Haim Hefer Died a Ghost

Haim Hefer passed away last week in a country that shared only a name with the Israel he helped create.

"Wasn't he dead already?" The question, half sarcastic, half sincere, was heard more than a few times in the hours after Haim Hefer died this week. It pointed both to Hefer's low profile conduct in the years before his demise and to something bigger: the common belief, not totally unfounded, that everything and everyone of Hefer's generation is long gone – if not physically than in spirit. Because where could "Generation Tashach," as the founder's generation is commonly known, possibly belong in an age where ringtones are their own musical genre and secular, waspy ways have been replaced by religion and Middle Eastern influences?

It is damn near impossible to correctly describe Hefer's contribution to the Israeli canon, so there's no point in trying. Suffice it to say that from his first Palmach songs to his latter works, still rooted in early Zionist mischief, Haim Hefer's body of work embodied Israel – the old Israel of Palmach, of rebellion against the British, and of early, often messy independence.

Over the course of a career that lasted more than six decades, he wrote for everyone who was anyone: Sasha Argov, Yehoram Gaon, Yafa Yarkoni, The High Windows – you name it. It is hard to even imagine a universe without Hefer. If he hadn't lived, we'd have almost nothing of Israeli culture – or "uncultured" – as we know it today. Every Israeli, no matter how old, knows at least two Haim Hefer songs. So it is ironic that Hefer, one of the great lovers of the Hebrew language and of Israel itself, who was born in Poland and immigrated to the holy land in his youth, died in a totally different country – albeit one with the same name.

To understand Haim Hefer, one needs to consider two things: the place his mind was at, meaning the time and place he came from, and what happened to that place. Hefer was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, where he lived until moving with his family to Palestine at the age of 11. As a child he studied Hebrew from books and with a tutor – mostly anachronistic, old-fashioned Hebrew that was ridiculed by modern-Hebrew speaking kids when he moved to Israel. The experience taught him to hide his Polish heritage, something he did highly successfully.

Hefer's family settled in Ra'anana, where he started writing songs and poems before joining the Palmach and helping smuggle illegal Jewish immigrants, "ma'apilim," into Palestine through Syria and Lebanon. During his time in the Palmach, the fighting brigade of the Haganah, which served as the underground army of the Jewish community in Palestine, Hefer wrote his first classics: songs about friendship, camaraderie, love in a time of war and drinking coffee before action. The songs were sometimes touching and always a bit cheeky.

Sung by the Palmach's entertainment troupe, the Chizbatron, which Hefer founded, the songs soon became staples of the young Jewish community and to this day are considered national treasures. There wasn't any Israeli folklore before Hefer (and others) created it. When they were done, the new state had an ethos.

But Hefer also belonged to a generation that grew increasingly alienated in its old age– disappointed with the direction the country was taking. In interviews he gave later in his life, Hefer often spoke about Israel like someone being robbed of something – the ideal he helped create. The melancholy was, of course, racially tinged. In 2002, he created quite the sensation by attacking Moroccan and Mizrahi Jews as culturally inferior to Ashkenazis like him. His remarks caused public outrage, and he was scolded mercilessly as an old senile before apologizing and even making nice and writing a song for Moroccan singer Zehava Ben.

But that didn't stop Hefer, or indeed many of his generation, from feeling betrayed and increasingly bitter as they saw their country struggling to maintain and finally abandoning their ideals. He blamed Shas and Middle Eastern culture, especially Middle Eastern pop music. As long as he had whiskey, though, he felt he would be okay.

Members of Hefer's generation started out as outsiders in the Diaspora, believing in the then-unbelievable dream of Israel and learning Hebrew where no one spoke the language. They then became the mainstream and establishment of the new country. And finally, they returned to the periphery, in a country where – again – they were the only people speaking good Hebrew. Nowhere on Israeli radio nowadays can you find Hebrew as clean and as flawless as that of Hefer's songs, and that troubled him to no end. After that brouhaha over his Middle Eastern culture comments, he was stigmatized as a bitter, old curmudgeon, constantly complaining. He resented that image to the day he died.

It is incredibly ironic that despite explicitly stating in his will that he didn’t want any prayers said after his death, the rabbi of the settlement Efrat called on believers to say Kaddish on his behalf. Even in death, Hefer was at odds with contemporary Israel.  Ultimately his wishes were respected, and no one said Kaddish for him. But actors he wrote for, singers he worked with and businessmen of his generation came to honor him on his last voyage. At his funeral, the song Purple Dress by Sasha Argov was played. The funeral was for Haim Hefer the man. But in a way, what got buried was Haim Hefer, the icon of an Israel long gone, a fading memory. Fortunately, Hefer always maintained an underlying sense of humor. "Gentlemen", he wrote once, "history repeats itself."

Reli Avrahami