An Israeli Rock Star Tries to Figure Out Where Zionism Went Wrong

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Rona Kenan. “There is a tension that’s always there: Between the desire to be part of a struggle for change, and the understanding that I’m not sure I have the strength to be out there.”
Rona Kenan. “There is a tension that’s always there: Between the desire to be part of a struggle for change, and the understanding that I’m not sure I have the strength to be out there.” Credit: Meged Gozani
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

At one point in our conversation, Rona Kenan tells me: “I’m not a radical person. I’m someone who looks for the glue, not the scissors.”

At first consideration, this sounds surprising. For one thing, the 39-year-old rock star’s hit new album is filled with songs that bemoan the sorry state of Israeli politics, and particularly of the left, or what used to be called the peace camp. For another, as the daughter of Amos Kenan, Rona is a scion of the left-wing royalty that once led that camp.

Writer, artist and political gadfly, Amos Kenan (1927-2009) was one of the most volatile figures in Israeli culture during the state’s early years, moving ideologically from left-wing Zionism (Hashomer Hatzair) to far-right Zionism (the pre-state Lehi underground), before becoming a proponent of Canaanism, a militantly secular movement whose members dismissed Jewish nationalism to identify with a mythical pre-Mosaic “Hebrew” nation.

Even during a decade in exile in Paris – where he moved after being accused of attempting to assassinate a government minister who wanted to outlaw driving on the Sabbath – this angry prophet continued commenting on Israeli politics, and he was an early supporter of the Palestinian claim to independence. One of his best-known works, the 1984 novel “The Road to Ein Harod,” is a dystopic vision of Israel under totalitarian rule following a military coup. Kenan definitely used his platform as a scissors, not glue.

Rona Kenan, however, is gentle and soft-spoken, and clearly determined to reach out to as wide a swathe of society as possible, and not simply to sell records (as she pointed out to me, nobody buys records these days).

With her new album, “Zman Hatapuz” (“Time of the Orange”), Kenan seems to have reached a level of comfort and acceptance that make her ready to assume her place as an entertainer who can be embraced by all of Israeli society, not just the rarified bohemia of Tel Aviv and the like.

Kenan may question the political legacy she inherited, but she in no way disavows her past. Similarly, Israelis still remember her father, even if, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he was silent during the years preceding his death a decade ago. When his wife, Nurith Gertz, wrote a biography of him, in 2008, the Hebrew-language “Unrepentant: Four Chapters in the Life of Amos Kenan,” it was not only a critical success, but a commercial one. (A half-century earlier, during his years in Paris, Kenan also served as the basis for a French novel by Christiane Rochefort, the woman who was his lover at the time.)

Gertz herself is a formidable figure, a now-emeritus professor of literature and film studies who has taught at the Open University and Tel Aviv University. And Rona’s older sister, Shlomzion Kenan, is a journalist, critic and artist, whose name served as inspiration for the short-lived political party, Shlomtzion, that Ariel Sharon founded in the late 1970s and which her politically mercurial father belonged to.

Rona Kenan sings “Ata Mitorer” (“You Wake Up”).

Rona Kenan too recorded a hauntingly beautiful song cycle about her father, the 2009 “Songs for Yoel.” That album, her third, includes one of my favorite of all her songs, “Ata Mitorer” (“You Wake Up”), with its soaring, samba-like melody and aching, loving lyrics of a child unflinchingly watching her demented father go through his daily routine. How can a single song be so uplifting and so painful simultaneously?

When Rona was 9, her mother was a visiting professor at Yale University and the family spent a year in North Haven, Connecticut. Rona spent a lot of time on her own listening to her Sony Walkman, but it was also the year when she began playing the guitar. After she returned to Israel, she says, “I was always in a band.”

Self-taught, to this day she has never learned to read music — which disqualified her from the jazz program at Tel Aviv’s Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts. Instead, she majored in theater. She finished Thelma Yellin without a matriculation certificate, and received a waiver from the army, according to the letter the Israel Defense Forces sent her, because of “excessive manpower.” By then, however, she was performing publicly, and has never stopped since, although she did suffer for a period from serious stage fright.

Initially, Kenan wrote her songs in English, not Hebrew. She says this wasn’t for commercial reasons, but rather that she hadn’t grown up listening to Israeli music: “I didn’t think it was something that was part of my ‘creative DNA.’ Afterward, it turned out that it was very, very much part of me.”

Beyond that, however, she was put off by the “gender specific” nature of Hebrew.

“In Hebrew, you have to say either ‘ata’ or ‘at,’ and in English you can just say ‘you.’ It’s so elegant and general — and vague. And it saved me from having to contend publicly with my lesbian identity. Apparently, that was hard for me.”

With time and much effort, she began transitioning to Hebrew, and today is completely comfortable writing love songs in which she explicitly addresses a female partner, and in general with being known as gay. Last month, for example, this highly private woman invited a crew from Kan public television into the home where she grew up in Tel Aviv, and where she lives today with her partner of the past dozen years, Shiri Klas, and the baby son that Klas bore last August.

Rona Kenan.Credit: Amit Israeli

More than a leftist lament

Our meeting took place nearby, at Kenan’s neighborhood café. Also in the vicinity is a small recording studio she has set up, and where she worked on “Zman Hatapuz.”

She is dressed simply, in a striped T-shirt and jeans, no makeup but several delicate gold chains around her neck. Her hair is pulled back in her usual ponytail, accentuating her youthful appearance. Both onstage and off she lacks pretense, and even her modesty comes off as genuine.

Kenan says it took her seven years to create “Zman Hatapuz.” It contains 10 songs and runs for 36 minutes — not especially long. What took so much time? And was it worth the wait, both for her and her fans?

People who follow Kenan will know that she wasn’t barricaded in the studio all that time. She tours the country regularly, where she’s always mixing it up: offering new arrangements of her songs, or covers of other artists’ work that has captured her imagination. An example of the latter is her emotionally taut rendering of Nina Simone’s “Love Me or Leave Me,” whose instrumental phrases she layers one upon another with a loop pedal before the song gets underway. While Simone’s version is a relatively upbeat ditty to the love of her life, Kenan’s is a desperate cri de coeur, delivered almost like a threat to an unreliable partner.

Since the beginning of her career she has collaborated regularly with other Israeli musicians, both on a one-on-one basis (her 2007 duet with Gidi Gov,“The Strange Dance of the Heart,” may be her best-known song), but also in dozens of group projects. She has scored music for television and theater, and forthe best part of a decade, has taught composition and performance at an Orthodox arts college in the country’s south.

But the album’s long gestation period is attributable not just to Kenan’s active schedule. She says she wanted to create something new and different from its five predecessors, and that it took time until it held together thematically and musically.

As with her earlier work, the perspective of “Zman Hatapuz” remains intimate and highly personal. But the songwriter is looking more at the milieu she inhabits, not just her own individual relationships, to ask what has changed, why things feel so alienating and chaotic, what went wrong. Kenan continues to draws on her own experiences but is asking new questions about their meaning.

There are songs about political engagement — and her ambivalence about it; about the now-inaccessible kingdom of childhood and a first kiss that took place there; about a shuttered neighborhood café that was once a lively microcosm of urban society; and also about living in a post-truth era. The orange — a popular symbol for the rebirth of the Jewish home in pre-state Israel — appears in several songs, most notably “Mot Hatapuz” (“Death of the Orange”): “The death of the orange tree / This summer again there will be war, / And again, tears; again, no choice / Where did we go wrong, and where did the crack appear?”

But the album seems to be more than just a left-winger’s lament about the pretenders who have hijacked the secular-Zionist dream. I asked her what she was trying to say.

“I’m not actually saying something,” she responds, “as much as I am asking: What went wrong? What happened to the dream of my grandmother and my grandfather, and my parents? And that type of Zionism in which we were raised, the vision that these people had? What broke down? Why are we in the place that we are today? Why the division, and the hatred, and the harshness, and the violence?”

She doesn’t point to a particular villain, be it a political figure or a population group, and comes off as more bewildered than angry.

“Where’s the anger?” I ask.

“What can I tell you — maybe that’s the problem? There isn’t anger because I think that for me, artistically, it’s not interesting to work from such a place because it produces shallow things. Anger is something that’s absolute. It doesn’t have room for nuance.”

Not that others haven’t employed non-nuanced rage to great effect, she stresses. “There are entire genres that flourished from it: Without pure anger there wouldn’t be punk, and there wouldn’t be hip-hop, to an extent, and there wouldn’t be all kinds of music that I really like. But for me, I think it was important not to write a manifesto, not to shake my finger at the public.”

In place of anger, she suggests, she wanted to express “maybe worry. Sadness. Deep grief.” And although earlier she referred to this as her most political album, now she revises that estimate. “This album is much more personal than it is political,” she observes. “It’s much more about a person who is about to turn 40, who is able to look backward at his childhood and at the environment in which he was raised, and can try to understand what, of the things that they promised to him, still stands to happen, and what isn’t going to happen. At what we need to let go of: Which memories, which hopes? And from this point of view, it may actually be the most personal album I’ve made.

“It may just be that the idea of the Israeli left, the one that my parents had — that we need to check its relevance. And to understand what might be mistaken in its foundations.

“Maybe, more than the worry that we live in such a crazy era of post-truth and the rise of a crazy right wing worldwide, and populism and spin. … I wanted to ask: What is the alternative? What is the only thing that is not dependent on time, or on place, or on geography, or on nationality, and on the national story or narrative? Where is compassion possible, where is hope possible?

Rona Kenan. Credit: Asaf Einy

“And my answer is that it comes in the personal — in love, in family, the turning inward, in a certain way. And there is a tension that’s always there: Between the desire to be out there, to be part of a struggle for change, and the understanding that I’m not sure I have the strength to be out there.”

Perhaps the ambivalence and self-consciousness make it easier to understand how it could take seven years before the artist felt that her album held together thematically and musically. And that meant that several times she put aside what was the audio equivalent of a “rough draft” when she concluded that it didn’t work.

“I like to make things hard for myself. I am always creating technical challenges for myself that sometimes actually work against me,” she acknowledges. “It’s as if I’m in a dialogue with someone and I don’t know who it is, and I always want to show him that I can do something.”

Leaving the bubble

It should be clear by now that, as much as Rona Kenan reflects a familiar Tel Aviv, Ashkenazi culture — tasteful, understated, melodic — she also feels compelled to push herself to leave the bubble.

For her, the most meaningful expression of this is the teaching she does at Mizmor Music College, part of an educational campus for Orthodox students at Kvutzat Yavne, near Ashdod. She works there with people who want to make popular music — usually young women, but sometimes men too.

The initiative began about a decade ago, she says, when the school’s director, saxophonist, singer and composer Daniel Zamir, proposed the idea.

“Mot Hatapuz” (“Death of the Orange”), from Rona Kenan's latest album.

“He said that a quiet revolution was taking place there,” recalls Kenan. “Women were coming out of the religious sector to study music, something they hadn’t done in the past. And I was pulled in — in the good sense of the word — and made real friends there.”

For someone who never attended university or had, she says, a “Plan B” in life, Kenan says the teaching gave her “a great deal of freedom.”

Kenan says the work at Mizmor connected her “to an audience, to a community in general, that I would have expected to see as poster children of the ‘threatening other,’ with whom I’m supposed to be in a conflict. And yet it’s a group of people that I just really like.

“The fact that it’s not a school in central Tel Aviv, that was important to me. I felt part of a bigger Israeli story.”

The same could presumably be said of Kenan’s appearance at the funeral of Nechama Rivlin, wife of President Reuven Rivlin, in Jerusalem on June 5. Kenan was one of two artists asked to sing during the ceremony at the Mount Herzl national cemetery (the other was Alon Eder).

Kenan had met Nechama Rivlin twice, when she was invited to participate in events at the President’s Residence. And although the encounters with the first lady were brief, Kenan says that something about Rivlin — who was known as a lover of the arts, and even in her final years, when she always had an oxygen tank in tow, continued to show up at cultural events — “really touched me.”

Rona Kenan sings at Nechama Rivlin's funeral.

Apparently the feeling was mutual. When Nechama Rivlin died, says Kenan, “I got a phone call from her spokesperson, who said that it had been her request” that Kenan sing at her funeral. “I don’t know if it was really her request, or if they just knew that she liked my music,” Kenan says with typical modesty. Either way, the request was specific, too: Kenan’s 2004 song “Mabul” (“Flood”).

The song, which she co-wrote with Alona Kimhi, Yali Sobol and Maia Becker, is about the impossible pain of parting: “And everything will suddenly freeze / If we have a moment to stop at a street-corner / To embrace and to part / As if it were even possible to know how to let go / To love less.”

No less than the concert at Jaffa’s Gesher Theater marking the launch of “Zman Hatapuz” — a performance at which a radiant Kenan, backed by a seven-piece band (usually she plays in small clubs, accompanied by one or two other musicians), was received by an adoring, sell-out crowd — her stark solo appearance in the leaders’ section of the national cemetery seemed to mark Rona Kenan’s accession into the pantheon of great Israeli singers.

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