'I’m a Regular Haredi, but With an Open Mind. There Are Many Like Me'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: One Israeli trying to make it as a singer, and another trying to make it to Los Angeles for a wedding against all odds

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Yanky Hill.
Yanky Hill.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yanky Hill, 19; lives in Jerusalem, arriving from New York

Hi Yanky, where are you coming from?

First I went to Ukraine to have a little fun with friends after having a lot of work here, and then I heard that there was a lockdown here, so I said I’ll go to America – where there’s also work. I was mostly in Brooklyn, and a little in New Jersey.

What do you do?

I sing, I’m a singer in the Haredi community. I just started a few months ago. I released a song a month ago called “My Heart and My Flesh,” in Yiddish and in Hebrew. My older brother is also a singer, and he made things a little easier for me, because people already know the name.

So you’re known as “the brother of”?

He’s a lot better known than I am, he’s a great singer: Ari Hill is his name. My grandfather was an actor in Hollywood – the stage is like home for all of us. When I started out, Ari really encouraged me, he has a good heart. Maybe we’ll even do a song together, there’s talk of something. That’ll be a wow.

What reactions are you getting from your milieu?

Very supportive ones, but there will always be people who compare and say, “He doesn’t sing as well as so-and-so, or, he sings better.” I don’t like comparisons, but it’s normal for that to happen.

Where do you usually perform?

I do weddings, but not only. Also Purim parties for rich people, and lavish dinners, and also at events where people like singing with a guitar. I sing mostly abroad – on Purim I performed at a mixed party [of women and men]. They were all married, but there was no divider between them. It was a really big family; they had long earlocks but were wearing jeans. Ultra-Orthodox, but more open-minded. I sing mostly Hasidic music: “My Soul” by Motty Steinmetz, also “My Heart” by Ishay Ribo, also all kinds of songs by Chaim Yisrael. Things that even secular people know.

What made you become a singer?

I always wanted to sing. I’m very musical, I play the piano by ear, I never studied it at all. The soul longs for it. I always felt that it’s my place. I wanted to be the hit of the evening.

Do you remember a specific performance that influenced you?

I was 11 or 12 and saw a performance by children, the Miami Boys Choir. It’s a choir of 10 to 15 kids who do shows for the Haredi public, with audiences of thousands. That’s where the spark to appear on the stage was lit for me. When I was about 13, I joined a choir, but I felt I didn’t fit in. My voice had already started to change, and I also wanted to be the soloist, in the center.

What was it like to release the song recently?

I was very enthusiastic about it. The lyrics say that even with the coronavirus, even in the toughest times, we still love you – it’s talking about Hashem [God]. And out of the dark we sing to you and are waiting to sing to you in the Temple.

What’s your dream?

I want to stand on a stage in front of 150,000 people. Not necessarily an all-Haredi audience, but from a place of bringing people together. I also want to compose songs myself and develop a new style that no one has come out yet with in the Haredi world. I’m waiting for it to come to me. It will come with a bang; it doesn’t happen if you plan it.

Was it hard coming back to Israel because of all the restrictions?

I recovered from having coronavirus, so it wasn’t so bad. Thank God, I got through it. I got approval easily.

During the pandemic, did you feel alienation on the part of the secular public?

A little, but not at the personal level. I never felt when I saw a secular person on the street that I didn’t want to know them. It depends on the person and how I feel with them – good or not good. I always try to be nice to everyone.

Would you say you’re an anomaly in the Haredi world?

I’m a regular Haredi, but with an open mind. There are many like me. They know the world, like having a good time. They don’t lead a restricted life and aren’t locked into any one thing. My older brothers are like that, too. That’s how we were raised.

Are you at the age when you’re thinking about marriage?

I’d like to get married. I think about it, but I know I’m not ready yet. I need to wait a while still. My mother said the same thing. I want to experience life, work a little, make money. After the wedding, life is good, but it’s not bachelorhood. You can be a bachelor until a certain age, but being married is until you die. With God’s help, yes?

Daniel Zohar.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Daniel Zohar, 74; lives in Holon, flying to New York and from there to Los Angeles

Hi, Daniel, where are you headed?

I’m invited to a wedding of the granddaughter of a good friend of mine, in Los Angeles. I was also at the wedding of her mother, who has since died. I’ve been connected to her since before she was born. My wife and I always spend Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot with this friend, and then go traveling. One time a cruise, one time Hawaii, the Caribbean, Cancun.

How did the original friendship begin?

In Israel. In 1970 she was living in Be’er Sheva. We were neighbors in the same building, and we’ve been friends since then. We speak once a month at least, and every conversation lasts about an hour and a half. It costs only pennies these days, but it used to cost a lot, and we spoke then, too. We have always stayed in touch.

How do you do that over so many years?

I have WhatsApp groups of my pals, of people from grade school – from my class and the class ahead of me. Some girls from my class married boys from the older class, so we’re two classes with people who meet up to this day. I also have a group of friends from kindergarten. We speak all the time, send photos, go to the children’s weddings.

Was it hard arranging this trip?

I got here Saturday and was told I wouldn’t be able to board because of the exceptions committee, even though I had a seat on the plane. I tell them the exceptions committee isn’t operating any more, and they say: “We haven’t yet received instructions about that.” The flight was scheduled for 12:30 A.M., it’s already Sunday. But nothing helped. I went home. But I don’t give up, I show up. Today I’m on standby, and if there’s no room today, either, I’ll come back tomorrow. I need to be there by March 18.

What do you do in life?

I worked for El Al for 43 years. I was head of the engines department. I oversaw the supply of jet engines and was responsible for all the checks and for dealing with all the hitches. If an engine had to be replaced abroad, I would send a crew.

So what’s it like for you to fly?

I feel safe, I know which crew worked on a plane. They don’t budge a millimeter left or right. There was once a case of an American-Israeli airline that flew to Israel. Their people came to my department, because they had a fuel leak from the main pipe in their plane. As head of the department I went to see it and thought: How did they leave New York with a problem like that? It’s a malfunction you mustn’t fly with – the engine could catch fire. We fixed it for them, and everything was fine, but half a year later the Federal Aviation Administration cancelled the company’s license and they stopped flying. There are charter companies that behave like that. It’s frightening.

What can you say to people who are afraid to fly?

First of all, there’s a course they can take, which helps. People who used to tremble when getting on a plane boarded confidently after the course. I was in the air force, in a squadron of light aircraft at Sde Dov [former airport in north Tel Aviv], and every plane entering the hangar had to undergo a test flight. They always needed a passenger for weight purposes, so I’d go on every test flight. I would have already finished dealing with the engine, so I could board without fear.

Were you ever curious to fly a plane yourself?

Never. It doesn’t attract me. I like the mechanics, I like working on the plane. To this day I work, even though I’ve been retired for seven years. And I have a great hobby that I like to brag about.

Tell us.

I carve wood – only olive wood, because that’s the hardest and finest kind. I’d always thought about doing it, but there was no time. A department director has no time to breathe, there are phone calls day and night. But now, as a retiree, I have time, so I’ve started gradually. I did a sculpture of a face first, and then moved on from there.

How did you learn wood carving?

I went to a Russian man who taught me safety rules, and even with those rules you’re always getting injured. Nothing helps.

What kind of sculptures have you done?

I made a horse for my son, because he’s wild about horses. I went a lot to the to the horse ranch in Mikveh Yisrael, and took pictures, observed. And then I’d go home, work, and go back to the ranch, until it came out perfect. If it’s not perfect, I toss it and start again. I also built a fisherman with a small swimming pool and three fish in it that he catches, and another fish on the fisherman’s hook. That took me about two months. When you create something it’s fun: You take a dumb tree and make a creation out of it.

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