A Long Time Coming

After an absence of some 25 years the U.S.-born Israeli singer Libi returns, with a new band, to play the Jacob's Ladder Festival, otherwise known as the Woodstock of Israeli English-speakers.

Many of those at the event, including the performer herself, cannot remember the exact year the American-Israeli rocker Libi last made an appearance at the Jacob’s Ladder music festival. They vaguely recall it was about a quarter of a century ago.

But they have vivid recollections of the performance itself.

“She closed out Jacob’s Ladder with a sound and fury that had everyone on their feet at 2 A.M., wanting more,” recalls Idele Ross, her self-described “No. 1 groupie in Jerusalem.”

“Everyone was wildly excited,” recounts Menachem Vinegrad, who together with his wife Judy runs the festival, a huge annual happening for Israel’s English-speaking community. “She was extremely dynamic and energetic. There was something very raw about her that the crowd loved, and she seemed to give out this sort of earthiness.”

Libi (who prefers to go by just one name) even remembers the last song of the night. “Ted Cooper, my longtime accompanist, was on guitar, and we were singing ‘Whipping Post.’ The crowd was going absolutely wild,” she says.

On May 3, next Friday, after who knows how many years exactly, Libi will be back on stage at Jacob’s Ladder and expectations, not least of all hers, are running high. “For me, it’s a sense of closure, coming back to perform at Jacob’s Ladder after such a long time,” says Libi.

She’ll be performing with her new band, “Libi & The Flashback” (a twist on the name of its predecessor, “Libi & The Flash”). This year's three-day festival will take place on the grounds of Kibbutz Ginosar's Nof Ginosar Hotel, along Lake Kinneret.

Jacob’s Ladder, which has been held at various venues around northern Israel over the years, marks its 35th anniversary this year.

Those who remember Libi from her Jerusalem days, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when she and Cooper brought down the house at the Cinematheque every Sunday night, are often surprised at how little wear and tear she shows for a 61-year-old grandmother.

The only obvious physical changes, friends say, out, are a somewhat leaner physique, thanks to years of intense weight lifting (“At my peak, I could vertical-press 364 kilograms,” she boasts) and a few dreadlocks in her still very long, straight hair. Nor has she lost her penchant for skin-tight, torn jeans, for black leather or for leopard-skin prints.

Kicked out of school on account of Paul McCartney
Born in New York and raised in an Orthodox family, Libi says her first encounters with music were singing zmiros, Jewish hymns, "at the Shabbas table.” Her mother had been a radio singer, and her father had performed Shakespeare in amateur theater productions before he became religiously observant. Libi says the first song she ever learned was a prayer her older sister taught her. She says the sister was dating Shlomo Carlebach, known as “the singing rabbi,” at the time.

Her early years were spent in the heavily Orthodox town of Monsey. Libi says she was thrown out of her Jewish day school for bringing in a Beatles fan magazine. “My teacher told me my love for Paul McCartney was the equivalent of idol worship, he took the magazine, ripped it up and sent me to the principal’s office,” she recalls.

The family moved to Brooklyn, and as a teenager Libi went to Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. It was there that she joined her first band, which performed at school parties.

One night she was singing at a club in Greenwich Village, filling in for someone who was out with laryngitis, when an agent from a respected record company expressed interest in signing her up. But when her future husband proposed to her, that same night, she chose motherhood over a musical career.

In the late 1970s Libi, together with her husband and their young daughter, moved to Jerusalem. “We were both fed Zionism intravenously, so it was quite a natural move for us,” she explains. Libi began performing again, most notably in clubs like the once-popular, now-defunct JBR club in Nahlaot, with her band “The Flash."

In the mid-1980s she hooked up professionally with folk guitarist Ted Cooper, a former Canadian, and the two became an inseparable act until his return to North America, in 1990. Libi had by then divorced and remarried, and in the years that followed she faced one trial after another.

Her father died, and a few months later her older sister died abruptly, of melanoma. Not long after that Libi's mother became sick, and then Libi's daughter was badly injured in a car accident that left her incapacitated for more than a year.

In between tending to her mother and her daughter, Libi herself was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. When her mother was forced to move back to the United States, for medical treatment, Libi and her daughter followed along.

After her mother's death, in 2005, Libi planned to return to Israel, but then her daughter became pregnant and Libi wanted to be nearby. The daughter had a stroke one year after giving birth, to twin boys, so Libi spent another year in the United States caring for them while her daughter recuperated.

During trips to Israel in 2005 and 2006 Libi she met guitarist Yossi Tanuri, drummer Elimelech Grundman and bassist Yoni Albosh, with whom she formed her new band, Libi & The Flashback.

In July 2011, having divorced her second husband, Libi returned to Israel for good, with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren in tow. This time she went to Tel Aviv. “My friends told me Jerusalem was no longer the place for me to be,” she explains.

The first Israeli female rocker
“Libi’s role in the evolution of rock’n’roll in Israel was pivotal,” says her old friend Ross, a veteran broadcaster in the English-language division of Israel Radio.

“She was really the first Israeli female rocker. The same way [the American-born Israeli singer Josie Katz] brought something to early Israeli pop music, Libi brought an American sensibility to the emerging Israeli rock scene. Back then she was the bad girl of Israeli rock’n’roll, and today she’s the bad grandmother of Israeli rock’n’roll,” Ross says.

Eli Marcus, an Israeli-Canadian blues musician who has performed with Libi many times in the past 25 years, says she always stood out in Israel’s Anglo music scene. “I think she’s probably one of the strongest singing voices we have in the Anglo community, and unlike many others, who came from a folk background, she came from a rock background.”

Although she says she is less religiously observant today than she was as a girl, Libi celebrates Shabbat in her own way by refraining from work. “I’m a great supporter of Hashem,” a Hebrew term for God, as she puts it. But she makes an exception for Jacob’s Ladder: “It’s the only Friday-night gig I do.”

Vinegrad says he’s thrilled to have her back on the roster. “We have so many people who’ve been coming back to this festival for so many years, and they’re just not as young as they used to be,” he notes. “But Libi’s a representative of something that says, ‘You’re not old,’ and that’s a very attractive thing for this crowd.”

Uri Rubenstein
Uri Rubenstein