Beloved Israeli Singer, Daughter of Two Cultural Icons, Dies of COVID-19

Known for a string of hits in the 1960s and 1970s, Ilana Rovina – love child of theater legend Hanna Rovina and poet Alexander Penn – passed away on Saturday

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Ilana Rovina in 1963. A tumultuous life.
Ilana Rovina in 1963. A tumultuous life.Credit: Moshe Pridan

Ilana Rovina, one of the biggest Israeli pop singers of the 1960s and 1970s, died Saturday at the Shoham Medical Center in Pardes Hannah, after being infected with the coronavirus. Rovina, 86, also had bone cancer. Her funeral was held Sunday at the Yarkonim Cemetery. She leaves behind a daughter, Maya.

Rovina was the daughter of legendary theater actress Hanna Rovina and poet Alexander Penn – the offspring of an illicit affair, which put her at the center of a scandal at the time. She was born in Jerusalem in 1934 and named Ilana (ilan means tree in Hebrew) because she was born on Tu Bishvat, Jewish Arbor Day. Her mother couldn’t cope with raising her so she spent four years with a foster family in Jerusalem before going to live on Kibbutz Geva.

Baby Ilana Rovina held by her father, poet Alexander Penn.

After her army service, Rovina spent three years in Milan, where she studied classical music and worked as a model. While in Italy, in 1956, she married an American student named Bill Stewart but they divorced soon afterward.

Upon her return to Israel she released her first single, “The Road Song,” which became a hit at the time along with “The Pepper Song” and “Irises.” At one point she joined the Batzal Yarok (Green Onion) entertainment troupe, where she met actor-director Uri Zohar. They married and separated two years later, but their artistic collaboration continued and they recorded a number of hit songs together.

Ilana Rovina, left, modelling for Israeli fashion house Maskit, in 1963.Credit: Moshe Pridan

In 1963, she took second place at an international song festival in Poland. In addition to being a singer, Rovina also found roles as an actor – notably, in Peter Frye’s 1961 film “I Like Mike,” in which she co-starred with Israeli actor Chaim Topol.

In 1967 Rovina married businessman Gurion Weissman, with whom she had her daughter, Maya, while living in France. Weissman died of cancer seven years into their marriage. In 1970 she returned to Israel and won the Hasidic Song Festival with a traditional song called “Yevarechecha." That same year she participated in Israel's first Children’s Song Festival, with the song “Lilach Wants to Pick the Moon.”

In 1972, Rovina released her first and only album, “Both Sides” (“Shnei Hatzedadim”), featuring her popular song "Go With Her." Following the album’s success, she recorded “King Solomon’s Mariners,” another well-known song, and a Hebrew version of Georges Moustaki’s “The Lady in Brown,” in a duet with actor-singer Yossi Banai.

During the Yom Kippur War, Rovina was part of an entertainment troupe that performed for soldiers, along with Matti Caspi, Oshik Levy, Mordechai “Pupik” Arnon – and Leonard Cohen.

The notorious mother: Israeli theatre star Hanna Rovina, seen here in Habima's 'The Dybbuk' in 1922.Credit: Courtesy of the Habima archives

“We invited him to sit with us, we told him we were singers and asked what he was doing in Israel,” Rovina said in a 2007 interview with Haaretz, recalling how she came to perform with the famous Canadian singer-songwriter.

“He said, ‘I heard there was a war so I came to volunteer to work on the kibbutzim during the harvest, to free up guys for the army.’ We told him there was no harvest right now and suggested that he come and perform with us. He said he was a pacifist. We told him we were not fighting, only performing, then he said that he didn’t have a guitar. We called Oded Feldman, who was the air force's cultural officer, and in an instant we had a guitar for him. We spent several months going around to the different outposts, the soldiers couldn’t believe it: This was at the time when Cohen was really idolized in Israel. He was very moved by it too.”

Ilana Rovina, left, in her heyday as a successful singer during the 1970s. Credit: Hanoch Ginosar

After the war, Rovina recorded a few new songs, and moved to London. She returned to Israel three decades later, after her fourth husband, businessman Rafi Weiser, committed suicide at their home, in 2007. That year, together along with actor Shlomo Bar-Shavit, she put on a production at the Tzavta Theater about the behind-the-scenes goings-on at the Habima National Theater in the 1950s and '60s.

Two years later, Rovina's name was in the headlines due to a protracted legal battle with Bank Mizrahi Tefahot over ownership of her Tel Aviv apartment. The court ultimately granted her request to continue residing there as a protected tenant.

In 2015, when it was reported that her mother’s estate was not being maintained by Habima as promised, and that part of it had disappeared or was used to decorate the theater's administrative offices, Rovina told Haaretz such acts constituted a “scandal” and a “theft.”

Ilana Rovina. Studied classical music in Milan and worked as a model.Credit: Tali Shani