, but the 'Meir Ariel' product will keep her above water."

Lying on the heater in Tirza Ariel's house is Meir's harmonica. The desk on the second floor is still just as he left it: Pages with songs written on are still in the closed drawers. His tallit and siddur (prayer shawl and prayer book) still lie on a narrow, high table.

"So many production teams have come here, to see this shrine," Ariel says. "Book publishers - they all invited me to their offices. And they all poured out lots of words, in vain."

What did they want?

"One wanted to do a film, another an album of songs. But not one wanted to invest any money, not one believes Meir is worthy material - unless it's for free. And I can't tolerate that. They're all ready to take his works, but they're not ready to give anything to the family. And that's awful. I can't understand it. Meir says it's a finger from on high. I said to Meir: Tell me what to do and give me a reason. I speak with him. I have a way to communicate with him and to get answers. I have a friend in the family who can communicate. It's an incredible thing. Which day is it today?"

Sunday.

"Maybe I could speak to him today."

What do you speak to him about?

"About everything. I consult about where to hold his shows. For instance, last time he said to do it in Caesarea, and I insisted on doing it on Kibbutz Mishmarot. That was really a mistake. He told me afterward, 'If you're going to ask me, then listen.'"

And about what else?

"I ask him why he's not leaving me, I ask him to let me be. And he laughs at me. The respect that I get is tremendous, that's true, but it doesn't pay the bills. You can't pay the municipal tax with pretty words, and you certainly can't ensure that the house looks the way the 'temple of Meir Ariel' should look."

She still has a bone to pick with the NMC record company, saying that the discs of Meir Ariel's she owns are not selling. "What they have an interest in, they go all-out to sell. They don't have any big percentage of the profit on the discs I created," she explains.

To which Meital Aharoni, a spokesperson for NMC, responds: "The company has shown, is showing and will continue to show the Ariel family all due respect. Beyond that, we are sorry to hear about the baseless claims being made by Tirza Ariel."

Along with the hundreds of Ariel Brothers' discs, she also has dusty cardboard boxes full of Meir Ariel discs. "The whole inventory, thousands of discs, is sitting in my shelter," complains Ariel. "You can't find my discs in the stores; they're hidden in the back. They aren't selling and NMC doesn't want to talk to me. But the interesting thing is that Meir's first four discs, which are owned by NMC, are selling. The selected songs disc, for example, has sold 40,000 copies up to now. And from that I get a lousy 12 percent. Now I'm offering to sell them all of my master recordings, because the way it is now, Meir won't be on the shelf. These discs are supposed to provide me with a livelihood. And since I don't have anything to live off of, I'll sell them. And that's like suicide for me."

The end of a lost war?

"All the crazy people fought lost wars. For now, Meir is alive. People talk about him and hear his music. Meir Ariel is more alive than other artists who are living here. And that's what I'm doing. It doesn't matter if I don't earn a profit on it. To me it's worth it. It's my one and only consolation. I don't know how much longer I'll be on the scene, but I know that if I give up, then Meir won't be, then everything will disappear. As long as I'm here and they haven't thrown me into the street, I'll keep going."

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