A Sense of Community Amid the Clapping

Sarit Hadad examines an extra-large Starbucks disposable cup. "Everything here in America is super-sized," she says.

NEW YORK - Sarit Hadad examines an extra-large Starbucks disposable cup. "Everything here in America is super-sized," she says.

The cup of coffee rests on a dressing room table in Town Hall near Times Square, where the Israeli diva will conquer the stage in less than two hours. Hadad, who travels to the United States for performances twice a year, takes Israel with her wherever she goes. She spreads Israel to the masses and then continues on to her next engagement. She always travels with blue-and-white (Israeli-made) goodies, keeps kosher and refuses to perform on Shabbat. Those present in the room pass around a bag of barbecue-flavored Bisli, but Hadad refused to touch the crunchy deep-fried snack.

Beside Hadad is her personal manager Avi Gueta, who has accompanied here everywhere since she was 16, supervising every word and every trill. On the table is Hadad's recently released first children's DVD, "Nesiha shel Simha," (Princess of Happiness), which is selling fast at the concert hall.

Hadad arrived in New York only the night before (last Thursday), accompanied by a delegation of 12 escorts and production team members, the chorus and two vocal accompanists. Her high-intensity concert tour will last 12 days, with stops in Montreal, Miami and other big cities. In keeping with demand, Israel's most popular female singer makes frequent trips to London, Paris, Los Angeles and other locales.

"I do not have a favorite place," says Hadad. "I love the variety. The audience here is wonderful and warm and thirsty for my music. Everyone comes here to be happy, but I will never leave Israel. I will raise my family there and build my home with my own two hands. If I am offered an interesting contract, I might be tempted, but in the meantime I have had no such offers."

Despite the changing locations, Hadad does not enjoy anonymity on the street overseas. "There is more privacy [overseas] than in Israel," says Hadad, "but you'd be surprised that even here I am recognized all the time."

The invasion of her privacy, however, does not bother Hadad.

"I have changed a lot, matured," she says. "I am calmer and more relaxed and understanding. I do not read what is written about me, am not interested in what people say about me. I live my life and want to make people happy."

A Jewish Times Square

The street outside Town Hall, far away from the dressing room, is teeming with people. On this night of the seventh candle of Hanukkah, over 1,000 people have come to sing with Sarit. There are proud representatives of the local Israeli community, Diaspora Jews and even Aryeh Mekel, Israel's consul in New York. Some are New Yorkers, while others have come from afar, from France, the U.K. and even Bukhara. Young and old, religious and secular, some are die-hard fans, while others have come simply for an infusion of something Israeli, which Hadad provides, with a concentrated dose of Zionism and the scent of rose water. "I've never seen her, I don't know her music at all, but I find her attractive. I am very excited," admits Ezra Greenberg of New York. "I think it's wonderful that Jews have their own little country." An Israeli-British couple with many children is engaged in tense negotiations with a young man who is selling his tickets. He won them the day before at a Hanukkah party thrown by the Dor Hadash (New Generation) movement, but has decided to skip the concert and earn a few dollars instead.

Shosh Hecht and Tova Marom, former Israelis, are all dressed up for their visit to Manhattan to enjoy a little Israeli culture. Their husbands stayed home.

"I really love Middle Eastern music," says Hecht, "but I like it romantic, Israeli. I saw an ad in The Jewish Week and said to myself, 'Israeli music, why not?'"

In the decades since the two women moved to the U.S., they have made friends with other Israelis, found Israeli newspapers here, an Israeli grocery store, Israeli synagogue, Sarit Hadad and more. There is, however, one fundamental difference between them - "the dish." In the New York Israeli community, the dish refers to a satellite dish for receiving Israeli television. Marom has a dish, and watches London and Kirschenbaum, Sarit Hadad, Israeli news broadcasts and "the lady with the tips" (Odetta). Hecht does not have a dish.

"Sometimes I watch the 'Mabat' news program on the computer," says Hecht, "and my daughter made a CD for me with a mixture of [Israeli singer] Rita and other music."

A noisy Chabad "Mitzvah Tank" van blaring Hanukkah music and greetings and asking for donations passes by the waiting crowd. For a moment the Jewish people seems to have taken over Times Square, but then the van moves on, the crowd streams into the hall, and immigrants from the Far East regain their dominance of the street.

A very small world

In one of the VIP seats sits Nili, a Hebrew teacher from Brooklyn, an Israeli who left Israel decades ago. Beside her is Shirli, also a former Israeli who has been in the U.S. quite a while. She is with her American husband Albert, and both are dressed for a philharmonic concert.

"I just like listening to her," says Shirli, anxious for the show to begin.

The local Israeli community is a very small world. Nili and Shirli have only just met, but quickly discover that Nili teaches at the school where Shirli's daughter is a student, and they exchange notes on "The Sound of Music," which the students performed the previous evening.

Is it important for Nili to have a connection to Israeli culture?

"Absolutely," she declares, "That's why we have the dish."

"I also have to have the dish," says Shirli.

The lights dim. The stage lights illuminate the chorus and the dancers on stage and then Hadad steps forward, slim and shapely in a glittering white outfit. She opens with "Bein Kol Habalagan" (In All the Confusion). "Perhaps you hear me / and my voice touches you ..." she sings and sways on the stage, her hairspray doing its job, keeping every strand in place.

"Thank you very much. Good evening everyone," she greets the audience, which responds with resounding applause.

The hall is packed with English speakers and former Israelis who pepper every Hebrew sentence with English words. Hadad sings in pure Hebrew.

"I want to hear you clapping," she says in Hebrew.

"English, por favor," someone calls to her.

Hadad ignores the plea.

"I love you all," she continues, still in Hebrew, and launches into "Bosem Tsarfati" (French Perfume).

Nili sits frozen in her seat. She cannot tell a lie. With all due respect to Israeli culture, it is a bit too noisy for her.

"Could the volume be lowered to something a bit healthier?" she asks.

Hadad continues to sing in her powerful voice, with "Light a Candle With Me" from the Eurovision contest most Israelis prefer to forget, letting loose the only line of English in the entire performance: "A thousand candles in the dark will open up your heart."

Cellular telephones are raised high in the air, capturing her image.

Hadad is determined to get her rigid audience moving, and her efforts bear fruit. Shouts of "Sarit, Sarit," reach her ears and teenage girls start dancing in the aisles to the strains of "Hagiga" (Celebration). Hadad sings and stretches out her hand to the audience, blowing kisses and flashing her energetic smile at the screaming fans.

Some people yell that today is their birthday; others tell her they are getting married. Hadad responds with blessings for them all and continues to sing one hit song after another. At a certain point, she takes the darbuka from its drummer and delights the audience with an impressive percussion performance.

Never forget Paris

Gregory Auberie, an ardent fan, calls for a Hadad hit that she has not sung yet this evening. Auberie, 17, a French-American Jew who plans to move to Israel, says he will never forget Hadad's concert in Paris two years ago, when Hadad accepted an Israeli flag he was carrying, waved it and danced with it. Hadad sings the song he requests and finishes with a song dedicated to the audience, and then disappears behind the curtains.

For Etti Ariely, however, the evening has only just begun. This Israeli from Brooklyn is with her friend, Yonit, both of whom are celebrating their birthdays. They stand behind the door leading backstage, trying to sneak in, but are blocked by the security guards.

"We're not leaving without an autograph," threatens Ariely.

"Sarit is amazing," says Adina Sternberg, the American daughter of another friend, who has accompanied them. "Her songs have such nice messages."

"Her songs were played at my bat mitzvah party, and at all my friends' parties," continues Sternberg. "Now she has touched my hand. I almost fainted. This is the best Hanukkah present I have ever received."

The women continue to face off against the guards, who offer Sternberg an autographed photo of Hadad, but the women will settle for nothing less than the sight of Hadad with a pen in her hand. Finally they are allowed backstage, and climb the stairs to the dressing room, which is now empty.

"Where is Sarit?" they demand, poking their heads through the doorway. They are greeted only with the sight of Hadad's personal belongings.

"This is so cute," says Ariely, excitedly, and photographs the room.

Kevin and Stacey Georgian, a young couple from Long Island, have also managed to get past the guards.

"She sang at our wedding a year and a half ago," says Kevin. "We flew her over here. She always plays the darbuka once at every event, but at our wedding she played it twice because she loves us so much."

"Sarit is a taste of home for us, and she has such a beautiful voice," says Ariely, "but where is she?"

They all wait in the room. The guard tells them she will not be coming back, but they refuse to budge. She eventually returns, with Gueta half a step behind her.

"I love you," shouts Sternberg. "Thank you," responds Hadad, in Hebrew.

"Let's take a picture of us together," says Ariely.

Hadad poses for the picture, hugs them and gives them her autograph.

"Sarit, we have no time for this," urges Gueta.

"Sarit, we'll see you in Miami," calls Kevin, as Hadad leaves.

About half an hour later, she again mounts the stage and launches into "Bein Kol Habalagan."