The Little-known Poet Behind Beloved Israeli Songs

A film on the late Avraham Chalfi shines a spotlight on a modest man, who faded out of the world unnoticed, but left behind an impressive repertoire of songs and poems.

Yakov Agor

“This is a film that was made against its protagonist’s wishes, because he certainly wouldn’t have wanted it or agreed to it,” says Uri Misgav, a Haaretz journalist and columnist, about his film on the late poet and songwriter Avraham Chalfi. The movie, “Life of Poetry – The Story of Avraham Chalfi,” will premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Friday.

“I asked myself why I’m going against the man’s will, but if they open archives after 30 years, then 34 years after Chalfi’s death is time enough,” says Misgav.

It is said that one day in 1978 the famous singer Arik Einstein, who died last year, came across Avraham Chalfi in the street. It was shortly after Einstein’s song,

“Your Brow is Crowned,” written by Chalfi, was released on the radio and became an instant hit. Einstein asked Chalfi if he’d heard the song and what he thought of it. Chalfi, a small, bent, timid man replied dryly, “I have no record player.”

This encounter demonstrates Chalfi’s modest character and desire to remain anonymous, Misgav says. In a way, Chalfi’s place is engraved forever in Hebrew culture’s pantheon thanks to Einstein. Chalfi wrote the words for some of Einstein’s greatest hits, including “Yossi the Parrot,” “Sorrow to You,” and of course

“Your Brow is Crowned” which has recently been reelected as the best loved Israeli song of all times.

Although his songs are still frequently heard on the radio and are familiar to many, Chalfi is hardly a known personality. Neither his face nor character nor biographical details nor the circumstances in which he wrote have become public.

“Dozens of times, when people heard I was making a film about him, they reacted with ‘oh good, I don’t even know what he looked like,’” Misgav says. “Chalfi was an untold story, an anonymous hero.”

The original idea was to focus on the song “Your Brow is Crowned,” its writing and production process and the people involved in it. But during the work Misgav decided to turn it into a photographed biography of the poet about whom, until then, apart from newspaper reports and a monograph, nothing had been documented.

The film shows the poet as a conflicted, controversial personality, who made repeated destructive choices and whose life was full of missed opportunities. Even his birth date was not known — it’s not clear to this day whether he was born in 1906 or two years earlier. It is known that his mother suffered from mental illness and died when he was a toddler. Chalfi, his brother and father barely survived a pogrom, after which they came to Israel, where he became a comedian and actor in the Ohel Theater.

The film consists of interviews with Chalfi’s friends, figures like Haim Guri, the late Yoram Kaniuk, Nathan Zach and Illi Gorlitzky, interlaced with video clips from two films Chalfi made and photographs as an actor in various roles. At one point a note appears on the screen, on which Chalfi wrote “I feel so much like talking to someone, but there isn’t anyone.”

Misgav says the art Chalfi’s life was filled with was acting, not poetry. “He was dominant as a theatre actor and defined himself as an actor. He wouldn’t talk about writing. He did it feverishly, but wouldn’t say a word about it. All the loneliness and grief, the sorrow of the world he carried on his shoulders, went into the poems,” he says.

As for the circumstances of writing “Your Brow is Crowned,” Misgav heard of a sad yet passionate love story. Zehava Berlinsky, the widow of director-actor Zeev Berlinsky, was apparently one of the unavailable women Chalfi yearned for. The song was played at Berlinsky’s funeral, at her request, after she had jumped to her death, and its words were engraved on her tombstone.

“The film had several versions, the earlier of which were too sad,” says Misgav. “I had to bring out his funny, mischievous side. A lot of people told me he was fun to be with, pleasant and intellectual. At a certain stage I felt the story’s axis was Chalfi’s failure to realize his potential. He failed as a poet and was appreciated only in retrospect. As an actor he played a great deal of supporting roles and had a series of unrequited – and partly requited – loves involving married women.”

Shortly before Chalfi’s death at 71, he married Carmela Chalfi, an actress 40 years younger than him. Although he lived with her, he died lonely. None of his close friends and acquaintances could remember being informed of his death, or attending his funeral. “It’s an unimaginable sadness. The boy who had no mother and no birthday escaped from the world so as not to disturb anyone,” says Misgav.

“He was known as one who carried the sorrow of the world on his shoulders, he agonized over the hungry children in Africa and earthquakes in Guatemala and was very agitated by every disaster. That is exactly the way he fled from the world.”

Tomer Appelbaum